Tag Archives: Thomas Harris

Hannibal, Thomas Harris

Dell, 1999, 546 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-29584-X

When Hannibal was first published in 1999, critics were flummoxed. Some suspected a practical joke. Indeed, Salon.com prefaced its spoilerful synopsis with the warning “this is not a parody”. Many speculated that Harris was having fun screwing around with Hollywood. After the success of Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, Harris had become, despite himself, one of Hollywood’s darling authors. It turns out that all of his novels have been adapted for the silver screen at one moment or another: For a man who writes a novel per seven years or so (Black Sunday, 1975. Red Dragon, 1981, The Silence of the Lambs, 1988), that makes any of his books very hot stuff indeed. It’s no surprise if Red Dragon has been adapted twice in twenty years, once in 1986 (as Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER) and another in 2002.

The mystery persists to this day; Has Harris deliberately played a trick on Hollywood by writing a novel that was almost unfilmable, or did he simply go off the deep end of sanity? Or was he simply having fun at his fans’ expense, writing a novel that was sure to piss them off?

Transforming protagonist Clarice Starling from her goody-two-shoes persona in The Silence of the Lambs to a bitter, disillusioned woman on the verge of a break-down in Hannibal was just the first step. The second was to take the post-SILENCE OF THE LAMBS portrait of Hannibal as a popular hero and make him even more so, by refining his qualities and showing someone even worse than he was in comparison. Here, Lecter turns out to be a charming man of considerable talents and erudition, able to work his way in an academic job in Florence, play the piano, enjoy life’s beautiful things and second-guess Stephen Hawking on advanced physics. (!) Meanwhile, the character of Mason Verger is introduced, and he makes Lecter look like a perfect gentleman. For starters, Verger is one of Lecter’s old victims; years ago, blown on drugs and encouraged by good old Hannibal, he cut off most of his face, fed it to the dogs and somehow survived, looking a lot like a faceless corpse. While that would be enough to cramp anyone’s style, Verger has one tiny advantage, being the inheriting heir of a massive meat-packing industrial empire. (An empire which thrived on such innovations as feeding animal remains to pigs, in an oh-so-subtle symbolic detail.) Flush with money and driven by revenge, he’s still looking for Lecter, snooping over the FBI’s shoulders while not handcuffed to mere trivialities such as ethics and the rule of law.

If you’ve seen the film version of Hannibal, you will recognize our three main characters -the damaged heroine, the charming killer, the ultra-rich monster- more or less intact. All of the film’s insanity is to be found in the pages of the novel, from Clarice’s contrived difficulties with the FBI to Krendler’s last supper. What you can’t know is how much more silly stuff wasn’t shown on-screen. Verger’s bodybuilding lesbian sister, who wants to impregnate her partner using her brother’s genetic material (even though he abused her during childhood). Lecter’s memory palace (see DREAMCATCHER for that, or better yet—don’t!), along with the central trauma that caused him to turn evil (hint; sisters are big in this book.). The story of Florence’s Il Mostro, because you can never have enough serial killers in one single Harris novel. And so on…

The biggest change, of course, is the ending. While the film wussed out and presented sort of a happy ending, Hannibal goes to the end of Clarice’s perversion and… well, I’m not going to spoil the surprise for you, right? Suffice to say that Jodie Foster had her reasons to decline playing the character again after she read the book. Her fate is much, much worse that simple death.

But you know what? Even if Hannibal is the longest-running, most straight-faced prank played by an author on his public, it’s still worth reading. Much like the film was schlock horror directed with mastery, the book is schlock horror written with an impeccable sense of style. The book is playful, telling passages in the past, other describing the present and sometimes even warning the reader about what could happen if it went any closer to the characters. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to read, and Harris’ gift for research makes the end result always fascinating to read, even if it’s totally insane. You’ve been warned. But then again, so was I.

Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris

St. Martin’s, 1981-1988, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Red Dragon: 1981, 348 pages
The SIlence of the Lambs: 1988, 352 pages

They took away the student’s notebook when he entered the prison.

“You can’t be serious!” he protested “he can’t be that dangerous!”

“Amical Lecteur is a sick man” replied the orderly responsible for the student’s well-being. “He is the most dangerous reader you will ever meet. Always remember that.”

They went down the stairs toward the maximum-security wing of the prison.

“A few months ago, one of our nurses forgot a copy of The Bridges of Madison County near him. He read it in less than an hour, called it a pretty ordinary story about bad photography and cardboard characters. His pulse never went above seventy.”

“Gee.”

“We took away your notebook because you had written something in it. Lecteur will go frantic in the presence of reading material. We have restrained him, but you never know.”

They approached the last cell of the corridor. A chair had been placed in the middle of the corridor, facing the bars of the cell.

The orderly checked one last time and retreated, leaving the student with Lecteur. The student could only see the outline of the prisoner in his darkened cell.

“Doctor Lecteur? I’m here-”

“I know.” He advanced, and even despite the darkness of his cell, the student could see the heavy blindfold that had been placed upon Lecteur’s eyes. “-they might have tried to make me blind, but not stupid.”

The student gulped. “I’m here to ask you about-”

“The two serial-killer thrillers by Thomas Harris. Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Am I correct?”

“Yes- Yes, sir.”

“Did you know that since 1977, Harris has only published three novels? All of them have been adapted to successful movies. The Silence of the Lambs even won a Best Picture Academy Award-”

“Yes. Were you aware of the movies when you read the book?”

“Aware yes. I even saw parts of that movie, but never all of it.”

“Did it help?”

“Curiously, seeing only disconnected parts of the movie probably set the tone, characterisation and overall atmosphere of the book while leaving most of the plot surprises intact. Then again, given the publicity surrounding The Silence of the Lambs, you don’t even have to have seen the movie.”

“What about MANHUNTER, the adaptation of Red Dragon?”

“I knew it existed. That is all.”

The student paused, thinking about his next questions.

“What did you think of the books?”

“Why is it important to you?”

“Why is that important to you?”

“You never learned never to answer a question by a question?”

“Who told you that?”

Silence.

“They’re both fairly good crime thrillers” finally says Lecteur. “You’ve got to realize, though, that both novels have basically the same premise.”

“Oh?”

“In both, you’ve got a protagonist asking the advice of this really sadistic psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, to catch a serial killer. In both cases, he’s able to do it and make life miserable for the policeperson sent to interrogate him.”

“Much like our discussion, then.”

“Do you have to point out the obvious?”

“Sorry.”

[Pause] “In both case, the result is an tense novel. The similarity of the plots even help, since Harris does it better the second time around.”

“How?”

“First off, Clarice Starling from The Silence of the lambs is a stronger, more interesting character than Will Graham from Red Dragon. The same also holds true for the serial killers, although both are portrayed as wimps. I guess this is to show off Harris’ centrepiece, which is Hannibal Lecter.”

“He’s chilling?”

“Utterly. Brains combined with complete evilness. A very memorable villain. The damning thing is that he’s also endlessly charming. Just as you think he’s a pretty likable fellow, well…”

“Are the books very violent?”

“Somewhat. They stay in the norm for crime thrillers. It’s the impact of that violence that remains with the readers, though.”

“So, which is the better book?”

Silence of the Lambs, without a doubt. Even though it’s a remake of the previous volume, readers having read Red Dragon first should read the sequel. The reverse isn’t necessarily true, though, as Silence of the Lambs greatly improves on the predecessor. Think of it as a computer game remade five years after the original, with better graphics and gameplay.”

“You recommend The Silence of the Lambs?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you sir. I think-”

“Don’t leave me like this! Give me-”

“I really must go.”

“Give me a book! A baseball program! A cereal box! Anything to read!”

The orderly rushed to the cell, electric prod in hand. As Lecteur became even more frantic, the orderly silenced him with flashes of blue-white electricity. Lecteur retreated in his cell.

“Sorry about that, sir.” said the orderly. “He gets violent from time to time.”

“At least he doesn’t kill people.”

“Sometime, we almost think it would be better that way.”