Posts Tagged ‘Hannibal Rising’
It’s fair to say that I’ve spent more time discussing discussing Hannibal Lecter here than any other character in literature. This is a blog about writing, after all, and Lecter’s example is as good as case studies get, since it serves as both a model and a cautionary tale. The man we meet in The Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent Red Dragon, is arguably the most compelling character to come out of the popular fiction of the last thirty years. Barely a decade elapsed before his most memorable cinematic appearance topped the list of AFI’s heroes and villains, which is astonishing for a role with less than twenty minutes of screen time. At his best, Thomas Harris is a suspense novelist of stunning intelligence and resourcefulness, and he’s written three novels that absolutely deserve to be ranked among the finest in the genre, as well as a flawed fourth book full of remarkable moments—although the fifth is best left unmentioned. But to a large extent, his reputation rests entirely on the creation of one character, and it’s defined his career to a degree that I don’t think he ever expected.
Of course, Harris himself was finally unable to keep Lecter under control, and if his prolonged silence is any indication, it seems that he’s gathering his energies for something else. This is all speculation, of course; Harris is notoriously private, and he’s never been anything but a slow, painstaking writer. But he’s also a man who wrote Hannibal Rising largely to avoid seeing his character fall into other hands, and I believe he’s intelligent enough to sense that the result is by far his weakest book. Hence the surprise of Hannibal, the NBC series that invents entirely new backstories for many of Harris’s most famous characters, all without the author’s involvement. I can’t say for sure what inspired Harris to relinquish control, and for all I know, there could be complicated rights issues involved. But I’d like to believe that Harris recognizes that he’s already sucked this particular vein dry, and is ready, at last, to move on. I’ve said before that an entirely new suspense novel from Harris would be the literary event of the year, possibly the decade, and I still hold out hope that we’ll see it.
As for Hannibal itself, I’m not sure how I feel. I watched the premiere last week, and plan to tune in again tonight, if only to catch a welcome glimpse of Gillian Anderson. It’s a well-crafted show, and there’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, but it also sets problems for itself that it may not be able to solve. Back when Red Dragon was first published, the figure of Will Graham, a profiler who willed himself into crime scenes to the point where he saw them play out through the killer’s eyes, may have been novel, but by now, we’ve seen variations on this character so many times that we’re already tuning out, no matter how hard the show works to make his the result visually exciting. Even more problematic is the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter. Mikkelsen is a fine actor, but his cold eyes and angular face make it hard for him to convey the character’s supposed charm, much less pass himself off as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society. He all but advertises that he’s the bad guy, which will only make his relationship with Graham increasingly implausible as the series continues.
But it’s really the premise itself that risks making the show unsustainable. Lecter needs to be in his cell, because he’s much less compelling for what he is than for what he was. His qualities as an epicure, a man of culture, and a social darling are all important facts to establish, but they only gain meaning from their absence: Lecter fascinates us once all these things have been taken away, leaving only a cold, flawless brain behind a pane of bulletproof glass, and what both Hannibal and the novel of the same name demonstrate is that it isn’t especially interesting to watch the old Lecter go about his business. (If Harris’s novel is any indication, he spends most of his time shopping.) If the show runs for long enough, it will eventually end up back where it needs to be, but it doesn’t do itself any favors by starting so far back in the timeline. As Lecter himself might say, a television series ought to start from first principles. And as it stands, it’s going to be a very long time before we see Hannibal back where he belongs.
Yesterday’s posting on the lure of bad movies, like Birdemic, raises the obvious question of whether the same allure clings to certain trashy books. At first glance, it might seem that the answer is no, at least not the same way: while a bad movie can be polished off in ninety minutes, even the junkiest novel usually requires a somewhat greater commitment, which raises the question of whether this is really the best use of one’s time. Life, it seems, is too short to knowingly waste on bad books, especially when so much good stuff remains unread. (Whenever I read a bad book, I feel as if I need to apologize personally to William Faulkner.) And yet I’ve learned a lot from bad fiction as well. As a writer, it’s useful to know something about every kind of literature, especially when you’re trying to make your mark in a genre that has generated its share of junk. And if you don’t read some trash, as well as better books, you’ll have no way of knowing if you can tell the difference.
The trouble, of course, is that one man’s trashy novel is another man’s masterpiece. The early novels of Thomas Harris, for instance, are hugely important to me, but diminishing returns set in about halfway through Hannibal, and by Hannibal Rising, there’s barely a single interesting page. But this, of course, is a judgment call, and some might draw the line much earlier or later. The same is true of Frederick Forsyth, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or any other prolific popular novelist. Discriminating between the good (The Day of the Jackal) and the bad (The Negotiator) in a single writer’s body of work is an important part of developing one’s own taste. And sometimes a novelist will surprise you. I’ve repeatedly tried and failed to get into Tom Clancy—The Cardinal of the Kremlin nearly put me to sleep on a recent long bus trip—but I was delighted to discover that Without Remorse is a real novel, vicious, compelling, and with bravura set pieces that recall Forsyth, or even James Ellroy.
And sometimes even literary fiction can benefit from a touch of trash. I love John Updike, and believe that the Rabbit novels are among the essential cultural documents of the last century, but if I could own only one Updike novel, it would be Couples, which even his greatest fans seem to think he wrote at least partly for the money. And yet there’s something weirdly exhilarating about seeing Updike’s extraordinary prose and observational skills applied to blatantly commercial material. Updike can’t help being an artist, even when he’s writing a big sexy novel, and I’d argue that Couples, which isn’t that far removed from Peyton Place, was the novel he was born to write. (His later attempt at a “thriller,” in the form of Terrorist, is much less satisfying, and only comes to life whenever Updike revisits his old adulterous territory.)
But have I ever deliberately set out to read a novel that I knew was bad? Sure. While I haven’t managed to make it through Still Missing, for one, I love reading the bestsellers of yesteryear, embodied in the rows of yellowing paperbacks that line the shelves of thrift stores. The 1970s was a particularly rich era for trash. During my move from New York last year, the only book I kept in my empty apartment was a battered copy of Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which I enjoyed immensely, especially when I mentally recast all the characters with actors from Mad Men. And I’m a little embarrassed to admit how quickly I plowed through Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club—a terrible book, and much less interesting than Wallace himself, but remarkably evocative of its era in popular fiction. Such books may not be great, but they’re an undeniable part of a writer’s education. (As long as they aren’t all you read.)
Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.
—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs
Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.
Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.
None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.
Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:
The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.
Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—
Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.
…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.
Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.
Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.
I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.