Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating character.
Not really news, is it? I mean, he’s an exceptionally popular character. Which isn’t exactly the same thing as “fascinating”, but still. I suspect Thomas Harris will take it. In fact, I know that he will. Here’s how he describes his relationship with Lecter in the foreword to the 2000 paperback edition of his novel RED DRAGON:
“By the time I undertook to record the events in Hannibal, the doctor, to my surprise, had taken on a life of his own. You seemed to find him as oddly engaging as I did.”
As the decades have passed, and we’ve gotten to know Lecter better, we’ve really become quite enamored with him. I’m talking about all of us here. The audience. Not the royal we but the… the actual we. The inclusive we, I suppose. Or, you know, the editorial we. If you consider yourself a regular reader (and if you don’t, please consider considering… I will actually write more). Lecter did a terrible thing, or rather a terrible thing happened to Lecter: he became seen as easy money. A guaranteed hit. Bums in seats. And, to be fair, that’s exactly what he was, at least until HANNIBAL RISING. But there seems to have been some kind of collusion throughout the English speaking world to pretend that never happened, so I think we’re still good.
The problem with Hannibal, or at least my problem with Hannibal, and this is the crux of the whole thing, is that he had ceased to be interesting long before HANNIBAL RISING. Indeed, he became utterly ineffective as a character at the very outset of Harris’ third book, the appropriately titled HANNIBAL.
It’s an infuriating book. Harris’ first two books defied my expectations. That is, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Harris’ work is consistently (and uncannily) similar to the films subsequently based on his writing, to the point that they sometimes read like novelizations. Until, in each case, RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS do their own thing a little bit. This is clearer in RED DRAGON, when the entire novel shifts focus away from Will Graham and gives us insight into what makes the killer tick. Harris goes out of his way to show us where this man came from, what drove him and what created him. We are encouraged to sympathize and perhaps even empathize a little, and we understand Dolarhyde just that bit more than we thought we would. It makes his subsequent transformation (and the deliberate attempt at transformation that follows that, and drives the novel) all the more terrifying. The Tooth Fairy is not some abstract concept, some B movie type construct of violence and predation on decent people. He could, perhaps, have been a decent person. He could, perhaps, be a decent person again. He chooses not to do so, although the degree to which he truly enjoys any level of choice is open to the reader’s interpretation. Ultimately, what makes Dolarhyde scary, and what elevates RED DRAGON beyond lazy “psychopath” characterization that has since become so typical in our popular culture, is that he is not all that different from you or me. Sure, he’s probably stronger, unless you work out a lot too. He clearly has significant problems. He’s not a bogey man. He doesn’t have secret powers. He is simply willing to do things that you or I (and I’m guessing as to your character here, but I hope for your sake I’m guessing correctly) would not do. He’s aware of the consequences and he doesn’t care. Admittedly, he doesn’t want to get caught; he cares that much. But morally speaking, he’s in a different room entirely.
This drives RED DRAGON and helps us to understand what Will Graham is going through. His gift and his great weakness is that he understands what makes these people tick. Essentially, he is asked to enter that room where Dolarhyde (or at least, his alter ego the Tooth Fairy/Dragon) resides. Graham hates this, because he is a decent person and he recognizes the price he may have to pay. Although the crimes committed in RED DRAGON are grisly, the book’s conflict is rooted in human relationships and human fears.
Lecter ties into this dynamic very nicely indeed. As a kind of adviser to Graham, one that wishes to elevate himself to confidant if only to procure better opportunities to taunt and injure Graham psychologically, Lecter is a truly excellent character. Like so many effective characters (for example, everyone in THE SUN ALSO RISES) we don’t really see all that much of Lecter. The reader is given some information and the rest is left blank. We know he’s “Hannibal the Cannibal” and we know that he’s killed a lot of people. We know about his past with Will Graham. We don’t know a lot more about him. Lecter is scary in a different way from Dolarhyde, but not because he is in some way a more effective killer (though this is more or less directly expressed). He is scary because he reminds the reader that Dolarhyde is not the only one. He’s not a one in a million freak. One in a few thousand, maybe. Not one in a million. The cruelty that is within us produces monsters like this. Lecter is the supreme monster because he revels in what he is and derives enjoyment from it.
This particular element of Lecter’s personality is further developed in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The clearest example is his desire to learn more about Clarice Starling’s adolescent traumas, but my favorite is his interaction with Senator Martin, mother of the abductee whose survival (or possible death) drives the novel’s narrative. Lecter openly prods at Martin and seeks to cause her pain so that he can absorb it. Lecter is not like us; he is not constrained by anything remotely related to sympathy or the acknowledgement of the feelings of others. He doesn’t care about Senator Martin. He doesn’t care about her daughter, just as he didn’t care about Dolarhyde’s victims and he didn’t care about Graham. Even antagonism seems beneath Lecter, though he seems to reserve it for Jack Crawford and his gaoler, Dr. Chilton. In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, we get to see what Lecter can do, and it is terrifying. He’s intelligent, but again, his power comes from not being limited by morality. Killing does not affect him psychologically, and he may enjoy it if killing someone took a certain skill or if they had acted or behaved in a way he considered gauche. However, he may also enjoy killing for reasons entirely his own that he chooses not to share either with other characters or with us, the readers.
So far, so good. Harris even went and had a little fun with Lecter, implying the death of the rather odious Dr. Chilton. This was slightly shaky ground, really, but it worked in the context of the book. Lecter was entertaining, and both of the Lecter novels to this point had featured significant gore; the audience was being implicated by dint of their apparent hunger for more of this type of thing. Being expected to cheer, if only a little, for Lecter’s dispatching of Chilton was a little unsettling, but it worked. It worked both within the context of the novel’s narrative and within the context of the relationship between the novel and its audience. It was a nice little nod to the character himself. Go on Hannibal. Have a little fun. Despite the audacity of the moment, it was executed with restraint. Chilton’s death, after all, happens off the page. It is left to one’s imagination, though hopefully you won’t spend an awful lot of time imagining the specifics.
In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, again, the killer is truly terrifying. Gumb is a monster, plain and simple. Again, like Dolarhyde, he is athletically superior to an average sedentary person. Not exactly a hard sell: you’re not going to overpower people if your typical daily activity consists of watching Netflix while eating M&Ms. That’s at least one way in which I can assure you I’m safe to be around, by the way. He is not, however, superhuman. He is scary, again, because he will do things a reasonable person will not. Gumb is quite similar to Dolarhyde as he is also driven by the desire for transformation, though whereas Dolarhyde’s obsession with the Dragon was a metaphysical journey Gumb has taken clinical rejection of what he sees as his own gender confusion as an affront and subsequently developed his own rationale for the murder of innocents. Gumb’s actions are extreme and reprehensible but they are believable. Well, at the very least, they push the boundaries of believability. They don’t quite break past those boundaries.
HANNIBAL changes everything. For one thing, we finally have Lecter centre stage. A lot of things about this make sense. Lecter himself would have no problem with the limelight. If the author is prone to converse with his characters, Lecter would surely suggest that he be given an appropriate opportunity to shine. However, there is a lot to be said for not giving the audience what they want. Harris, of course, believes this, which is what led to an utterly appalling ending to his novel. Somewhere along the way he either missed or chose to ignore the fact that he had fallen in love with his character as well. See above.
This isn’t a case of too much of a good thing either, because HANNIBAL delivers neither what was so impressive about Lecter or what was done so well in the first two books. Sure, we get to know more about Lecter and his habits and his wonderful educated manner and his European sensibilities. He’s essentially the hipster Jesus, if you don’t count all the horrible murders. It brings us no closer to why Lecter is an interesting character, however. Funnily enough, the Bryan Fuller show does all of these things, even daring to luxuriate in Lecter’s cannibalism and his apparent willingness to subject his unwitting dinner guests to his taboo gastronomic proclivities. HANNIBAL the novel does not do this, despite the fact that Lecter spends a significant portion of the book living in Florence and generally being a better European than the Europeans around him, speaking Italian better than Italians and reading medieval texts in the evening. It would be too much, it would take us too far into seeing Lecter not as an eccentric character but as a pretentious one if not for one thing:
Hannibal Lecter is Superman.
This is a significant problem. Now, Lecter doesn’t wear a cape, obviously, and he can’t fly (though this sometimes seems about the only thing he is unable to do). He also, obviously, lacks the Man of Steel’s compassion for humanity. What Lecter DOES have, in no particular order, is a collection of the following attributes:
- Superhuman reflexes
- Superhuman strength
- Superhuman intelligence
- Superhuman linguistic ability
- Copperplate handwriting (this is mentioned so often I have decided to include it here)
Lecter is not even remotely scary because he is no longer interesting. He is a bogey man. Yes, Lecter will do things we will not do but he is capable of things we are not capable of. Not just morally but physically and intellectually. This reduces his genuine risk because it makes him impossible to relate to on any level. The average reader can handle a character with more intelligence, more street smarts, more education, what have you. The average reader isn’t a jerk. I don’t see how said reader can possibly relate to a character the author continually tells him/her is the super very best at everything OMG. It ceases to be entertaining.
Harris makes some other decisions that at first I thought might have been an attempt to counter-balance this issue, but soon realized was just more evidence of his insistence on cementing the novel’s reverence for Lecter. He saw his sister murdered (and eaten) at a young age. He only kills people that have failed morally in some way (this was news to me, from what little we were told in the first two books). His antagonist in the novel is a former victim that raped his sister when he was a child and mitigates the fact he is no longer physically capable of pederasty by making children cry and drinking their tears. I didn’t make that up. That happens. In a novel written by an adult, for other adults to read.
Note that this victim of Lecter’s attempted murder is an antagonist, as Lecter effectively shares the role of protagonist with Clarice Starling. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this in principle. However, the story does not clarify what its new direction is. Is the object here to catch Lecter? It becomes apparent early on that this is not so. This book is about Starling, to a more clearly defined degree than was THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. This is one of the things I like about the book… let me correct myself. It’s the only thing I like about the book.
However, I like an objective and an attempt, not the result. The result is half baked, poor in the extreme. Starling’s nemeses are weak willed, chauvinist idiots. That in itself would be fine if they weren’t so damn disappointing. Krendler, whose brief appearance in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS provided effective evocation of the frustrations of bureaucracy for successful individuals, particularly successful women, becomes in HANNIBAL a pathetic chauvinist that practices the put downs he hopes to deliver to Starling in advance. There is very little interesting about Krendler. Harris essentially points to him, saying to the reader “Look, isn’t this guy a JERK? What a jerk, right?” And, yes, Krendler is a jerk. He’s just not a very interesting one.
Meanwhile, Starling is being propositioned by almost every male character she encounters, a mechanic that at first appeared to be pointing to the endless crap a young woman has to put up with in a male oriented world but becomes so commonplace that it says more about Harris’ own proclivities than anything else. Just in case you didn’t get the message, Harris essentially shouts it from the rooftops: “ZOMG Clarice is so HAWT, guys!”
It’s pathetic. One of the things I liked about Starling was the manner in which her gender affected her everyday life and how the chauvinism of the men that surrounded her had a genuine affect on her career. I’m not sure why she has to be a supremely attractive person for those problems to exist. By the end of the novel it becomes rather difficult to get upset at Starling’s sudden descent into nonsensical behavior, because everything about the ending is so bad, so poorly thought out and so utterly disrespectful of the reader. And the characters the author created, for that matter.
I won’t bother to spoil the ending, though not out of any desire to avoid ruining your enjoyment of the book, as I’ve certainly been tossing spoilers left and right aplenty. I don’t have the energy to write about it. Yes, it’s that bad. I’m sure Harris feels he challenged his readers. He insulted them. You know, these books have enough odd things about them. Harris’ approach to race tends to be patronizing, apparently assuming an all-white readership (why is “black” a defining characteristic of a young man cutting the grass that we never hear about again? Couldn’t he have been wearing a work shirt, or something?) and I’m still not sure why Margot, the body-building lesbian rape victim sister of the mutilated pederast Moray Eel enthusiast, exists. We didn’t need a book that no editor had the gumption to gut (or, more appropriately, eviscerate) that spends hundreds of pages singing the praises of a murderer and then lets him get the girl. I guess I did give it away. Ah well. There’s a half-assed thematic stab at Lecter trying to regain his sister through metaphysical substitution, but I find it hard to believe many readers thought Lecter was going to kill Starling. He was such a damn nice guy at that point.
So, Lecter has been ruined as a character. Or at least he would have been if not for Mads Mikkelsen and Bryan Fuller. The NBC show salvages Lecter largely because it avoids all of the problems inherent in HANNIBAL. Hannibal Lecter is scary because he does things that seem inexplicable to a normal person. He commits acts of grievous cruelty and either enjoys the very aspect of those acts that would turn most of us away or, in what is perhaps further unsettling, ignores the cruelty of the act altogether and meets his results neither with disdain or relish but curiosity sated, left wanting of driven to discover more. This is the great success of Fuller’s Lecter. He doesn’t do what the audience might want him to do. Lecter does what Lecter wants to do.