Published Feb 01, 2001Reclusive and snail-paced author Thomas Harris doesn't appear to like having his books turned into movies. At least that's what the evidence provided by his latest, "Hannibal," would suggest. Although cannibal Hannibal Lecter was introduced to the film world in Michael Mann's 1986 film "Manhunter" (an adaptation of Harris's second book "Red Dragon," and starring Brian Cox as the former psychiatrist who enjoys dining on his patients), he chewed his way into mainstream consciousness in 1991 when "Silence of the Lambs" merged subtle performances and artful direction with enough creepy spookiness to fill an even dozen "Scream" flicks.
But Harris doesn't seem to be much taken with Lecter's big screen success. Otherwise, why would he have written a book that, in the course of getting it onto celluloid, drove away "Lamb"'s Oscar-winning director, Jonathan Demme and star, Jodie Foster, who was apparently appalled that the new story took such liberties with the very spirit of her do-gooder FBI agent Clarice Starling?
But nothing will stop Hollywood from following up big success, no matter what it takes; once Anthony Hopkins agreed to reprise his own Oscar-winning role as the good Doctor Lecter, there was no turning back, although the effort turned the stomachs and hearts of numerous screenwriters who attempted to tackle the adaptation. (The phenomenal and expensive! one-two punch of David Mamet and Steven Zaillian get final credit.) Hot director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") is behind the camera, and the fab Julianne Moore straps on the no-longer-so-shiny FBI badge of Clarice Starling.
Although the gore, and particularly the ending of Harris's novel are amongst the biggest challenges in the film, the reason why the whole thing fails to cohere, and in fact seems oddly boring and nausea-inducing at the same time, is the fundamental shift in focus, putting the spotlight squarely on Hannibal himself.
Hannibal has always been best as potential, not actual evil. His role in both "Red Dragon"/ "Manhunter" and "Silence of the Lambs" was as the epitome of darkness, a pill that various investigators needed to swallow in order to serve the greater good, soliciting his expertise in crime-solving even while they were sickened by his culinary habits. This duality made him a temporary hero in "Lambs," and the success of the film lies in part in the twisted enjoyment of cheering for the means of a villain in order to support the ends of justice.
Ten years after, Hannibal is no longer worth cheering for, and the extremes of his appetites will have you losing yours before the screening is over. (Be thankful if it's only your appetite and not your lunch you end up losing.) Lecter is in hiding in Italy while Clarice Starling is having some career trouble back at home. Lecter wants to get back in the game, and no one wants to flush him out of hiding more than his only living victim, revenge-seeking bazillionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) who sports an eaten-away face and wheelchair-bound lifestyle courtesy of Hannibal. Verger uses Starling as bait to draw out Lecter, but not before the Doctor gets some good old-fashioned disembowelling out of the way.
Which brings us to the gore. The most effective violence is always that which happens off screen a lesson first learned by filmmakers seeking to get edgy work past censors, but there are thousands of examples: the ear slice in "Reservoir Dogs," the lion's share of pummelling in Guy Ritchie's "Snatch," any given episode of "The Sopranos." It's a long list, one that a skilled director like Ridley Scott should not need.
Admittedly, the gore is often straight from the pages of the book; a discussion of the differences between gore in literature and in movies isn't worth embarking upon. And the film has (as it must) moved away from the ending of the book as written the last 50 pages of the novel read like a dare to filmmakers. But as much as possible Mason Verger's face, his man-eating pigs (Guy Ritchie got there first, too), Hannibal's appetites, and an extreme ending for Ray Liotta's FBI sleaze the film keeps a close eye on the book, as if playing chicken with Harris's more disgusting moments.
The result is also a dare to the stomachs of cineplex-bound film patrons looking for a scare, not a hurl. There's little worth cheering about, or even vicariously enjoying, in Hopkins' pretentious, nasty Lecter. Julianne Moore steps carefully in the footprints left by Jodie Foster, but the meat of the role has already been fed to well, to Hannibal, probably. And while the adaptation cuts to the quick in terms of streamlining unnecessary subplots and distractions, the chain-smoking, self-serving Italian cop (played with beautifully slouching style by Giancarlo Giannini) who gets on Hannibal's case, is over all too soon.
Morbid curiosity might draw you to a film like this, but despite the taboos the film is breaking, this isn't "brave" filmmaking it's only a desperate attempt to scare by shocking images with a protagonist that used to shock with scary ideas.