January 7, 2016


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Doorjamb Pinball Wizard: Pat Black

Thomas Harris wrote grim, scary novels about serial killers. His most famous creation, Hannibal Lecter, has become one of the most beloved monsters in popular fiction. He’ll nibble yer nubbins.

Harris hit the big time with Red Dragon (1981), introducing us to the dark, brooding FBI agent Will Graham. He’s in early retirement, an enforced career curtailment after he was filleted by the renowned psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter. Graham had a nasty encounter with the business end of a carpet knife after discovering that the doctor’s renowned culinary skills cut a little close to the bone.

Graham is called in by his old boss at the FBI to trace a killer known as the Tooth Fairy who breaks into family homes, kills everyone inside and then indulges his baroque fantasies at leisure.

Graham has a knack of finding such maniacs. It’s like a superpower – something in his mind which parallels that of a psychopath, his intuition closely matching their motivations.

The agent’s ongoing mental instabilities have a cause which goes beyond his trauma at the hands of Dr Lecter; Graham, as that articulate, cultured maniac recognises, is good at catching killers because he suffers from the same kind of compulsions as they do.

I’ve read Red Dragon twice, but it’s indistinguishable from the Michael Mann adaptation Manhunter to me. A very good film, but so eighties it hurts. Cue shots of William Petersen as Graham, staring moodily into the pale blue morning light, his face reflected in windows… backed by eighties synth.

Red Dragon has lots of big “thriller” moments, but its true horror is in its forensic detail of crime scenes. It’s well-researched, possibly in finer grain than we need. We don’t read about the initial crimes taking place, but we see their aftermath, up close. We go into the cold calculations needed to triangulate victims, motive and murderer. While the bodies are reduced to a forensic puzzle, Harris puts the victims’ humanity back into the book through the device of home-movies the families shot just before they were killed. Graham pores over these tapes of birthday parties and barbecues obsessively, trying to spot what might have attracted the Tooth Fairy.

There’s also a loathsome journalist, Freddy Lounds, who is enticed into helping out with the FBI’s investigation. Lounds’ fate was particularly interesting to me, given that Thomas Harris worked with the AP press agency for a number of years.

Red Dragon is not a whodunnit. We meet the killer, Dolarhyde, fairly quickly. When Dolarhyde meets a blind woman who takes a shine to him, something resembling humanity emerges. This doesn’t quite work. In reality someone like Dolarhyde would see Reba McClane as just another object to control and manipulate, and ultimately destroy. It was a sentimental touch from the author, a hint at something like personal redemption for his monster, something tragic. It’s contrived, and when Dolarhyde takes the blind woman to hug a tiger while the beast is under anaesthetic, it becomes clumsy.

But I can’t blame Harris for taking this turn. Everyone craves a little bit of light in something so appallingly dark.

The climax to the novel is a true shocker. Neither movie adaptation had the bottle to go through with it. If you remember Manhunter, you’ll recall Graham’s character diving through windows, his gun roaring with magic explosive bullets to kill the beast. Brett Ratner’s remake/reimagining/retread/reflux from a few years ago with Edward Norton ran very close to Harris’ original ending, but didn’t have the nerve to go all the way.

In both filmed versions, the brave knight slays the dragon, or helps to. Nietzsche quote epigram. Fade to moody blue.

Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon takes a different tack. Graham’s a victim, not a hero. It remains a deeply unsettling finale.

Red Dragon introduced Hannibal Lecter – polydactylous, maroon-eyed, a psychiatrist by day but a cannibal by night. He’s a caged beast, taking pleasure in taunting Graham from his cell. He even has a hand in the events that lead to the bloodbath in the beach house, ingeniously tipping off Dolarhyde, his former patient, as to where Graham lives. Lecter is the puppetmaster supreme.

The not-so-good doctor was a terrific supporting character, and arguably began a trope in Hollywood where heroes have a dialogue with an imprisoned antagonist (this appears again and again in superhero films). It’s a neat way of allowing deadly enemies to interact without recourse to fights or firearms.

Small wonder Harris returned to Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1988). From there, we might say his work went viral. It doesn’t hurt that a brilliant, and faithful, Hollywood adaptation appeared soon afterward, hoovering up Oscars left and right, giving an already successful book a kind of immortality.

Lambs follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling as she seeks help with her studies, meeting Lecter in his cell in the bowels of a secure unit. We know about their encounters almost by rote, now, thanks to Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins; their verbal jousts were instantly parodied in comedy shows and spoof movies, a sure indicator of great success. It’s a long-established cliché to say, “I remember Brian Cox as Lecter in Manhunter, and he was better”, but Anthony Hopkins’ performance got the medals, baby.

Although Lecter is urbane and gives the impression of being civilised, I can’t say that The Silence of the Lambs gave any hint that he is a romantic hero. He has a priggish concept of manners and propriety which wouldn’t be amiss in Downton Abbey. But for all that, he’s still a guy who butchers and eats people for a laugh.

Structurally, though, the narrative leans towards Lecter being a protagonist this time, not an antagonist. In tandem with Starling’s hunt for another maniac - the flaying/needlecraft expert Buffalo Bill - this story also looks at Lecter’s attempts to manipulate the system that contains him, and ultimately escape. It becomes his story as much as Starling’s.

This is similar to something I noticed about The Empire Strikes Back a few years ago. Vader, not Luke, is the tragic hero; searching obsessively for his lost son, letting nothing get in his way - and ultimately losing out. His dark heart’s true desire thwarted. Darth Valentino.

The Silence of the Lambs delved into psychotherapy territory – something we see again and again in the novels of the 1980s and 1990s, with characters attempting to get to the bottom of their own personalities and disorders as much as solving problems posed by the narrative. The apogee of this was Tim Burton’s Batman, its hero a walking therapy tutorial in fetish gear. In Lambs, Lecter cruelly exposes Starling’s character tics and failings, peeling away her defences as he uses scalpel-like insight to examine her childhood traumas.

Lecter takes a keen interest in Clarice beyond some latent professional curiosity. There is a note of sexuality - something that a gourmand like Lecter might pick out on the tip of his tongue - but no more than that. It flows in only one direction, if it’s present at all. You suspect that there’s a cerebral element to their dialogue that Lecter enjoys, and if a monster like him can truly feel tenderness towards another person, it’s of a strictly buttoned-up, almost Victorian variety. Lecter might well be a psychotic version of Hopkins’ character in The Remains of the Day.

In Lambs, there’s no question of these feelings being reciprocated by Starling. But that’s not to deny that some people could admire Lecter. Serial killers are notorious for drawing female attention after they’ve been found guilty and jailed. This is incomprehensible to most of us, but is undeniably true. An examination of the aberrant psychology involved might run something like this: There are some women in denial, who refuse to believe that such men could be guilty of these ghastly crimes, and seek to exonerate them. There are others who have a reforming zeal, who want to “claim” these lost souls and harness them into something better. And there are some who are simply turned on – seeing the serial killer as the ultimate alpha male in the pack, with his choice of mate.

Regardless of how true any of that is, none of these scenarios represent a mindset that we could project onto Starling with regard to Lecter.

That’s what makes the end of their story so astounding.

It’s about 16 years now since Hannibal (1999) was unleashed. Coming just before the Harry Potter hype machine really cranked up, the news Starling and Lecter would return in a sequel caused a frenzy in publishing at the time. But surely no-one, outside of grotesque fan fiction producers and consumers, could have seriously envisaged this pair ending up together.

Most people were expecting more of the same from Harris – Starling and Lecter’s paths crossing once again, a series of crimes that need solving and victims who need avenging, and then a final showdown. Not so.

Hannibal started out weird, got stranger, and ended up with a near laugh-out-loud finale. I was 23 when I read the paperback, and my first reaction to the final pages was stupefaction.

As the years have passed I’ve changed my tune. Hannibal is a masterpiece, an immense joke, a subversion of its genre, a true comedy in both form and content, and an underappreciated classic of its time.

Similar to what the late Wes Craven did to slasher films with Scream, Harris gleefully, deliberately sent up a genre he helped create. Instead of being played with or alluded to, the absurdity of Hannibal Lecter being portrayed as a hero was fully exploited. What was a mild, creepy hint in The Silence of the Lambs became the major component of the story which culminates in Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling consummating their relationship… and then dancing in the moonlight.

I can picture Harris’ initial meetings with agents and publishers, hands folded, a spotty handkerchief in his blazer pocket, eyes glittering.

“So, Tom, are we going to explore Starling and Lecter’s relationship in this book?”

“For sure.”

“And are we keeping in that hint that Lecter’s sweet on Starling?”

“Oh, I think we can manage a bit more than a hint.”

Standing ovation. What a pair of balls that took. I’ll never know how Harris got away with it. Maybe once you have an intellectual property that popular, you hold all the aces.

“I want to put Hannibal Lecter in space.”

“Sure thing, Tom. Whatever you say.”

Personally, I’d like to have seen this communion take place in an even more apt setting – the dinner table. Instead of f*cking Clarice, Lecter should have eaten her. Savouring every single morsel, taking infinite care in the preparation, agonising over what wine to use as an accompaniment. His magnum opus.

Even Ridley Scott, normally such an assured film-maker, didn’t know what to do with the property, getting his 2002 adaptation badly wrong. Jodie Foster - who, don’t forget, won an Oscar for playing Clarice Starling - stayed well away. We’ll never know if Scott wanted to film the ending as Harris wrote it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if studio bosses vetoed that idea. High-wire disembowellings, pigs eating people’s faces, flash-fried brain suppers… obviously, the violence is okay, but Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling becoming lovers and waltzing off stage like Fred and Ginger was a step too far. Leslie Nielsen, never mind Anthony Hopkins, should have taken the title role.

It comes across as a risible delusion of late-middle age; that a guy orbiting his twilight years can seem attractive to a beautiful, capable, clever woman in the prime of her life on account of his intelligence alone - ignoring some glaring deficiencies.

To be fair, there’s an element of Stockholm syndrome in Lecter and Clarice’s hook-up; a suggestion that her mind has disintegrated under conditioning and doping, with Lecter scooping up the pieces. But it was a breath-taking achievement to turn the third chapter of this very dark trilogy into an outright comedy, in form and execution.

That’s not to say Hannibal is a laugh riot. From its misty opening moments, when Lecter stalks Florence’s streets in his beautifully-cut clothes, with his perfect Italian and his imperious cultural knowledge, this king in exile is at the centre of a gothic horror. The bloody retribution carried out on the corrupt Florentine detective who figures out that the dapper professor is one of the FBI’s most wanted men is planned out from the very first page, a plot from a Poe story realised in a splash of entrails on ancient cobblestones.

From there, we meet poor old Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s former patients whom he persuaded to remove his own face after a special LSD-soaked therapy session. Verger has a twisted revenge in store – in the form of a buffet for man-eating pigs. Once news of Lecter’s whereabouts reaches Verger, a conspiracy is put in play to capture the not-so-good doctor, with Clarice Starling used as bait.

This book was sumptuous, meticulous in detail, but it has a sense of refinement and grandeur which I suspect its author failed to realise comes across as pompous. Lecter’s bilious balloon inflates and inflates and inflates, but never bursts. It’s common for superficial people – like psychopaths, I guess - to hold up something they enjoy as some kind of personal validation, whether that’s food, art, travel or, indeed, books, as compensation for their lack of human qualities. This comes across as exponentially silly with regard to Lecter.

“My god, this guy’s a one-man renaissance!”

Yeah. But he’s also a sordid, filthy murderer.

Perhaps these absurdities had to be addressed surreptitiously.

So, hats off to Thomas Harris. Had this book been about Starling and Lecter hunting each other, and then perhaps a confrontation which left Lecter dead and Starling glowering into the moody blue dawn, with some eighties synth parping away in the background… I’d have forgotten about it already.

Harris’ great joke of a novel beautifully subverts what I think is a problematic construct: Hannibal Lecter as hero. Added to this is the troubling idea that we should admire someone because they crack open a book now and again, or can recite some poetry… despite the fact they’re off-the-charts evil. It’s an entertaining book, but it also laughs in your face.

Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. For some, Lecter may well be a hero. I’m sure Harris didn’t intend him to be as such, but if you create a monster, then some people will worship it.

Making a killer into someone to root for is problematic, if not exactly dangerous. Lecter’s not quite a cartoon character like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees; his crimes are fabricated and given the exaggeration of mainstream fiction, but of course, multiple murderers are a grim reality. I think I preferred Red Dragon’s clinical examination of these monsters to Hannibal’s operatic stylings.

However, in the 15 years since I read Hannibal, the technological revolution has changed our ideas of evil in society. Hannibal Lecter, with his private mania and hidden compulsions, the bodies of his victims strewn around for detectives to solve like an Edwardian parlour game, comes across as dated. Watching The Silence of the Lambs again is like when you stumble over an old episode of Friends, and the gang’s haircuts, make-up and pop culture references look like old hat. (“I scored some tickets for Hootie and the Blowfish!”) With a jolt, you’re aware how much time has passed, how much things have changed.

Consider that in the past few weeks we’ve seen a disturbed man shoot two people dead, live on television, before broadcasting his own footage on the internet for anyone who didn’t catch it first time around. Even in the early 1990s, this activity would have been restricted to sci-fi novels. We’re into an era where murderous fantasies can be facilitated and distributed by technology within seconds of it happening. Someone, somewhere, is making money off all those clicks. We have become consumers of murder.

The blame is the same: it rests on individuals. But ever since 9/11 - the nightmare that we saw in so much detail that we can almost imagine we were actually there - grim death, terror and even the most graphic, sadistic killings are now in our faces. Sitting there, right now, you’re only a rogue search engine keystroke away from humanity’s darkest depths. Things so bad we couldn’t even imagine them, until we saw them. And it can only get worse. How long before we get a complete first-person perspective gun massacre, a video game nightmare come true?

There may come a time when we look to Hannibal Lecter’s evil as a reflection of a more innocent time. Like Dracula, he will become a safe monster, to be played with and then stored away in his box at bedtime. Someone to dress up as at Halloween. No harm done. 

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