Last year, I wrote a long post titled “The sad case of Hannibal Lecter,” in which I lamented the fact that one of the most compelling fictional characters of the past thirty years had been destroyed by excessive backstory and authorial indulgence. Since then, this posting has become one of the most frequently viewed entries on this blog—mostly because of people searching for the Hannibal Lecter mask—and I’ve had a chance to revisit Lecter several more times, notably while reflecting on the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. What remains unchanged is my original conviction that Lecter is a ferociously effective supporting player who wilts when thrust into the spotlight, a wish-fulfillment character who doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s always dangerous when an author falls in love with his own creation, and in this case, fond father Thomas Harris ended up being Lecter’s worst enemy.
So you can imagine my feelings at the announcement that Lecter is being retooled for a new television series, of all things, focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. Bryan Fuller, the producer given the unenviable task of bringing this show to life, is a smart guy, and it’s possible that he’ll surprise me with an unexpected take on the material. And Lecter will evidently be confined to his cell for most of the series, which is exactly where he belongs. But for the most part, this project seems utterly misguided, an attempt to wring the last bit of interest out of a character who made his most indelible impression in eighteen minutes of screen time. Even if there really is demand for more Lecter, this is a textbook example of Joss Whedon’s axiom: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.”
And yet there’s a bright side to all this. Thomas Harris, despite his self-imposed seclusion, was once the best suspense novelist in the world. There’s a reason why The Silence of the Lambs recently topped NPR’s list of the best thrillers of all time: no one, not even Forsyth, has been better than Harris at his peak. And one of the saddest spectacles in recent literature has been watching Harris waste his talent on Lecter. After the novel Hannibal, there was clearly nowhere else for the character to go—especially once the movie version’s ending departed so radically from the original—so Harris was forced to dig deep into backstory, with the usual sorry results. Lecter’s dialogue used to be razor sharp, if often slightly too clever; in Hannibal Rising, he was reduced to lines like “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.” As Anthony Lane said in his review of the book: “What the hell is going on here?”
But I remain hopeful that the old Harris still exists. We know for a fact that Harris is a slow, laborious writer: Stephen King has spoken of him as “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” But the results were worth it. The more mediocre thrillers I read, the more I come to appreciate the Harris of Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and even parts of Hannibal: his attention to detail, the density and texture of his prose, the inventiveness of his violence, and his odd compassion. And I’m convinced he can do it again, as long as he leaves Lecter behind. I’ve always thought that a new thriller by Harris, without Lecter, would be a major publishing event, and the fact that Harris seems willing to relinquish his most cherished creation to television—when he wrote Hannibal Rising expressly to prevent an unauthorized prequel from being made—implies that he has finally learned to let go. With Lecter outsourced to Bryan Fuller, could Harris give us another great novel? My heart hops at the thought.