Thomas Harris wrote his first two novels featuring incarcerated psycho Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter for fun. The third was written under pressure. Though Harris claims to care little for public acclaim, preferring to live as a semi-recluse, the film version of the second novel, Silence of the Lambs, was such an incredible hit that Harris was under constant pressure to write a follow-up.
As a novel, Hannibal disappointed many. In previous appearances, Lecter was a consulted oracle – a dark god dispensing aid at a high price. In Hannibal, he’s a free man, and for some reason giving him center stage makes him less interesting. The character is more akin to a monster now – a Dracula without the supernatural hoodoo – and any tension in the story grows from wondering when he’ll do something awful, or whether our hero FBI agent Clarice Starling will be able to catch him.
But the main problem with the novel is its ending, which most readers found unconvincing and unsatisfying. Recognizing this fact, director Ridley Scott, in some combination with Harris and screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, hashed out an ending that – while lacking the distasteful closure of the novel – may at least satisfy some (not all) viewers that haven’t read the novel first.
Up until that ending, the film is pretty darn faithful to the novel. Some minor characters have been excised and some scenes have been changed – and improved – a bit, but the script retains intact the overall three-way power struggle. One of Lecter’s surviving victims Mason Verger (played by Gary Oldman uncredited) is a fabulously rich, horribly disfigured invalid, hungering for revenge against Lecter. When Lecter was locked up, Verger could only manage to make him uncomfortable through manipulation. Now that Lecter is loose – some say with Verger’s behind-the-scenes help – he can be tracked down. Thus, Verger buys the services of FBI director Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), in order to keep tabs on information on Lecter that the FBI has, as well as making sure he can get to it first.
Lecter, meanwhile, has achieved a sort of peace. Hiding out in the gorgeous atmosphere of Florence, he finds little in the classical Italian climate to offend his sensibilities and rouse his terrible vengeance. But when Starling, his favorite FBI agent, gets into trouble as the result of a raid on a drug ring, Lecter contacts her, setting off a string of events that puts him in danger.
Scott, with cinematographer John Mathieson and art director David Crank, do an excellent job of creating the tale’s lush visuals. The film has a brisk pace that manages to keep a step ahead of the viewer, despite the volume of information that has to be imparted. One of the strengths of the Harris stories is their detailed look inside the minds and processes of the FBI, but audiences have been so overexposed to these kinds of stories ever since Lambs, that much of that detail is glossed over here – via the music video effects Scott experimented with on Gladiator – to concentrate more on character.
The past few years, with Anthony Hopkins mainly appearing in roles as “Anthony Hopkins, Movie Star”, I’d forgotten the intensity he brought to his Lecter portrayal. He’s back in shape here, showing us an evil, cultured, complicated, and definitely insane man. Lecter isn’t your typical psycho, commiting his crimes while seething with hatred and revenge. He’s a criminal elitist, handing out his own twisted justice. He also does what he does because he considers it fun – he’s almost giggling like Vincent Price as he commits each fresh murder.
Jodie Foster, who created the portrayal of Starling on screen, decided not to reprise the role. Julianne Moore is given the thankless task of imitating Foster’s performance. And since the focus is more on Lecter in this film, she’s given less to do than Foster and suffers more in comparison. As ever, Moore does a commendable job.
As for the rest of the cast, Oldman does another bang up job playing yet another freak show villain. Liotta plays yet another smirking cretin. But almost stealing the show is Giancarlo Giannini (Mimic) as a police inspector who quickly finds himself in over his head.
Hannibal is a good story well told, but with another problematic ending – which owes more to ’80s slasher sequels than classic horror – comes off as more Hollywood than Harris.