Hannibal (2001)

Thomas Harris has now written three novels featuring genius-level cannibal gourmet psychoanalyst Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). The earlier novels were filmed by Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986) and Jonathan Demme (1991), with Brian Cox (as 'Hannibal Lektor') and Anthony Hopkins (who returns here) as the character who has gradually come out of his cell and become dominant in the overarching narrative that encompasses all six books and films.

One of the strengths of The Silence of the Lambs as a novel was that, though essentially a redraft of the plot of Red Dragon, it did not seem like a sequel; and, since Manhunter was a slow-building cult effort (ie: critically-admired box office failure), Demme's film has rarely been considered a sequel to it. One of the weaknesses of Hannibal, as novel and now as film, is that it can only be considered a sequel, and indeed some aspects of the novel – the writing-out of a love interest for Clarice Starling established in the Lambs book but not the film, the loss of extra fingers Lecter has had in print but never in the movies – suggest Harris was delivering a sequel to the film of Silence of the Lambs rather than his earlier book. Ridley Scott's adaptation of Hannibal, which comes from the producer of Manhunter (Dino De Laurentiis, whose original deal gives him first refusal rights on any novel featuring the character), is a further shift towards follow-up, retaining Hopkins for what is now the star role, but acceptably substituting Julianne Moore for Jodie Foster as Starling, to the extent of rerecording some of the key Starling-Lecter interviews with Moore doing her own take on Foster's elocutionised cracker accent.

The major change, which perhaps marks a mutation from series into franchise, is that Hannibal Lecter moves centre stage. In earlier incarnations, he was incarcerated, exerting influence on the outside world and flirting with FBI agents who might be his nemeses or his doppelgangers; here, he is at large and mostly at something of a loose end. Though he kills people who get in his way, including a pickpocket Pazzi sends to get his fingerprints and (presumably) the previous holder of a job he covets, he has discontinued the serial murders of the 'free-range rude' hinted at in the earlier stories. This Hannibal is almost a heroic vigilante, seeing off only people who deserve it, and doing Clarice the favour of making a stir-fry of her office rival's brain as a Fourth of July treat which seems bound to be remembered as this film's most gruesome moment (though it's a set-piece joke rather than a real shock like an early video clip of a horrific incident described in the two earlier films but not seen until now). A problem of this approach, especially with an ending altered but not much improved from the novel's controversial finish (in which Clarice and Hannibal do become a couple), is that the script suffers from the familiar marking-time plotting common among middling series entries. There is much running around and new characters are brought on and killed off, but the fade-out leaves the protagonists exactly where they were at the beginning, with only a few emotional and physical scars to indicate that there actually has been a story.

Working with a blue-grey palette very like Demme's, Ridley Scott manages to find his own way into Harris's world, and his ad-man's love of animal (especially bird) images and metaphors seizes upon that vein of the novel. From his brother Tony's repertoire, Scott takes a lot of fluttering birds and background classical music (cf: The Hunger), with Hannibal characterising Starling (the name is enough, surely) as a 'diving pigeon'. The third major character, this property's monster equivalent of ‘the 'Tooth Fairy'/'Red Dragon' Francis Dolarhide or 'Buffalo Bill'/'Mr Hide' Jame Gumb, is a silent movie grotesque, Mason Verger, a combination of Phantom of the Opera and Bond villain who was once persuaded by Lecter to cut off his own face and feed it to the dog and who relishes his scheme to get even by slowly feeding his tormentor to especially-trained anthropophagus boars (wonderfully excessive beasts). Gary Oldman, uncredited at the outset like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, is given a pigsnout-like deformed face and is made to be the most purely despicable character in the series to date, whose crimes and bad manners have so offended Lecter that he has acted as an instrument of cosmic justice in punishing him. A fine moment, played to perfection by Hopkins, has Lecter – who has never actually laid a hand on Verger – persuade a quivering doctor (Zeljko Ivanek) to shove Verger into the pig-pit by offering to take the credit for the killing. But Verger is never a person as Dolarhide and Gumb were, the moments of pathos accruing the earlier antagonists being clawed by Hannibal himself.

The general lop-sidedness of Hannibal as novel and film is shown by the way the story clumps around the world. The generally strong Florence section sets up the interestingly-shaded Giancarlo Gianini character – nagged into corruption by his beautiful wife's insistence he gets good tickets for the opera – as a new opponent for Hannibal in barbed verbal exchanges that draw on the city's twinned traditions of art and violence. But Starling, our supposed viewpoint character, never makes it to Italy except by phone, and her storyline stops dead while Scott stages an elegant, operatic dance of seduction that pays off with Pazzi's gruesome defenestration. When Hannibal is back in America, stalking Starling and stalked by Verger, the plot turns in on itself, makes a knot and finally disappears. By downplaying the police procedural aspects so strong in the earlier films, this becomes a simple grand guignol tale of thwarted revenge, and severely limits the directions in which its heroine can go. If the parallel book and film series are to continue, it may well be time to summon Will Graham, the hero of Red Dragon/Manhunter, who has no patience with Hannibal's charm and can still match his darkness with enough daring to bring the supervillain down. But Harris and whoever adapts his next novel have a problem – a sequel novel will have to pick up from a very different point than this film leaves us, while a movie will be obliged to continue from this ending to an entirely different story.

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