Three Faces of Hannibal Lecter (plus one of Hannibal Lecktor, whoever that guy is)

About 5 years ago I watched The Silence of the Lambs.  I was bored and was in the mood for something a little dark.  I didn’t know much about Hannibal Lecter– I had just heard that he was a cannibalistic fictional serial killer.  I think a friend had described a scene (I didn’t then know what movie it was from– it turns out it’s from Hannibal) in which Hannibal offers a child sitting next to him some human flesh on a flight for a snack.  Anyway, it was around that time that I decided I really wanted to see– or at least find out if I wanted to see– a majority of the most iconic horror films, so the Hannibal Lecter films were on the list.  I didn’t know what order they were in, so I just went with the one that I was pretty sure was the oldest and that had a cover image that had haunted me in video rental stores as a child (which, of course, has one of the creepiest hidden images of all time in it, with the dead women in the skull on the butterfly).

Yes, I was years behind on this whole thing.  I’ll kindly refer you to my previous post Waiting for Pyramid Head if you have any questions as to why I knew so little about something so big in the horror world.

Needless to say, The Silence of the Lambs blew me away.  It was easily one of the best films I had ever seen– and not just because of the compeI wondered about this image for years.  No lie.lling story, but in general quality (it did win Best Picture, after all).  The way it was directed, with methodical pacing that unceasingly drew me in deeper and deeper, was incredible (the director won Best Director that year).  The script was exceptional, each line of dialogue perfect.  And there cannot be enough said of the acting in the film– the whole cast was incredible, with Jodie Foster making Clarice Starling a character that somehow manages to be distant while you still cheer for her (while winning Best Actress), or Ted Levine bringing a truly unnerving realism to the film’s main monster, the serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” or most of all, the legendary, award-winning (with the smallest amount of screentime) portrayal of the famed Dr. Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins.  I cannot forget how truly unnerved I was made by that performance.  Every tiny face muscle seemed to be giving its all for acting perfection as Lector first turned his head toward Clarice, and it just got better from there.  I had seen some truly exceptional films before, but to have one which such high caliber in every way was eye-opening to me.  I simply didn’t know that a film could be so flawless (after all, even my favorite film of all time, The Dark Knight has a number of elements that are imperfect).

So, by the time I finished the film I had come to the conclusion that I had gotten myself into something incredible.  I knew that there was more to be had of this Hannibal Lecter, and so I set to figuring out what direction I needed to go next to get the most out of pursuing the series further.

A cursory search on Wikipedia quickly revealed that the brilliant film I had just seen was adapted from a book, actually the second book in its series.  I wasn’t too surprised– after all, Hannibal is first seen in a cell– and I decided that before I watched any more Hannibal movies I would read the books.

I decided to start with what I was already familiar with– The Silence of the Lambs.  I was so enchanted with the film that I couldn’t resist.  I immediately plunged into the masterful writing of Thomas Harris that was just as tantalizing as the film that drew me to it.  Now, usually I prefer books to film adaptations (I mean, who doesn’t?) but this one was a rare exception to the rule.  The film wasn’t better than the book (though that does happen, and I’m sure it’ll make it onto this blog as a post eventually), but I felt like it was equal.  I found that the film was, essentially, a perfect adaptation of the novel, following the plot very well, even using much of the dialogue directly, and even capturing the very tone, the very essence of the base work.

In all of the Lecter novels, Thomas Harris writes in a way that is beautiful and dark, and the greatest strength is the way that he paints his characters in ways that are very real, very human– even (maybe especially) the monsters.  The serial killers– “The Tooth Fairy,” “Buffalo Bill,” and, of course, “Hannibal the Cannibal–” are the most fascinating element of his writing.  They are their own blends of crazy (well, is Hannibal crazy?  Can’t really say), but their internal logic is strong, and as you read the sections of the novels that get into their heads you can’t help but sympathize, a little, with them.  This was especially true for me as I read Red Dragon, the first Hannibal novel to be written.  My heart still aches a little for the titular “Red Dragon,” when, in the course of the novel, his more human side begins to have things go his way, just to have the monster inside of him rise up and take control of his life again.  It was one of the most emotionally evocative pieces of writing I have ever read.

I unfortunately think I read the Lecter novels in the worst order possible.  As I’ve already stated, I read The Silence of the Lambs first, which was really starting off with the best of the best, which made the others not quite as good as they may have seemed had I not been prone to compare them to it.  The second book I read is the most recently written, the prequel novel Hannibal Rising.hannibal rising  Now, it’s a good book, but it is extremely different from the rest of the series.  Instead of telling a relatively contemporary serial killer story, it follows a young Hannibal, surviving (in the most horrible of ways) World War II in Lithuania and afterward moving to France.  It’s a very strange story, filled with the dark context for Lecter becoming a monster, but failing to ever begin to tell the story that one expects from a story named Hannibal Rising.  I figured it was the story of how he got to be in the insane asylum that Clarice finds him in, and was a little disappointed that it was not.

It is a beautiful piece of writing, in spite of very peculiar thematic elements including cannibalism, not-quite incest, racism, war, survival, revenge, and more.  The imagery of young Hannibal making himself into a samurai of sorts was very evocative.

So, a good book, but one that I should have saved for last.

Next, I read Red Dragon.  It was extremely good, but once again I was disappointed to find that it was not the story of Hannibal’s serial murders.  I, as with The Silence of the Lambs, found Lecter sitting, a serene hurricane, in his asylum cell, contributing to the story as a strange consultant-of-sorts on another serial killer case.  The story was littered with hints of what had happened before, especially since its protagonist, Will Graham, was the man who had put Hannibal there, but I wasn’t satisfied.  That again didn’t keep me from being drawn into the dark world of the story’s main serial killer and the surprisingly equally dark man who was hunting him.  I really was fascinated with the character of Will and his incredibly strong empathy that allows him inside the mind of the man who was killing families and putting shards of mirror in their eyes.  I was haunted by Hannibal’s words to him, telling Graham that the reason he had caught his was that they were just alike.

This idea, and similar ones, have been teased out a number of times since Red Dragon— the popular Dexter series comes to mind– but none have come close to so interesting an execution as Harris managed in his first Hannibal novel.  I love that the idea is being brought out even more with the new TV series, which I’ll get to later.

I finally got to the remaining book– Hannibal— with a fervor, having ridden a wave of great, scary writing to it.  Maybe it was that I had just read the intense ending to Red Dragon, but as I started what I thought what would serve as the opus of the series– with the titular Hannibal finally escaped, free to resume his monstrosities– I immediately became bored.  Not with everything in the book, but I could definitely tell that Harris had again allowed himself to really dig into the story, which, unlike with his other novels, caused the pace to slow.  I felt distanced as a reader from the story, when I was used to being drawn into the world of Harris’ writing.  Finally, as murders began and the story moved forward, I felt a little more drawn in– but not as much as I expected.

There was one particularly interesting thing about the book– the way it described Hannibal’s mind.  Harris finally shows his audience the private, queerly beautiful thoughts of his pet monster.  He shows us how they are neatly ordered, that his very mind– not just his actions– screams of his genius.  We see hints of his awful childhood and his beloved late sister, Mischa, whose death plays such a key role in his shaping.

And yet, in spite of that inspired element of the book, there seemed to be abundant problems.  Harris seemed to be trying very hard to re-cast his protagonist as something that is less of a monster and more of a thing of beauty.  While I had been fascinated by the complexity of the character– he was even more dark and frightening and brilliant than the other killers that the series had showcased– I could not have undone what the other books in the series had done to me.  I had made up my mind that Hannibal was a monster.  Yes, a genius, cultured, gentleman monster (not unlike my perspective of Satan), but still a monster nonetheless.  The “villain” of the piece was another issue– a surviving victim of the original Lecter murders who is a disgusting, crippled, pedophilic troll.  It was immediately clear, upon  his introduction, that he was the one the reader was not supposed to like, while the handsome, clever Hannibal was to be the one you root for.  It is an interesting idea to set the story as a monster setting a trap for another monster, but everything moved too slowly.  There wasn’t the opportunity that the other books had to move things along– another fresh homicide scene to be appalled by, more clues to follow.  Instead, there is Lecter, who seems to be tamed from the necessity to hide (he’s still dangerous, but only when necessary), narrowly dodging trap after trap to find and catch him, and Mason Verger, whose scenes just seem to be either disgusting shows of what a horrible person he is, or scenes of him being pissed that he isn’t torturing Hannibal yet.  The only character I could find myself caring about was Clarice Starling, but she, too, seems comparatively lifeless in comparison to her role in The Silence of the Lambs.

And then there’s the biggest issue of all with the story– it’s ending.  [SPOILERS, DUH.]  The ending of the story, after Hannibal is saved by Clarice from Verger, then in turn saves her, is the problem.  He attempts to brainwash her in really weird ways into thinking she’s Mischa, or that he’s her dead father, or something like that.  I don’t really know, the writing style gets very purposely trippy to imitate the drug-haze and, unfortunately, ends up becoming near-unreadable.  And then, there isn’t even the payoff of a good ending.  Instead, Clarice breaks free of the haze and still maintains her identity– which seems good, right?– but then choses to submit to Hannibal as his accomplice and lover, and they eat some annoying jerk’s brains and run away together. [End spoilers.]

What the frick, right?

Instead of a brilliant conclusion to the story, the audience is presented with some high shock factor twist-ending bullcrap that feels totally untrue to the characters involved.  I put the book down, pissed off, declaring to all in the room, “That sucked.”

I wish I could end my discussion of the books in some other way.  Blame Thomas Harris for me ending the discussion of his writing on such a negative note.

Anyway, after that disappointment, and allowing myself a couple weeks to distance myself from how mad I was about it (it still elicits feelings of anger from me), I returned to the medium that had introduced me to Hannibal Lecter.

I quite enjoyed the film version of Red Dragon.  I thought that Edward Norton was a pretty good choice for Will Graham, and I liked Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde as well (a much better performance than him as Voldemort– it’s refreshing to learn that he actually could act, even though he hid it so well in the disappointing Harry Potter films).  It was no surprise that Hopkins was still the star of the show, even still with a relatively minor role.  I don’t have too much to say about it other than it was a solid, quite faithful film adaptation, though it did not draw as strong an emotional reaction from me as the book did.  In other words, it was good, but it was definitely no The Silence of the Lambs film good.

It was with reluctance that I moved on to Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.  Hannibal_movie_posterAfter all, the other two Lecter-related films did such a solid job of closely following the source material and, frankly, I didn’t want this one to follow suite.

It didn’t.  Thank heaven.

It was a pretty okay movie.  I didn’t feel nearly as awed by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but I suppose that even the best of actors can struggle a bit when they’re given material to work with that is not of the same caliber as their acting abilities.  Let’s be real, though– Anthony Hopkins at his worst is still better than many other actors at their best.  I liked Julianne Moore as Clarice, though I prefer Jodie Foster.

The story seemed to work better as a movie, though.  The pacing issues largely disappeared as, by virtue of being an entire piece in 131 minutes rather than that amount of time spent reading equaling pretty much nothing happening, it moved along at a brisk clip.

Oh, and they didn’t ruin the ending.  Did I mention that?  The ending went the direction that may have (partially) redeemed the book.  I finished the movie not wanting to throw things at the screen.  That helped out a lot.

Finally, I watched the Hannibal Rising movie.  I thought it was very visually striking and was a very entertaining adaptation of the book.  I liked the performance of Gaspard Ulliel as the young Lecter, though I felt it did struggle at times in that it occasionally slipped into mediocre imitation of Hopkins rather than standing on its own.  I understand that it was panned by critics, but I honestly don’t feel like any such negative press is warranted.

With that movie watched, I thought that I had a complete Hannibal Lecter experience (unless, that is, Thomas Harris ever gets around to finishing another Lecter book– which, based on his average of 7.75 years to finish a book, seems a due around now).  I didn’t think much on the character other than to show my wife The Silence of the Lambs.

But then I caught wind of an NBC TV series called Hannibal.  Of course, I was instantly intrigued.  Hannibal_key_artI looked up a teaser trailer on Youtube, but because I wasn’t instantly blown away by the 45 seconds of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting as the titular character, I forgot all about it for a few months.

I saw a blurb about the show on IMDb while looking up some actor or show or the like (something I spend way too much time doing) and decided to give it a shot.  If it sucked, I could always turn it off.  A cursory look at the character list on the page seemed to indicate Red Dragon to me, so I found it streaming online.

It was good.  Extremely good.  I watched four episodes that night.  I very quickly felt ashamed that I didn’t instantly recognize Mikkelsen’s performance as Hannibal for the brilliant performance (and more ethnically correct) it is.  Hugh Dancy is Will Graham to me.  The way that Graham’s mental process of getting into the mindset of murderers is portrayed is brilliant.

I’ve seen every episode to date (so, the entire first season) and every one of them immersed me into its fictional world.

It is quite dark and, at times, difficult to watch for its gruesome factor.  Fairly akin to the special effects of The Walking Dead.  Really cool, but messed up, stuff.  Like a human string instrument.

The series (so far) serves as the prequel to Red Dragon that I’ve long wanted.  Hannibal is a serial killer at large, though that serves more as a common thread through the episodes rather than the sole focus of the season.  From what I’ve read (on Wikipedia, the knower of all), the idea is to have 3 seasons before Red Dragon, then a season of each of the subsequent books in the series.  If the show continues to be as incredible as it thus has, that idea makes me very happy.  Well, the last season maybe not so much, but even still I expect good things.

It is of note that they make some changes to the established canon to make the show work.  The gender of several characters are changed (Dr. Bloom, Freddy Lounds) to allow for some romance and, I think, some general balance to the story.  Also, Lecter and Graham work together to solve serial killer cases instead of what is suggested by Red Dragon, which is that Graham meets Lecter when he interviews him about one of his dead patients and gets attacked by him.  But trust me, even though it deviates from the “real” story, this is much more compelling.

Just watch it.  I don’t want to spoil it.  I can’t wait for season 2 to start.

Looking up something on Wikipedia about the show, I discovered something interesting– I had missed a movie.  I learned that five years before The Silence of the Lambs would appear in theaters there was a film adaptation of Red DragonManhunter_michael_mann_film_poster called Manhunter.  Having seen and read everything else in the Hannibal Lecter universe, I decided to give it a shot.

This movie is the reason for the parenthetical face of Hannibal Lecktor.  They changed the spelling of his last name.  I hate it when things do this when adapting a story.

I don’t have too much to say about the movie.  Brian Cox’s performance is the least impressive of the four actors to play Hannibal.  It was interesting to see a young William Petersen (who I really only know from CSI) as Graham.  Tom Noonan did well with the role of Dolarhyde.  The movie does pretty well with the source material, not deviating in annoying ways.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for the mediocre ’80s synth soundtrack and for the fact that the later film adaptation is overall better.  I felt like the pacing was a little off, and there were too many random scenes that just didn’t seem to contribute to the story as effectively as they could have.  I think my biggest issue with the film was how it mentioned Will Graham’s empathetic ability to get into the minds of killers, but did very little to show the audience that fact.

Wow, that was a veritable treatise on Hannibal Lecter.  I hope to get comments with all of your thoughts on all of these books and shows and movies.

 

P.S. This post has a sequel, discussing Hannibal season 2!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m intrigued about the TV show now. I wonder if I could stomach it…

    • It’s definitely worth it if you can. Some of the best TV I’ve ever seen.

  2. … Länkar

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  3. […] As you already know, I really enjoy the books and films that feature the character Hannibal Lecter, and I have a particularly passionate love for the television series.  After watching the first season I felt that it was easily some of the best television I’ve ever seen– some of the best television ever to have aired, honestly– and it was with great excitement that I watched the second season, excited each week when Friday brought both the advent of the weekend and a new episode.  I felt that it brought a very wonderful new direction to Thomas Harris’s characters.  I find Hugh Dancy to be a wonderful Will Graham, Lawrence Fishburne to be a powerful Jack Crawford, and of course Mads Mikkelsen to be an absolutely incredible Hannibal Lecter.  I’m on the verge of just giving in to my temptation to say that he’s better as the character than Anthony Hopkins was. […]


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