Hannibal Degrades in His Earlier Years

I just finished Silence of the Lambs, a reread for me, but it was a read that came after the movie—my absolute favorite. For a long time, I thought the novel by Thomas Harris was one of those rare cases where the movie surpassed the book, but it’s probably because the movie is filtered through the female viewpoint, psychological horror where the female protagonist solves the mystery and is the hero. I enjoyed the novel, but it was nowhere near the level of the movie with its two famous portraits of evil (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb) and the two strong ladies who are determined to overcome it (Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Brooke Smith’s Catherine Martin). The movie version condenses events, rearranges them, and makes Lecter like Jaws—a menace getting about ten minutes of actual screen time, but the one who also underpins the entire story.

 

Lecter’s scary, but there are so many other elements that work in the story, making it transcend the horror genre. One of the biggies are strong female characters who aren’t accessories for men. Clarice Starling is presented in both the book and movie as a steely recruit for the FBI. She’s ambitious but also vulnerable because of her inexperience and a difficult past. Foster says that Clarice Starling is still the best role she’s ever had and that’s something, coming from a woman who’s spent her whole life in the film industry. In the book, Starling is what puts the plot into motion after spurning the advances of Dr. Chilton, the man in charge of Hannibal Lecter. Harris captures Starling’s quick perceptions but also her awareness of herself as a woman and how she can use that in her career:

“She saw his bleak refrigerator, the crumbs on the TV tray where he ate alone, the still piles his things stayed in for months until he moved them—she felt the ache of his whole yellow-smiling Sen-Sen lonesome life—and switchblade-quick she knew not to spare him, not to talk on or look away. She stared into his face, and with the smallest tilt of her head, she gave him her good looks and bored her knowledge in, speared him with it, knowing he couldn’t stand for the conversation to go on.”

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This is glossed over quickly in the scene where Dr. Chilton is introduced in the movie Silence of the Lambs, and instead the movie’s heart lies in the twisted mentoring relationship that exists between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. Lecter also can’t abide Chilton, who doesn’t have a medical degree and uses his proximity to the cannibal psychiatrist to further his own career (this first comes up in Red Dragon).

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Recently I started watching the TV series Hannibal with my sister, and I liked the first few episodes. It was interesting to see the period of time when Hannibal was practicing as a psychiatrist and perhaps committing the first few kills that would eventually land him in Chilton’s psychiatric hospital. But now the series is really starting to piss me off because it’s screwing around with the Hannibal Lecter canon and destroying the original character that Harris built.

At first, I was annoyed because each episode dealt with a new serial killer, and I found that completely unrealistic. If a story is set in a zombie apocalypse, I expect there to be a lot of zombies. But Hannibal is set in contemporary times where there are only supposed to be about forty or so active serial killers at any time in the United States. Yet every episode I’ve watched of Hannibal features a new serial killer that the FBI and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) are dealing with. And these serial killers borrow heavily from the imagery associated with Hannibal’s later crimes; unless there is a plot twist from hell coming up, this pretty much makes Lecter look like a copycat.

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What Lecter does in Silence of the Lambs.

Another serial killer's work in prequel series Hannibal.

Another serial killer’s work in prequel series Hannibal.

 

The series also takes the great lines from Silence of the Lambs and repurposes them for the current story, saving nothing for later. Dr. Chilton has been brought in to work with the FBI when authorities would never have dealt with this bozo in the first place, according to the original canon. A pseudo Clarice has also been produced and almost immediately catches Lecter out through his sloppiness. All of these plot lines aren’t true to the characters as I know them, and I’m just barely halfway through the first season of Hannibal. I don’t see how the series can sustain itself much longer, and I know I’ve got to quit watching these episodes because I just get madder and madder with each one, turning into one of those comic book purists.

Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris is one of those rare reclusive writers who doesn’t like to give interviews, but at some point he sold the film rights of Hannibal Lecter to Hollywood maven Dino De Laurentiss. Later, after Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, and Red Dragon, De Laurentiss supposedly threatened to film a prequel to Hannibal’s story with or without Harris’s help, which spurred the writer to write Hannibal Rising.

 

I guess that wasn’t enough background for the character because now we have Hannibal the TV series. Dino De Laurentiss died a few years ago, but I see that his wife Martha De Laurentiis is attached as executive producer to the series. I don’t know if these film rights transfer or if Harris sold them again. Either way, I hope he’s getting good money for it. A writer’s got to eat, but I really don’t care for what’s been done to his characters.

My Love Affair with Deadly Women

I am a devoted fan of crime television and have followed Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since it aired, delighting in the chiming sound between scenes just like everybody else. The problem is after seeing one of those episodes, it’s hard for me to rewatch it because I know what’s going to happen next. Also, the Law & Order writers can go a little over the top when lifting stories from the tabloids and then embellishing them even more. Really, did anything else need to be added to the Anna Nicole Smith death story or that of the kidnapping astronaut?

I was running a little dry on crime TV offerings when my friend Allie recommended the true-crime TV show Deadly Women. She warned me that it was a little bit cheesy, but when she said that a former FBI profiler who hosted it might have been the prototype for Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, I was ready to give it a go.

The first episode I watched dealt with women who murdered after being spurned in love, and rather than being put off by the low-quality criminal scene reenactments, I found them quite endearing. The women shown doing the crimes might be overweight, frumpy, have bad skin, wear too much makeup, look thirty when they’re supposed to be sixteen, but I embrace them. They look like real women bumbling along in life. Maybe that’s what makes the show especially chilling. It’s too realistic; our lives are bad TV.

An episode of Deadly Women is broken down into three separate stories that have a theme in common. A story begins with the crime scene and then works backward to analyze how and why the crime happened, and this is the part I really like, the why of it. Candice DeLong, the former FBI profiler, and various true-crime authors will weigh in, recalling what happened in the criminal’s past to lead up to the crime, and it’s almost always fascinating—bullying, an overwhelming love of money and what it can buy, friendships gone wrong, abuse, betrayal. All of the human weaknesses and foibles are laid out, and as DeLong says, “Most of the criminals with above-average intelligence have one thing in common: arrogance.” I will be watching out for this.

I love the deviousness displayed by some of these women. When they come to the conclusion that somebody must die, the planning could take years before the murder is finally committed. It’s not a moment-of-passion type of thing. They really want you dead. And sometimes their plans are like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, like the woman who has her husband build a wishing well out in front of their trailer. Then she kills him and stuffs his body in the wishing well. I don’t find these women heroes, but I’m very curious about what makes them this way, what they think about.

Most of the stories end the same. The women are arrested and spend the rest of their lives in jail or are executed. Up until that time, though, I find the stories all such wonderful source material. Often, after I watch one of these episodes, I think, That would make a great story. So I keep watching and watching and watching.