First and foremost, I want to say a big thanks for everyone who has stuck around and read my self-indulgent columns over the past year. Yup, this week marks my one-year anniversary, and so fitting that it should fall on Easter. Since I'm such a super religious guy. Anyway, this is also my 27th column. Since it runs bi-weekly, some quick math says I've never missed an entry. Some have been of less quality, shall we say, than others, but dammit, I've always made the gig. And now, on with the show.
Lecter #1: Brian Cox.
About a month ago I picked up the copy of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon that I snagged for a buck at the supermarket a while back, and was pretty blown away by it. It is a police-procedural for the first half, and the prose is absolutely as tight as a drum. Which makes the shift to the serial killer's background, and the feather-touch with which Harris lays out the man's emotional damage, all the more poignant. As you can naturally imagine, reading the book got me thinking about its various cinematic adaptations, and then the other films of Harris's books that followed. Something in my brain ticked over, and I got to thinking what splendid column fodder those films would make.
I have since rethought this notion.
But, alas, since I have spent the past month reading all of Harris's books and watching all of the movies, you're going to get what you're going to get. Let's both try to make the best of it (please read that the way Kate Ashfield delivers the line towards the end of SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Thanks).
Anyway, for those of you who don't know, Thomas Harris is the man who gave birth to the phenomenon that is Hannibal Lecter. However, even though Red Dragon is the first novel to feature Hannibal the Cannibal, the book is not about him. It is about reticent Special Investigator Will Graham, and emotionally-tormented and facially disfigured serial killer Frances Dolarhyde. Lecter simply makes an appearance or two to further shed light on the character of Graham.
The first film based on Red Dragon, 1986's MANHUNTER, got that point. Got it a little too well, in fact. Director Michael Mann is what I would term a "cold" director, on the order of Kubrick and Cronenberg. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but what it means is that while he got the police-procedural part note-perfect, he fumbled the Dolarhyde character into oblivion.
To dial it back a little, Graham is a forensic specialist who just happens to have an empathic insight into the criminal mind so strong that not only does it help him catch killers, but it nearly drives him insane. After gunning one down and then having Lecter nearly disembowel him when he got hot on his trail, Graham is understandably out of the justice business, and repairing boat motors in Florida when his old colleague, Jack Crawford, approaches him with pictures of the "Tooth Fairy" murders. Being the obsessive guy that he is, Graham simply can't stay away and let more families get killed, so he puts his shoulder holster back on and rolls up his sleeves. In no time, he is back to all of the sick ways of thinking that had him inside a psychiatric wards many years before, and even goes to visit Lecter to "get the scent back".
As I said, all of this is done quite well in MANHUNTER, and Will Peterson is a revelation as Graham, his first movie role. What is upsetting is the short shrift given to the serial killer, Frances Dolarhyde, portrayed with all good intentions by Tom Noonan. Unfortunately, the same shift in tone from clinical to emotional that Harris makes so effortlessly in the novel Mann is not capable of replicating on the screen, and most of the point of the story is lost, in my opinion. Don't get me wrong: I still enjoy the movie, but it just could have been so much more.
Also, the ending of the film is ridiculous. What with the Iron Butterfly and schizophrenic editing. Apparently, by that point Mann's demeanor and the time over schedule had whittled the crew down to the barest skeleton, and they only had one night to get the finale in the can. So what you get is what you see: a movie that is deliberate in its pacing suddenly going haywire at the end. Too bad, so
Lecter #2: You know who it is.
Skipping past a few films, for the moment, let's talk about RED DRAGON (2002). I was resistant to this film for a long time. I had not read the source novel, and I felt that MANHUNTER was just fine, and needed no new version. But I kept hearing about how the new version adhered so much more to the book. So for the purposes of the column I watched the movie. While it was not nearly as bad as I had made it out to be in my mind, the profession that it sticks closer to the book than MANHUNTER did is patently ridiculous. It strayed from the book just as much as MANHUNTER, just in different ways.
RED DRAGON, for all intents and purposes, is the diametric opposite of MANHUNTER. Brett Ratner is anything but a cold director. His style is quite warm, and while that allows the film to portray Dolarhyde (here essayed quite wonderfully by Ralph Fiennes) in the way Harris had envisioned him, it also leads him to cast Graham in quite the wussy light. I mean, c'mon: however you feel about Edward Norton, the man cannot fill Will Peterson's shoes. The police-procedural portion of the film is a joke. I never once felt that Graham was tortured just as much as Dolarhyde. And without that, the film cannot truly work.
There is also the pesky detail about shoe-horning in much more Hannibal Lecter than was in the book, or necessary to the plot. Ratner and scripter Ted Tally (who also scripted SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) claim that Hopkins was not a lock for the role, which is absurd. The genesis of the film is clearly from a point of view of giving audiences more Lecter, and any statements to the contrary are insulting. The beginning of RED DRAGON shows the face-off between Lecter and Graham that you learn about only peripherally in the book, but adds in the detail that Lecter had a working relationship with the FBI, helping then track down killers. This is invention for the film, and irritated me. In the book, Graham was not very familiar with Lecter as a person, which is what allowed him to see what no one else had seen about him.
There is also a scene in the film featuring a flutist who goes missing from the symphony, and this is a scenario that was actually in the Silence of the Lambs novel, and I was sort of tickled by that. It is also a good segue into that film.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, for some reason, is another film that I resisted for many years. It won a bunch of awards, but for some reason, the first time I watched it, it just didn't connect for me. And the thing that brought me around to watching it again is quite strange: Silence! The Musical. At the time, the music was free, and there was no actual stage play. It was just two brothers who put together a selection of Broadway numbers based on the movie, and it is to this day the most hilarious thing I have ever heard. I listened to the CD many times, and it got me wondering why I didn't like the film. Then when I watched the film again out of curiosity, I found that I actually quite enjoyed it. Even more than MANHUNTER. No one was more surprised than me.
SILENCE takes place several years after the events of RED DRAGON, (which makes the coda of that film utterly nonsensical) and Jack Crawford is down to enticing students to help him with serial killer cases. This time it is the "Buffalo Bill" killer (named so by the press because he likes to skin his humps). She goes to Lecter's cell to for a convo, and only becomes endeared to him when Multiple Miggs jizzes on her face. And thus begins a three-way cat and mouse game as the student, Clarice Starling (the defining role for Jodie Foster, in my opinion) tries to cut a swath through Lecter's bullshit to apprehend Buffalo Bill before he skins a senator's daughter.
Ted Tally really earned his Oscar here, and between him and Jonathan Demme, they managed to capture the flavor, as well as the events, of the novel in a way that none of the other films have been able to. The film never gets bogged down and boring, even though there really isn't all that much action until the end. I would like to point out that none of the anagram stuff appears in the book: that was all Ted Tally. The sort of mind
games that Lecter played wouldn't really translate well to film, and I give Tally credit for his ingenuity.
Lecter #3: Gaspard Ulliel.
I would also like to take this time to point out 1) that the Benjamin Raspail character was changed quite a bit from the novel, and is in fact the flutist who shows up later in RED DRAGON. Also, the character of Ardelia Mapp, Starling's friend from the academy and later her roommate, was whittled down to almost nothing in the film, and is never mentioned by name, but is still named in the credits. I don't know why, but that strikes me as a class thing to do.
Post SILENCE, we get into some grey territory concerning Thomas Harris and his novels and their films. A lot of fans cried foul, saying that he was only writing books to have movies based on them, and it was all a financial game to everyone involved. I have to call shenanigans on that theory. Harris is not a man who pumps out novels. He does years of meticulous research, and he writes the hell out of a book. I would not call a series of books that consist of four volumes, yet took nearly twenty years to write, selling out. And as a point of fact, they are all excellent reads. No quality was lost, even if the rights to film them were sold before they were even written.
The next novel to film, HANNIBAL (2001) (between SILENCE and DRAGON), was directed by Ridley Scott, which is not too shabby, but has Julianne Moore instead of Foster as Starling. Apparently numerous versions of the script were produced (even though David Mamet retains a writing credit, little from his pass was used), and both Foster and Demme passed on the film. That normally would send up a red flag, but I think it is unwarranted. The people who would like to categorize the film as shocking gore and violence instead of plot, have clearly never watched the film. Clocking in at over two hours, it only has three or four violent scenes. It is just that the last gore set-piece, featuring a very unfortunate Ray Liotta, is so over the top that it is all most viewers took away from the film. Which is too bad.
HANNIBAL is actually quite a beautiful film, with a good portion of it taking place in Lecter's new digs in Florence, Italy. He has to leave, unfortunately, when a rogue cop "sells' him to one of his victims who lived, the now essentially faceless Mason Verger (played with no small amount of behind the scenes drama by Gary Oldman). Throw in Clarice getting the bum's rush by the Bureau, and Lecter coming to her "rescue", and you have another cat and mouse game just as interesting and enjoyable as SILENCE. Sure, Moore does only a middling job as Starling, and sure they totally destroyed the mindf*ck ending of the novel, but it is still a worthy movie in the Hannibal Lecter series.
Now, with the ending of that novel really putting just about as fine a cap on the story as you could please, where is a franchise committed to another book and film to go? Why, to a prequel, of course! What we got was HANNIBAL RISING, a film that was even less well-received than HANNIBAL, for some reason. I don't know. I really liked it.
The backstory for Lecter was hinted at in the novel Hannibal, but eschewed entirely by the film. As it turns out, Lecter's family was caught up in Hitler's blitzkrieg at the beginning of WWII, and were forced to abandon their Lithuanian castle home for their more humble hunting lodge in the woods. That, too, is destroyed, and both of Hannibal's parents are killed, leaving him and his baby sister Mischa to fend for themselves. That is, until some Nazi-sympathizers and eventual war-deserters happen upon the unhappy home, and something happens that is so unspeakable as to tear a hole in child prodigy Hannibal Lecter's psyche. Something he blocks out of his memory, and only discovers for himself as the film progresses.
While the novel was more a delving into the process by which Lecter goes from genius medical student to monstrous and remorseless killing machine, the film understandably focuses more on the revenge aspect, as Lecter hunts down and makes pay the people who destroyed his youth. Gaspard Ulliel, in his first English-language film, takes on a heavy burden playing the
younger Hannibal, when people clearly only want to see Hopkins in the role. Which is too bad, because Ulliel is a pleasure to watch, and will truly turn your stomach by the end of the film.
The mind from which Lecter sprang. Sick bastard.
Finally, let's talk about the one and only book Harris has written that does not feature Hannibal Lecter. That book is his first novel, 1975's Black Sunday. It is a plot that Harris hatched while working as a newspaper reporter with some of his buddies on the crime beat, and the novel he quit that job to write. It is the story of a disgraced Vietnam POW who gets into bed (literally) with a member of a Middle Eastern terrorist organization in a scheme to explode a bunch of people at the Super Bowl. It is a tense and sprawling narrative, and sets up a character, American blimp pilot Michael Landry's contact and love interest, Dahlia Iyad, who is actually more antisocial and psychopathic than Hannibal Lecter, because she is killing in the name of politics.
BLACK SUNDAY was released just two years after the book, and is a decent potboiler. It is funny to me that a movie that clocks in at over two and a half hours still had to cut so much out of the book, but that is John Frakenheimer for you (I will never forgive him, even posthumously, for his role in the ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU fiasco). But still, like I said, the film is worth watching. Bruce Dern plays the veteran, huge surprise, and Fritz Weaver and Robert Shaw do excellent work as an FBI agent and an Israeli counter-terrorist agent, respectively. I kept waiting for Shaw to start telling shark stories in Yiddish.
The only thing that really bothered me about the film was how they handled the Iyad character. Now, the actress who played her, Marthe Keller, is hot enough to melt butter on Pluto, but apparently the 70's couldn't handle a chick as in control as Dahlia was in the book, and womaned her up in the movie. I found her diminished ass-kickery to be more than a little bit sexist. Maybe this one needs a remake...yeah...with Angelina Jolie as Iyad. That would be pretty good...
1. Frankie Faison is the only actor to appear in all of the "Lecter" films (save RISING, of course). Yes, he was even in MANHUNTER.
2. None of the films mention either of the two very interesting physical traits that Lecter has in the books, namely his maroon eye-color and the fact that he is a polydactyl: that he has six-fingers on his right hand. A fact that plays heavily in the novel Hannibal.
3. There is a character named Peterson in Silence of the Lambs, and one named Noonan in Hannibal. I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking they might be references to the two actors who were in MANHUNTER.
4. For some reason, the names of both Lecter's and Dolarhyde's characters were misspelled in MANHUNTER.
5. The tiger scene featuring Dolarhyde's blind would-be girlfriend is played to much better effect in MANHUNTER than it is in RED DRAGON. While I liked Emily Watson's portrayal better than Joan Allen's, the fact that in MANHUNTER they were able to sedate the tiger and in RED DRAGON they were not makes all the difference in the world.
6. Hopkins may own the role, but Brian Cox was the first Hannibal Lector. He is a fine actor, and must be given his due respect.
7. I still have some confusion over HANNIBAL RISING. Apparently, Thomas Harris wanted to write the script, and they let him, but he actually wrote the script before the book, and had to make revisions to it as he finished the book. Seems like an awfully strange and backward process, but considering that both products are pretty good, I'm not complaining.
EDIT: I completely forgot to address the tattoo issue. Like, the fact that Dolarhyde has a huge dragon on his back in the novel, and in RED DRAGON, but not in MANHUNTER. At first this seems like a huge oversight, but the fact is that they filmed scenes with Tom Noonan all painted up, but decided when watching the footage that it took away from the scene. I've seen a still of it, and I can understand: it looked like shite. The work done on Fiennes in RED DRAGON was top-notch, however.
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Every other Sunday
Eating the flesh of lesser film geeks since '72.
Zombie Boy is not a Hollywood insider, just a movie|
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