Novelist Thomas Harris, the man responsible for the bestsellers “Black Sunday,” “Red Dragon,” “Silence of the Lambs,” and now “Hannibal,” is the kind of writer Hollywood suits absolutely hates. He’s wildly successful despite being the antithesis of the prolific author. He has written fewer books over a lifetime than Stephen King has written in a single year. And yet, Harris’ novels sell like hotcakes, and his name is remembered even though you can only expect a novel per decade from the man.
When Hollywood suits got wind of the superior suspense and intelligence of his novels, they began making movies out of it. “Black Sunday” was the first, followed by “Red Dragon,” which was changed to the movie title Manhunter, and then “Silence” and “Hannibal.” The novel “Hannibal,” of course, was highly anticipated, especially after the artistic and commercial success of Silence of the Lambs. Unfortunately the suits had to wait over 10 years and when the novel was finally published, they rushed it into production, and was able to attract back one of Silence of the Lambs’ original stars, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, but lost out on Jodie Foster, who would not agree to reprise her role as Clarice Starling. Instead, the filmmakers got another notable and respected actress to replace Foster. So what’s the end result of all these waiting and alley dealings?
Hannibal opens with a violent and bloody marketplace shootout involving Clarice Starling and an FBI Task Force versus a drug dealer and her gang. When all is said and done, the drug dealer is dead, but so are a couple of FBI agents. Starling, as the agent in charge of the operation, has to answer for the debacle. What’s worst for Starling is that the whole thing was caught on film and since she came to fame for her role in Silence of the Lambs, everyone knows who she is. The FBI wants to crucify her, and just when she’s about to be thrown to the wolves, serial killer Hannibal Lecter re-emerges onto the world stage by sending her letters. It isn’t long before the hunt for Lecter takes center stage again and for a moment Starling’s career is spared. But for how long, and why is Lecter making a comeback?
It might be difficult to accept, but “Hannibal,” the novel, was a love story. Hannibal, the movie, is an unnecessarily bloody film without much direction. Yes, I said it. The novel “Hannibal” was not about Starling fighting termination by the agency she loves so much, or being crucified by the media and her bosses. The novel was about Lecter and Starling and mutual feelings that had developed between them since their last encounter, as chronicled in “Silence of the Lambs.”
The two have mutual feelings of affection that threatens to cross the border of obsession and even perversity. After all, she’s a law-enforcement officer and he’s a serial killer who eats other people. How could a love like that work? Well, Thomas Harris tried to make it work, and by book’s end there is a feeling of acceptance, as if this was how it was always meant to be. Hannibal the movie didn’t see it that way, and although the “love” angle between Lecter and Starling is approached, it’s never developed, and the movie resorts to gratuitous bloodletting and an absurd ending that had no reason to be except to segue into yet another sequel, something Harris has no intentions of writing.
Hannibal was directed by Ridley Scott, who was coming off Gladiator, which would go on to sweep the Oscars that year. As always, Scott is a good, even superior, craftsman, and even sleepwalking through a film, he does bring flair and style to the piece. Although in comparison to his other films, and especially the brilliant Black Hawk Down, Hannibal’s direction comes across as only fair.
The acting by Anthony Hopkins as the titular cannibal is rightfully eerie and dangerous, and Hopkins earns his star paycheck with his performance. In a movie that has very little going for it, he brings all his energies to the piece. Hopkins’ co-stars, on the other hand, don’t fair quite as well. Julianne Moore, stepping into the Clarice Starling role from Jodie Foster, tries to let her bad southern accent do the acting for her. Throughout most of the movie my mind was occupied with just how bad her accent was, and it distracted me so much I couldn’t concentrate on what was going on.
Hannibal’s supporting actors come and go but no one has much to do or made any impressions. Ray Liotta (Krendler) seems to have found a niche for himself in movies as the a-hole guy; he plays another one here. Giancarlo Giannini (Pazzi) plays a desperate Italian Detective who tries to track and capture Lecter himself, but his background story is pathetic and boring, and I wondered why the filmmakers thought I would be interested in his life. Gary Oldman is unrecognizable as Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s earlier victims and one of the few who survived. Like Moore and her bad southern accent, Oldman lets his prosthetic “gross” face act for him.
That isn’t to say that Hannibal is a terrible film. Even a just-barely fair Ridley Scott is miles above other filmmakers. The movie has that slick and glossy Hollywood look and location filming in Italy was well worth the money spent. Hopkins tries valiantly to save the film by himself, and almost succeeds. If nothing else, you can thank Lecter for a couple of art history lessons. The man certainly knows his history. And his body parts.
Ridley Scott (director) / Thomas Harris (novel), David Mamet, Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
CAST: Anthony Hopkins …. Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Julianne Moore …. Clarice M. Starling
Gary Oldman …. Mason Verger
Ray Liotta …. Paul Krendler
Frankie Faison …. Nurse Barney Mathews
Giancarlo Giannini …. Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi