Thomas Harris has gotten more mileage out of his various novels about Hannibal Lecter than I'll wager he ever expected, and like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, I'm guessing Harris has a complicated relationship with his most iconic and memorable creation.
I was introduced to Lecter in Michael Mann's “Manhunter,” and I immediately went out and found the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon” and read that, and it was clear to me immediately that Harris had found the perfect way to examine and comment on the way our pop culture is fascinated by human monsters. The movie wasn't a hit, but one of the advantages to working in a movie theater as a teenager was that I got to see things on the bigscreen for free as many times as I could sneak in during their run. I saw “Manhunter” four or five times, and then watched chunks of it while working. I saw the ending at least two dozen times. Minimum.
Did you know Gene Hackman was going to direct “Silence Of The Lambs” at one point? He was the first person to be attached to the book after it was released. I was really excited about the adaptation, but irritated that they weren't going to Michael Mann to allow him to continue, since he did such a strong job getting “Manhunter” right. But the idea of Hackman directing the film and playing Lecter was intriguing when it was announced, and I was actually sad to read that he was moving on and that he wouldn't be making the film. Jonathan Demme seemed like such a weird choice for the job, but I thought he'd always been great with actors, and for “Silence” to work, you'd need actors who could just sit and play this little one-act play in a locked off space and make it captivating. I can't imagine what the film would have been like if Demme had cast Sean Connery, who was the first person he wanted for the part. Connery was about four years into his big pop culture resurgence, and I can't help but wonder what kind of insane threat he would have presented if he'd played the character as written.
I thought the remake of “Red Dragon” was pointless, and I've only ever seen it once, which is a testament to how I felt. And don't get me wrong… I'm not opposed to the idea of going back to adapt something again. Bryan Fuller's work on “Hannibal” proves that there was plenty left to do with the character, and even with the telling of the “Red Dragon” storyline. That's not the issue. The issue is that Brett Ratner didn't do enough to distinguish his film from other versions. It feels like a very able imitation, without any true personality. Fuller's version is rich and weird as hell and turns up some of the subtext to the level of text. Directors Neil Marshall and John Dahl both worked with the “Red Dragon” material, and either one of those guys would be more than qualified to tackle a feature version of Lecter as well.
Matthew Morettini's supercut of all of the versions of one particular scene from “Red Dragon,” as played by each of the actors who has tackled the part so far, is a beautiful thing. What surprised me is how jarringly hammy Hopkins is in the part compared to the other performers. Brian Cox underplays things, but there's no mistaking just how gross and slimy he is with even the most innocuous comment. Mikkelson is phenomenal in the part, an alien intelligence studying and occasionally imitating humanity without possessing even a hint of it.
I don't often like these supercut videos, but this one is special, and put together with real nuance. It's sort of amazing.
It's a shame we'll now likely never see how Fuller would have handled Clarice Starling, or follow through to new material, possibly even eventually fulfilling a promise it felt like Harris made to his readers and then broke. Think about the story structure… you do “Red Dragon,” where Will is finally broken by Lecter and has to go away to recover. Then you do “Silence,” where Clarice is introduced and Lecter escapes. The logical next step is a piece in which Will and Clarice have to work together to find Hannibal and stop him. That's just good storytelling. It felt like Harris was repulsed by what happened when “Silence” came out and became a phenomenon, though, and “Hannibal” reads like an extended middle finger from the author, an outright refusal to give the audience anything they wanted.
The fact that I can get this irritated about it all over again just thinking about the potential that it feels like Harris squandered should speak volumes about the hold that these characters have. What a great way of examining all of the approaches actors have made at bringing Lecter to horrifying life.