Thomas Harris resoundlingly trashed his greatest creation, and pretty much any critical respect, with Hannibal. His novels were pretty big deals even before Jonathan Demme adapted The Silence of the Lambs was, but anticipation for his next reached fever pitch in its aftermath. And he couldn’t not deal with what happened next to his cultured cannibal, now could he? The overriding impression that comes across from the novel is contempt; for Clarice Starling, for reader expectations, for the millstone that Hannibal Lecter had become. So Harris makes his audience suffer with him. The best thing Dino De Laurentis and his scriptwriters could have done was take the title and ignore the rest, but in a rare example of not changing the source material enough they managed to satisfy no one. At least some of that is probably down to the amount De Laurentis stumped up for the tome.
It’s been suggested Harris indulged in intentional sabotage; an unfilmable book to fulfil a publisher’s obligation. If that were the, case he surely wouldn’t have written of Clarice Starling, the protagonist he effectively dismantles after making such a great character in Silence, “I dreaded doing Hannibal, dreaded the personal wear and tear, dreaded the choices I would have to watch, feared for Starling. In the end I let them go, as you must let characters go… “ One might suggest he took leave of his senses as well as his creations but, since he doesn’t give interviews, it would be difficult to ascertain.
I’d read all three of his previous novels, but the disappointment of Hannibal swore me off Hannibal Rising. Certainly, until (if) he comes up with another character or story. No one is holding their breath, now he’s disappointed several times in a row. One might ask why he returned to the dried up well with Hannibal Rising but the answer appears to be Dino De Laurentis, the loud-mouthed and often not even very good producer. He takes the dubious credit for milking the franchise dry (and employing Brett Ratner to remake Red Dragon) by telling the author he’d go ahead and do an origins story himself if Harris didn’t yield.
The specimen Harris came up with after the eleven-year gap between Lecter yarns wasn’t the feast of intricate bedazzlement one might have expected. Lurid, crass, and ultimately physically and emotionally gross, it sacrificed plotting for a sagging expanse. Hannibal was devoid of real suspense, a landscape in which Lecter waltzes around and about as the now enthroned hero of the story. He slices and dices hither and thither until finally he wins Clarice for himself in the ultimate authorial betrayal (Harris was right to dread his own worst instincts for her).
Hannibal the movie wasn’t quite having that. Jodie Foster blanched at where the book took Clarice, quite understandably, and even the enticement of an altered ending couldn’t tempt her back. Not wholly surprising, since the character suffers the biggest insult to audience investment in a major motion picture since Newt and Hicks were unceremoniously dumped off screen between Aliens and Alien 3. The now supporting character is still drugged and has to sit and watch while Lecter feeds Ray Liotta’s loathsome Paul Krendler (all the characters, bar Giancarlo Giannini’s Italian police inspector, are grotesque caricatures, which rather fits Scott’s cartoon-shot-as-art film approach) his own brains. The slender difference is that Clarice, having spent the film shot, suspended, berated and abused, musters a tiny triumph when she handcuffs Hannibal to a fridge instead of waltzing off into the sunset with him as a kind-of-willing bride of Frankenstein.
De Laurentis, as vulgar as the movies he favours, couldn’t keep his mouth shut about Foster demurring either. “As an audience, I see Julianne Moore and, oh, I want to go in bed with her. I see Jodie Foster – no way”. Apart from speaking for himself, mate, it was a rather childish, sour grapes way of addressing the subject. Foster was right, simply. Reliable as Moore is, no one talks about her Clarice Starling because her only relevance in the movie is the disservice the character has been done. No one’s talking about how “sexy” this Clarice is because it’s quite beside the point (unless De Laurentis really thought audiences would be titillated by the lopsided, disfigured romance).
Hannibal’s a dark movie, but not in a good way. That would be Silence, where there is light at the end of the tunnel (but more respite than salvation). Hannibal has only degradation to revel in, ironically given Hannibal’s attendance to all things artistic and pure. The writers on the picture, Steven Zaillian and David Mamet, are both quality scribes, although Zaillian’s career has been the patchier. It’s telling that not just Foster, but also Ted Tally (who did pen the second adaptation of Red Dragon, but was dismayed by Hannibal’s “excesses”) and Jonathan Demme, weren’t lining up for a second bite. De Laurentis didn’t parade disparaging remarks about either of those two, however. A fine discerner of quality, he also described Manhunter as “no good”. Of course, when he got the chance to do his preferred version, it was actually was no good.
So we come to Ridley Scott. In a way, this is a return to the sophomore ground of Alien. But only in a way. That was a case of Scott able to transcend material through sheer attention to atmosphere and detail: world building. His affinity for the same grew increasingly patchy after the failure of Legend, and the Italian producer approached Sir Ridders at the same time he had decided to up his work rate; Gladiator, this, and Black Hawk Down followed each other in quick succession. To be fair to Scott (in that, his predilection for making dodgy scripts throughout his career shows the wrong kind of consistency) he identified the problems with the ending. It’s just that semi-addressing it can’t remedy the picture’s inherently rotten structure.
Whether Mamet’s draft was a “stunningly bad” as has been suggested, Zaillian is generally credited with the not really that workable finished screenplay. Scott evidently thought so, as he’s worked from Zaillian scripts twice since. The problem is fundamental. The elegance and balance of the previous templates, where manhunts are sustained by interludes with the uber-serial killer and getting to know the not entirely unsympathetic central psycho, has been replaced by something listless and melodramatic. The “guest” monster is merely focussed on the star serial killer who disfigured him. As a consequence, Hannibal regresses to a Freddy or Jason with a bit of panache. He’s a colourful death wielder who reveals himself from the shadows and kills with a quip and comment about the décor. The result isn’t exactly boring, but neither it certainly isn’t riveting. It’s a sort-of fascinating botch up, tasteless and dismaying but with occasional flashes of what it might have been.
There are some good ideas. For example, Barney (Frankie Faison, a veteran of the first four Lecter movies) selling Lecter memorabilia manages to neatly comment not only on the cult of serial killers generally but also the following of Silence. One might charitably describe Gary Oldman’s Mason Verger as a similar take; he’s the number one fan (but we had this in Red Dragon, so it’s nothing new).
Gone is the restraint of a carefully devised antagonist Instead, Mason is beyond broad and fashioned in the most rudimentary style. Oldman was reputedly the second choice after Christopher Reeve (really, whose sicko idea was that?). Almost the first thing Clarice says to him is, we “don’t need to know about the sex offences”. This is the clumsiest of shorthand, barring him actually saying, “I’m the villain”. We see sans-prosthetics Oldman briefly in the popper/face peeling episode (“It seemed like a good idea at the time”), but it’s more effective in the TV iteration.
At least the death of Verger is much more appropriate than the silliness of the book (at the hands of his muscle-bound sister Margot) as Zeljko Ivaenk’s Dr Doemling is invited to dispose of the master who has been such a bane of his life (“Hey Kordell. Why don’t you push him in? And you can always say it was me”).
Hopkins, well he’s never less than entertaining. But years of parodies have made the returned Lecter an instantaneous caricature of himself. As a guy who likes to keep working, it’s perhaps no surprise Hopkins was up for it (and Red Dragon, within a year), but even he expressed between the lines reservations. His definition of a killer who “preferred to eat the rude” is even more of a ham landing than Silence, if that’s possible. There the scenery chewing worked to the advantage of the wholer film, a curious relief from the debasement of the main case.
Here, Hopkins is still delivered some notable moments. The encounter with the pickpocket, who comes out the worse (“I got it”) is up there with anything Scott has done. The meeting with Inspector Pazzi and his wife at the opera is a concise exercise in simmering tension. And, the reveal of the handcuffing elicits a response of almost zestful fascination at being faced with a conundrum (“Now, that’s really interesting, Clarice”).
Mostly, however, Lecter is a chance to embrace every cheap shot possible. This is a movie for those who would reject Freddy Kreuger but think Lecter is palatable. Until they see him in action, that is. Lines get a laugh (“On the related subject, I must confess, I’m giving very serious thought to eating your wife”) but it doesn’t mean they aren’t crude in a way Hannibal himself might find objectionable if he wasn’t delivering them (“What’s it to be? Bowels in or bowels out?”) The conclusion with him feeding a child brains is obvious to the point of self-parody. When it’s all only about Lecter, rather than focussing on him as motivator, the engine breaks down; concise bursts of energy no longer are brought to bear, and he becomes too much of a good thing.
By the time Hannibal has scalped Krendler (Liotta at his most gleefully unsavoury, but essaying a character so repulsive he’s ridiculous; “That smells great”) the movie has long since lost the slenderest grip on suspension of disbelief. Which means it really has become a cartoon. Yet the problem with this is, the excesses of Hannibal are never “fun”. Scott doesn’t make fun films; look at A Good Year (which I sort of, half like despite itself, but it’s evidence that a light touch is not in Ridley’s repertoire).
The Florence location shoot looks very nice, but Scott’s aesthetic has a kind of passionless sheen washed across it by this point. High shutter speeds used so distractingly so such that one wonders at a gimmick gone so spectacularly wrong. These, and blundering slow motion, wholly fail to service the story. It’s rather sad to see a director at once familiarly accomplished but also firmly derivative. The shutter speeds were a “new” discovery, and would infect further features.
The spectre of Seven also lurks over the proceedings, but with absolutely none of that picture’s unerring ability to disturb. There are the titles, (including a cheesy face of Hopkins in some pigeons) and the general aesthetic. But this is a graceless version where you see all of the killer all of the time and there’s no investigation to speak of. Hans Zimmer’s classically infused score is unable to temper the grossness.
Even the focus on Lecter wouldn’t necessarily have killed the book or novel (Harris problem, in succumbing to the lure of Lecter, is that he couldn’t really use the same framework a third time and not be called out; the problem is also, he didn’t have anything with which to replace it) if Clarice Starling had remained intact. But she’s been systematically undermined, by her creator and the police force around her. Sure, one can argue this is a commentary on how power corrupts (Krendler; Pazzi, the sympathetic man who falls victim to the need to keep much a younger wife in finery). But it shouldn’t be at the expense of your once main character. Not if you’re going to offer her nothing in return (one is reminded of the offhand manner in which Will Graham is dismissed in Silence; while this is nothing new, it is much, much uglier here). At one point Starling is asked, “Why are you so resented Clarice?” and one might ask the same of Harris.
That isn’t the end of the matter, though. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal betrays the character of Will Graham every bit as fundamentally as this Hannibal betrays Clarice, only this time to (mystifying) popular acclaim. Ridley Scott’s Hannibal is an immaculate production of a ghoulishly empty upset vessel. It did the trick for De Laurentis, making a heap of money. Accordingly, it added to Scott’s cachet as a suddenly bankable director again (it only took 20 years to get back there). But it also tarnished him. A director who had never made a sequel may have seen it as a challenge to fashion a silk purse from the man-eating pig of a project, but iffy material would continue to guide him from hereon out. Occasionally he would hit on something decent, but never something great. Harris’ milieu worked best when there was underlying restraint and conviction counter-balancing the more overwrought elements. Demme and Mann understood that. No one else has since.