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HANNIBAL: Soldiers Ate My Sister

Thomas Harris reveals hatred for fans who have embraced Hannibal

By Denise Dumars     October 20, 1999

The oeuvre of the Hannibal Lecter stories begs to be psychoanalyzed as Dr. Lecter himself would do. Because some familiarity with the character of Hannibal 'the Cannibal' Lecter is absolutely vital to the understanding of Harris's long-awaited novel HANNIBAL, the third volume of what never should have been a trilogy, a brief history of the previous volumes must come first.

At this summer's Stoker Awards dinner, author Art Cover started talking about MANHUNTER, a Michael Mann film that calmly came and went in 1986. Based on the 1981 novel RED DRAGON, the first novel by Thomas Harris to include the serial killer psychiatrist, MANHUNTER is a subtle, brooding, and very scary film. The story features a more interesting serial killer for Lecter to help dissect (only
mentally, unfortunately) than does Silence of the Lambs. Both RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS follow the same formula, more or less: a serial killer with a very bizarre M.O. is on the loose, and the incarcerated Dr. Lecter is called upon to help with the profiling. In RED DRAGON, the serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, dubbed 'the Tooth Fairy' by the cops, is, like like most of Harris's characters (including Lecter, we later find out), traumatized by events in his childhood. He makes us squirm at the thought that someone like him might be processing our snapshots, and have access to the personal information obtained from them. Lecter, however, does not have as big a role in this book as in its sequel. We have to wait for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for Lecter's full fictional realization.

The 1988 novel SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, made into a film by director Jonathan Demme in 1991, is a spectacular success. The novel features Lecter in a prominent role as he psychoanalyzes and mindfucks rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling as she tries to persuade him to help her catch the novel's Ed Gein-like killer. Jame Gumb, dubbed 'Buffalo Bill' by the cops as they are wont to do (at least in Thomas Harris novels), is somewhat old hat to well-read horror fans cognizant of the origins ofRobert Bloch's Norman Bates character, for example. The general public was creeped out by Buffalo Bill but even more so by the man Starling chooses to help catch him--Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

SILENCE is truly a can't-put-it-down novel. While Jame Gumb is creepy and makes the reader cringe at his pursuit of enough female skin to make his 'girl suit,' he never quite frightens us the way Lecter does. Lecter is one of the most terrifying literary characters ever brought to life on the page. He is a frightfully intelligent, highly cultured, somewhat feline European within an arm's reach of whom no one dare come, lest he or she risk having his or her face chewed off. Indeed, Lecter is kept in a dungeon-like ward of a hospital for the criminally insane, in permanent isolation--yet not so far away from other cells that he can't influence their inhabitants' lives (and deaths). Though he may read Poetry magazine and like good music, he cannot be trusted to be in the same room with any other living soul. When he is moved, he is, for the safety of his attendants, put into total restraints, including a hockey-mask type muzzle. And since he is the smartest person in the book, when he is taken out of his cell, he does escape, and is still on the loose by the end of the story, making it possible for the novel HANNIBAL to exist.

Anthony Hopkins played Lecter with a mixture of feline grace and satanic intensity in the film version, and the rest, as they say, is history. In fact, his portrayal was so convincing that it is easy to visualize Hopkins as the Lecter of Hannibal. Underrated actor Ted Levine portrayed the Geinian Jame Gumb--I'll never forget Levine's basso voice asking an unwitting victim, 'You're what, about a size 14?' And while Jodie Foster evoked in her role as Clarice Starling the perfect combination of competence and vulnerability, there is no trace of the Clarice we've come to know and love in HANNIBAL--and Foster would never stoop to play the person Harris reduces her to in his misbegotten last novel of the trilogy.

With Lecter on the loose, HANNIBAL deviates from the formula formula of its predecessors, and perhaps that's the first problem Harris was faced with in writing this book. Why else would it have taken him 11 years to complete it? And to say that this book was highly anticipated is putting it mildly--very mildly. Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore in San Diego, California, held a slumber party the night before the book was to go on sale. After midnight, they held candlelit readings from it. All the anticipation, perhaps, was part of the problem. The book could never have lived up to mounting expectations. It was doomed, therefore, from the start.

You first know something is wrong when you meet Mason Verger. Now, it's kind of hard to have a scary bad guy seem menacing when he can't leave the confines of his iron lung. You see, Dr. Lecter had 'treated' him at one time, given him LSD, and made him eat his own face. So, oooh, he looks really spooky. Verger--who is, conveniently, independently wealthy--knows that Lecter is on the loose, and is determined to find him before the FBI does, in order to have his fun with him. Verger also has a gay sister, who is basically just a stereotypical butch dyke. There's no Jame Gumb or Francis Dolarhyde to menace us in this book. The only serial killer on the loose is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and that's a bit of a problem. Why? He's the novel's protagonist.

In this day and age of casual mass murders and school massacres, I don't have to explain how offensive it is to have a serial killer as a novel's protagonist. And it smacks of bad slasher movies, too; all the Freddy and Jason and Michael Meyers who morph from monster to joke in just a couple of sequels. Tastes great, less filling. We can jeer at the revised version of Freddy; would that we could take the Lecter of HANNIBAL so lightly. We can't; he is simply too serious a character to gloss over in this fashion.

Most of the book takes place in Italy (can you say, 'Let's go to Europe and write it off?'), where we get a lesson in art history from Dr. Lecter. We get culinary lessons and fashion tips, too. Imagine a homicidal Tom Wolfe. Good grief. One of the big disappointments in HANNIBAL is the supposed rationale for Lecter's curious status as bon vivant, intellectual, and rabid pit bull. The reader's intelligence is insulted: deserting WWII soldiers ate his sister back home in Latvia or wherever the hell it was, and we're supposed to accept this spurious pop-psychologizing as a way of explaining Lecter's peculiar pathology? Or is it just another detail thrown in for the gross-out? The book is full of them. Take the devolution of Clarice Starling, for example.

Bright, competent, hard-working, lovely Clarice, who has overcome her own childhood demons, begins the book in a precarious position. She's there to take into custody a notorious drug dealer--and is forced to shoot her. This forms the impetus for a crooked FBI supervisor to engineer Clarice's downfall as an FBI agent. What happens to this man in the end is like something from a Herschel Gordon Lewis script. Almost as soon as we are re-introduced to her, Starling is on the defensive, and her situation degenerates from there until at the end, she is nothing more than a passive plaything for Dr. Lecter--a mesmerized
Christine Daae to his Phantom, only far more degraded. Hannibal's memory palace is an interesting place to visit, but none of us would want to live there. I can't accept that Clarice has become a resident, any more than I am willing to believe that Lecter could have a 'normal' relationship with a woman--even a heavily-medicated one. Harris's portrayal of women in the book is shameful, reducing them to stereotypes and victims at every turn. Not what I would expect from someone with the talent and skill of Mr. Harris.

And Harris has made it very clear in this book that he is not interested in a filmization. His hatred of Hollywood comes out loud and clear in the novel, and just in case it wasn't clear enough, he manages to have a sleazy filmmaker character fed to the pigs that were meant to feed on Dr. Lecter. Oops! I gave something away again. But then, even this review's title is a spoiler.

But I do have to say that I was, at least temporarily, seduced by Dr. Lecter's ferocious intelligence, impeccable taste, and the damaged and tortured soul within. And that's a testament to Harris's skill as an author; he can still pull rabbits out of hats, impress us--but he can also make us feel dirty. I think what we have here, really, is a case of, as is common with actors and rock stars, a star hating his fans. And that's no way to treat us. If Harris couldn't write a third Lecter opus any better than this, he should have had the courage to forego the huge advance and write something else instead.

I like to think that even Hannibal Lecter would have had that much integrity.


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