I received several books as Christmas presents, one of which I burned through over the holidays because it was short and one I had been looking forward to. That book was Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris.
This is of course the prequel to the books written by Harris which feature the character Hannibal Lecter, made famous by actor Anthony Hopkins‘ portrayal in The Silence of the Lambs. It was Hopkins’ performance as the cannibal serial killer that caught the public’s interest and spawned the sequel book Hannibal by Harris, later made into a film. That was followed by the film Red Dragon, which was based on the book of the same name. That book was written before Silence of the Lambs and was Lecter’s first appearance in Harris’s work, and in film for that matter as it was originally adapted by Michael Mann in the film Manhunter. In that 1986 film, which differs from the book in the ending and other areas but is still a pretty faithful adaptation, Lecter is played by Brian Cox. He does a good job but is overshadowed by the spooky and downright terrifying Hopkins in the later films.
Hannibal Rising is very different from the other Harris books featuring Lecter. This was not written as a novel first, but simultaneously as a screenplay for film and a novel. It is obvious to me that the former was the driving force for the tale, because the book falls well short of Harris’s other efforts. The story is supposed to show us the ‘origin’ of Hannibal… how he became what he is. Perhaps the movie will do that, but in my opinion the book does not.
Lecter is supposed to be inhuman, insofar as a human being can be inhuman. Something inside him is broken, and the result is a man with supreme intelligence and sophistication to whom sadism and horror are treated as casually as morning coffee or a stroll in the park. He is supposed to be evil without emotion… a creature to whom human life is irrelevant in a clinically detached way, like a bug collector who pins his specimens to a board. He isn’t a giggling, drooling madman with a chain saw… but a polished and sophisticated gentleman who might ask a lady to dance or cut her open and remove her kidney to make a pie… either way without his heart rate rising over 72 beats per minute. This is supposed to be a monster without remorse or passion, barely to be comprehended by a sane mind.
So why do they have to make a hero out of him?
Anthony Hopkins was quoted as saying the same thing in interviews about Hannibal. He did not agree with the direction the character was taking, becoming a kind of anti-hero. It was certainly played up that way much more in the film than it was in the book. In Hannibal, Harris still painted Lecter as a demon in silk. Yes, he came out of ‘retirement’ to kill mainly those who were tormenting Clarice Starling professionally, but he still made it about his own personal desires and not as a chivalrous or selfless act on his part. Quite the contrary… in the book he tortures and brainwashes Clarice using, among other things, the exhumed body of her dead father, and ends up in South America with her presumably as a lover (an ending I hated but at least was in keeping with Lecter’s character). In the film, he cuts off his own hand rather than hurt Clarice after killing the FBI boss who was destroying her career for money. That film made Lecter a killer but one who killed for less than selfish reasons (sometimes) and showed self sacrifice to spare his lady love… in other words an anti-hero. Given the book’s actual ending, I thought Harris would ignore the hollywoodization of Lecter and give us a back story worthy of the character he created.
I was wrong. Harris is on board with the anti-hero angle all the way in Hannibal Rising.
The way I see it, a creature like Lecter is created in one of two ways: he was born like this, or he was made like this. The book tries to make it both and fails to convince us of either. There is no dramatic moment where he snaps and awakes as the Lecter we know from the past books, nor does he show any signs as a very young child (other than a preternatural intelligence) that he is broken inside. Lecter is one of two children of the Count and Countess Lecter, who live in an ancient family castle in Lithuania at the beginning of World War II. The family is forced to flee their home to the safety of a hunting lodge miles away in the woods ahead of Hitler’s Blitzkreig, which is rolling across Eastern Europe. Three years later a soviet tank that has stopped for water in destroyed by a passing Nazi plane and the resulting explosion kills the Lecter family except Hannibal and his sister Mischa. Lithuanian men who betrayed their countrymen and helped the Nazis during the invasion find the lodge and loot it, capturing the children and finding themselves forced to stay at the lodge. Starving, they eventually turn to cannibalism. Lecter remembers nothing further until he is found wandering loose by a soviet tank and taken back to his family castle, now an orphanage. He eventually goes to live with an uncle and his exotic wife in France. Lecter’s brilliant mind makes him the youngest medical student in the history of France. He becomes a murderer at 13, and commits several killings throughout the book.
There are myriad disappointments with the novel. First, it reads like a barely fleshed out screenplay (which it is). The anticipated detailed examination of concepts like Lecter’s Memory Palace are almost totally absent. Environments that should be richly described like rural France, Lithuania and Paris are glossed over. Even the killings are quickly described and we are given little time to build any fear or anticipation for anything that occurs. The book is half the length is should be.
Likewise we never really see into Lecter at all. We never see where he becomes so detached to human life, nor where he develops his taste for human flesh. Cannibalism is part of his trauma in the woods but, again, there is no time for it to build or for us to really see it’s effect on him. Most serial killers begin with animals and pets… Lecter goes right into humans with no motivation or explanation. I can’t tell at the end of the book where he went from point A., the caring older brother and bright young child to point B., the vicious but detached serial killer. The story, meant to tell us all about Hannibal Lecter, lends little insight into Lecter at all.
The worst part is the selling out and turning of Lecter into a hero. He kills no one in the book that is not a war criminal deserving of death. He kills to avenge his sister or an insult to his Uncle’s wife. Nothing is here to suggest he would continue to kill once his vengeance is fulfilled. In short, there is no origin of Hannibal Lecter here. This is Batman with a knife, not the man who would kill patients who did not wrong him and eat them. There is nothing to help us understand why he kills or why he would continue to after all his enemies are dead. The Hannibal who rides off at the end of the book is not the one we know from Red Dragon and the next few books. He doesn’t even have the six fingers on one hand that was part of his character in the books but was ignored in the films… Not a major point but telling that Harris catered to Hollywood and the box office here and not to anyone who followed his pages instead of the films adapted from them.
Disappointing. I hope the movie is better.
758 My cover art for the next issue of MAD, exclusive sneak peek from @entertainmentweekly website
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