Ridley Scott’s lush 2001 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal was both a beneficiary and a victim of its predecessor’s success. The triumph of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-festooned 1991 adaptation of Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs—and the public’s enduring fascination with its flesh-eating psychiatrist villain, Hannibal Lecter—all but ensured that the film would be a runaway hit. And, sure enough, Hannibal was a smash, grossing more than $165 million domestically and more than $350 million internationally, numbers that don’t include home video, where it also enjoyed substantial popularity.
But Silence Of The Lambs’ phenomenal success also ensured Hannibal would reside in the earlier film’s shadow, a poor relation at best, a crass desecration at worst. I tend to write about movies like that an awful lot here at Forgotbusters: movies based on stars or properties so ubiquitous and popular that the films’ success was preordained, no matter how bad or forgettable they were. In that respect, a better name for this column might be Inevitabusters or Regretbusters, since in many cases, the culture has halfheartedly spent the years since the films’ initial release pretending we didn’t make these films huge hits.
Silence Of The Lambs was itself a continuation of an ongoing story, and the second film to prominently feature Hannibal Lecter following 1986’s Manhunter, which cast Brian Cox as the epicurean-minded madman and William Petersen as obsessed FBI agent Will Graham. Manhunter was as inspired and brilliant in its own way as Silence Of The Lambs, but it was such a pronounced commercial failure that Demme didn’t have to worry about competing with audiences’ memories of a film few people had seen at the time. Cox’s take on Lecter (who was named Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter for reasons no one seems to understand) was substantially different than Anthony Hopkins’. It was a chillier, more restrained and detached performance. But in the minds of moviegoers, studios, and the public at large, Hopkins essentially originated the role.
Hopkins’ Lecter captured the public’s imagination and transformed the doctor into a household name, a legendary monster and a comic figure whose propensity for devouring human flesh “with fava beans and a nice chianti” became the fodder of late-night jokes and even a parody titled Silence Of The Hams, starring Dom DeLuise as the Lecter figure.
Silence Of The Lambs made Hannibal Lecter an insanely lucrative name destined to make the money hairs on studio executives’ necks go woo-woo- woo, but it also made him a joke. When Billy Crystal was wheeled out by “orderlies” at the beginning of the Academy Awards in 1992—where the film triumphed in many of the major awards—wearing a replica of Lecter’s famous mask, it was the year’s most obvious joke. And like most obvious jokes delivered by Crystal, it was rapturously received, even as it pointed out just how defanged and comic the famous villain had become.
We live in such an anti-intellectual society that Hannibal Lecter might very well be our most beloved intellectual, with the possible exception of Adlai Stevenson and/or Niles Crane. A character conceived as a terrifying villain was instead embraced as a charismatic antihero, and the popular subject/dispenser of cannibalism-themed jokes. The public loved Lecter more than is probably healthy, and angrily demanded more of his ongoing adventures in fine dining and vivisection. There was such a fever for more Lecter movies that the great Italian vulgarian Dino De Laurentiis bought the film rights for Hannibal, Harris’ 1999 Silence Of The Lambs sequel, for $10 million before the book was even released, and that’s back when $10 million was still a lot of money. The demand for more Hannibal The Cannibal was so extreme that Stephen King’s glowing New York Times review of Hannibal—which refers to Lecter as “the greatest fictional monster of our time”—includes the sentence, “Were I the book’s editor, I would argue very strongly for flap copy consisting of only three words: HERE IT IS.”
There were a few problems, however. The book was long and packed with incident. Also, the book was frothing-at-the-mouth insane. It took the kind of perverse liberties with characters more common to the anything-goes world of fan fiction than the high-stakes world of mass-market publishing and big-budget studio filmmaking, where commercial considerations are paramount, and people have very concrete ideas about how established characters should behave.
To give a sense of the novel’s pulpiness, one of its supporting characters is a lesbian bodybuilder named Margot Verger, who works for her grotesquely disfigured, violent pedophile older brother Mason—even though he molested her as a child—because she needs to procure some of his semen so she can impregnate her lover and make her claim on the Verger estate. Margot ultimately anally violates Mason with a cattle prod, then murders him by shoving his beloved pet eel down his throat. When it comes to the novel’s gauntlet of outrageous characters and lurid subplots, Margot is the rule rather than the exception. This is comic-strip Grand Guignol, a literary giallo that delights in pushing the limits. Understandably, Margot didn’t make it into the film version of Hannibal, but plenty of similarly bizarre stuff did, including a scene where a man eats pieces of his own brain.
Bear in mind that this happened in the sequel to a novel whose film adaptation won all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. (Adapted, in this instance.) The Academy said Silence Of The Lambs represented the pinnacle of the art form, and Harris followed up its source material with a novel involving characters like Margot. Silence Of The Lambs was also fundamentally pulp involving a cannibalistic serial killer and a second serial killer who murdered women and was sewing their skins into a suit, but the filmmaking elevated it to the level of art, and those Academy Awards and the caliber of the cast and crew gave it tremendous prestige.
Then Harris took the tony moneymaking franchise in a lurid, hyperbolic direction, daring the filmmakers who threw $10 million his way to follow his strange, jagged, excessive path. In the novel’s most controversial twist, Hannibal Lecter, mass murderer and foodie, and Clarice Starling, straight-arrow FBI agent, become lovers. And that only happens after Lecter unsuccessfully attempts to brainwash Clarice into believing she’s his beloved, long-dead sister. And after the two of them dine on the brain of one of Clarice’s still-living colleagues. (It should be noted that he’s a real jerk, and consequently deserves it.)
That’s an awful lot to process, just as an audience member. It’s hard to imagine how Jodie Foster must have felt about Clarice’s curious evolution. It may have struck her as a bit of an odd turn, and also a bizarre violation of everything the character represented as a strong, independent feminist role model. The novel was so extreme that in a town that worships success, nearly the entire original creative team behind Silence Of The Lambs declined to return. According to a piece in The Guardian, Demme found the novel excessively “lurid,” while original screenwriter Ted Tally just found it excessive. There are conflicting reports as to why Foster said no. De Laurentiis claims she simply demanded too much money, whereas in a 2007 interview with Total Film, she said the character of Clarice meant so much to her and Demme that they didn’t want to do anything that would “trample” on her. So the seemingly plum role was given to another great actress, Julianne Moore; Hopkins recommended her after working on Surviving Picasso with her.
Moore and Foster have similar personas. They’re both brilliant at playing damaged, fragile women with tremendous inner strength. That seems to make each of them perfect for the role of the conflicted Clarice Starling. Hannibal claims she holds the world record for the female FBI agent who’s shot and killed the most people. (Who even knew the Guinness folks were monitoring it that closely?) And yet she radiates anger and uncertainty. She’s all the more heroic for constantly having to overcome her fear.
Foster was perfect for the role. The vulnerability she brought to the part was a big part of what made the film so resonant. She defined the character to such an extent that when Moore communicates in clipped, brusque cadences in a Southern drawl, she seems to be imitating Foster’s performance rather than playing the character Harris wrote. Moore’s borrowing of Foster’s mannerisms is distracting in the early going, and then the character essentially disappears from the narrative for long stretches while the focus shifts to male characters, only to reappear in the climax as a damsel in distress who needs Lecter to save her. At one point, Lecter even carries Clarice in his arms in a near-perfect replication of the famous image of Kevin Costner carrying Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard. That’s a pretty twisted, unfortunate fate for one of the greatest, strongest heroines in film.
Foster probably opted out of reprising her career-defining role because she was understandably wary of a sequel to Silence Of The Lambs that doesn’t have much use for Clarice Starling as anything other than a catalyst to get Hannibal Lecter back in action. But while De Laurentiis encountered a level of “nos” seemingly unthinkable for a big-budget, wildly anticipated sequel to a movie that won so many Oscars, he scored the only “yes” that mattered when Anthony Hopkins agreed to return.
There would be no Hannibal without Hopkins. Lecter is the film. Hopkins doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the proceedings, but he dominates Hannibal to such an extent that it somehow feels like he’s in every scene; the character’s shadow hangs heavy over every moment, even when he’s completely absent. It’s the Poochie Effect in action: When Hannibal isn’t physically onscreen, everyone has to be talking about him, or at the very least, thinking about him.
Clarice and Hannibal don’t reconnect physically until late into the third act, but in many of her early scenes, she’s seen listening to tapes of Hannibal talking, inserting his legend into scenes where it wouldn’t make sense for him to be present. When Moore stubbornly fails to make the role her own, it’s probably because there’s almost always an invisible heart-shaped thought bubble floating above her character’s head, with a glamour shot of dreamy Hannibal Lecter inside it.
At least in her first scene, Clarice has reason to think about things other than that brilliant Hannibal Lecter and her endlessly fascinating student/mentor, father/daughter, deranged cannibalistic serial killer/driven FBI agent bond with him. The film introduces Clarice in a high-stakes, PTSD-inducing raid that goes awry. It climaxes with her fatally shooting a machine-gun-toting drug dealer, splattering her blood and viscera all over the infant she’s carrying.
Clarice’s public disgrace over organizing the botched raid attracts the attention of Lecter, who has been hanging out in Europe incognito. Hannibal and Clarice’s relationship often takes the form of a warped courtship, and when he writes witheringly to Clarice about how the botched raid will lead to her dying useless and unimportant like her white-trash mother, it feels like a love letter, or at least pop-culture’s most extended and elaborate instance of “negging.” Cruelly exploiting Clarice’s fear of ending up like her parents is simply Hannibal’s way of letting her know he still thinks about her.
Hopkins plays Lecter as a man whose incredible contempt for every facet of humanity is only matched by the exquisite, almost sensual pleasure he derives from expressing that hatred. But he’s also a moralist, in that he feels transgressions should be punished in the most extreme manner imaginable. When Hannibal kills people in Hannibal, it’s because they’ve done something wrong—or, in the case of arch-nemesis Mason Verger, done everything wrong.
A man of infinite wealth, power, and depravity, Verger (Gary Oldman) also had the misfortune to have Hannibal Lecter assigned as his court-appointed therapist. Lecter prompted Verger to take a popper one debauched evening, then suggested he carve off his own face with shards of broken glass and feed it to his dogs, which I can’t help but feel violates the Hippocratic Oath. Verger regrettably followed Lecter’s suggestion, leading him to so grotesquely disfigure himself that he now sports what appears to be a small porcelain doll head where his face should be. He’s a hideous ghoul of a man, but he retains a sense of humor about the experience, quipping to insane-asylum attendant Barney Matthews (Frankie Faison, returning from the first film) about his unfortunate exercise in homemade facial surgery, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As Verger, Oldman delivers the line with a hilariously incongruous glibness that embodies the film’s approach to its source material. By giving an almost inconceivably grotesque tableau a winking punchline, the film harnesses the nightmare-inducing power of Harris’ novel while maintaining a certain ironic distance. If a dude who carved off his own face with shards of jagged glass in a drug-induced haze can laugh about the experience, why shouldn’t we?
“The public loved Lecter more than is probably healthy, and angrily demanded more of his ongoing adventures in fine dining and vivisection.”
Verger uses his connections to get Clarice back on the Lecter case in hopes that her involvement will lure him out of hiding and expose him to Verger’s minions, who want to collect on a $3 million bounty for his capture. Lecter, meanwhile, is hanging out in Florence, where he meets put-upon Rinaldo Pazzi (an entertaining Giancarlo Giannini), a corrupt law-enforcement agent who figures out Lecter’s true identity and sets out to collect the reward for himself, with bleak consequences. Clarice’s sexist, boorish, utterly loathsome colleague Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) also sets out to collect the bounty and ends up suffering an even more sinister fate for his greed.
The luridness of the source material puts the filmmakers in a tough place tonally. If they play up the craziness to the hilt, they risk making an insane fan-fiction parody of Silence Of The Lambs—kind of like following up a world-beating classic like The Exorcist with a world-class mind-fuck like The Exorcist II: The Heretic. But if they don’t acknowledge the premise’s outrageousness, even in watered-down form, they risk making a stone-faced camp classic where all the laughs are unintentional. So the filmmakers choose a surprisingly effective middle path by approaching the material not as pulp, but as opera, where a certain level of craziness is expected, even demanded.
In one of the film’s morbid running jokes, Verger regularly checks in with the folks tending to the farm where his man-eating killer sows are being raised, in order to make sure that they’re sufficiently blood-crazed. Verger wants to make absolutely sure that when he finally succeeds in luring his arch-nemesis into their midst, the psychotic wild sows don’t all start cuddling with Hannibal, assuming he’s their new mommy. That would be a terrible waste of a diligently cultivated evil scheme.
The filmmakers give the film an epic scope, as dueling supervillains Lecter and Verger act out a gory game of revenge in a vast, cruel universe far beyond the petty ministrations of the law or the dictates of conventional morality—a sick, decadent, unmistakably European world where spectacular beauty collides with unthinkable depravity. Hopkins’ Lecter had unmistakably devolved into shtick by this point, but it’s a good shtick, even when the character veers into self-parody. At his weakest, Hannibal Lecter comes off like the thinking man’s version of Jigsaw from Saw, another effete hyper-moralist in a madman’s garb, given to windy proclamations about the fundamental nature of the world and its inhabitants, delivered from a place of wholly unearned moral superiority. At other times, he comes off like a homicidal J.D. Salinger, a famed recluse whose every appearance and utterance is a source of enduring fascination to a world that imagines he possesses some strange, secret knowledge beyond the comprehension of lesser souls.
It’s a testament to how deeply, thoroughly insane Hannibal is that Verger wanting Hannibal to be devoured by man-eating sows isn’t even its pulpiest element. No, that curious distinction belongs to a scene where Hannibal lobotomizes Krendler and serves him parts of his own brain. It’s astonishing that an ending where Verger is devoured by the very pigs he bred to eat Lecter, and an FBI agent eats bits of his own brain, actually represents a dramatically watered-down version of the book’s ending, which entailed hot Lecter-on-Starling action, brainwashing, and cattle-prod sodomy.
Hannibal didn’t repeat its predecessor’s triumph at the Academy Awards, but making a movie based on Harris’ novel that was both palatable to a mainstream audience and surprisingly entertaining is an impressive accomplishment in its own right. Harris’ Hannibal took beloved characters further than even the Oscar-winning likes of Foster, Tally, and Demme were willing to go. Scott’s version pulled back from its source material’s delirious extremes, but it’s still strangely affecting, even unnerving. Perhaps that’s why the film doesn’t tend to get talked about too much these days, even as the Hannibal Lecter money train kept rolling happily right along, first with Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, then with the film prequel Hannibal Rising, and now with NBC’s Hannibal TV series. Even for fans of a book, film, and now television series about a cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal was a bit much. That isn’t the kind of thing that wins Oscars, but in our jaded day and age, it’s certainly something.
Up next: Jack