Wednesday, June 25, 2008

HANNIBAL by Thomas Harris

The Book: Thomas Harris, HANNIBAL. Delacorte, 1999 (first edition). Fine condition.
First read: 1999
Owned since: 1999

Few books have been as hotly anticipated or as widely reviled as this one. In any gathering of crime fiction writers or fans, the one thing almost everyone will agree on is that HANNIBAL rates as one of the worst sequels ever.

I respectfully disagree, and was glad this week to see that no less an authority than Stephen King agrees with me -- in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, he mentions HANNIBAL as one of the great pleasures of his favorite year, 1999.

First off, HANNIBAL is not a sequel; it's the third in a sequence of novels that begins with RED DRAGON and continues with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That hardly matters, though, because SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the book that caught everyone's attention, and rightly so. It is a nearly perfect thriller, featuring two of the most memorable characters ever written: FBI agent Clarice Starling and psychopathic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Beyond that, of course, it was adapted into a pitch-perfect movie that won several Oscars and established Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins as icons. If memory serves, HANNIBAL was sold to the movies even before the book was written -- and that may have been part of the problem.

It is an interesting case study of the dangers of allowing characters to be moved from book to screen while the author's still inventing them. Characters on a page form through an alchemy between author and reader; reader and author can and do have wildly different mental pictures of what characters look like, and how they might behave off the page. Once you assign the character to an actor, though, and put that actor on the screen, the alchemy vanishes. The actor is the character. Rhett Butler looks like Clark Gable; Rosemary Woodhouse looks like Mia Farrow; Regan McNeil looks like Linda Blair. Those associations are permanent.

So Clarice Starling became Jodie Foster, and Hannibal Lecter became Anthony Hopkins -- which seems to have chafed Mr. Harris, if HANNIBAL is anything to go by.

HANNIBAL begins with an FBI operation that goes catastrophically wrong, for which Clarice Starling gets blamed. It's a one-two punch: Clarice's fallibility, which she can't stand to admit, causes the death of innocents; then her surrogate family, the FBI, betrays and exiles her.

In that context, she is vulnerable to admiration and comfort and the seductions of evil, in the person of Hannibal Lecter. Anyone would be. I have been. Haven't you?

Readers didn't want this. Readers wanted to believe in a Clarice Starling who embodied the forces of good, and was proof against temptation. Readers wanted to identify with that, not with a woman who finally just gave up because it got too hard to be righteous on her own. And if Hannibal Lecter really did turn out to be evil, well -- what did anyone expect? The character's a psychopath, not a Robin Hood figure.

HANNIBAL is a reassertion of Harris's right to his own characters, and if readers didn't like it, too bad. I admired it, and still do.

Five Random Songs

"Only a Dream," Mary Chapin Carpenter. A song about a sibling's leaving home. "A bed and a desk and a couple of tacks/No sign of someone who expects to be back/Must have been one hell of a suitcase you packed."

"I've Committed Murder," Macy Gray. I do love a good tune about romantic obsession.

"Girl on a String," John Hiatt. From Riding with the King, when Hiatt's sound was heavier on the country side than the rock side.

"Kingdom of Doom," The Good, the Bad, and the Queen. This CD was a gift from my friend Tom; thanks, Tom!

"Stereotype," The Specials. The Specials are good skating music, and I was thinking this morning that it had been too long since I'd been to the ice rink. Maybe at lunch today...


Larry said...

I support your assertion of Harris'right to his own characters. However, I feel he betrayed the character he gave us in Silence of the Lambs. Not that she could be wooed by evil, it was the fact that she so far to the opposite extreme... cannibalism? Please! A lesser character maybe, but not the woman who captured Wild Bill. As a stand alone novel it worked, but not after presenting Starling as he did.

AnswerGirl said...

I disagree, because what Harris seemed to be saying is that her hunting down of Wild Bill was her effort to be her father's best daughter -- and in Hannibal, she has accepted a new father figure, and a new standard of what it means to be the best girl.