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.

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