Friday, December 15, 2006

Hannibal Agonistes

Last week marked the arrival of Thomas Harris's fifth novel, HANNIBAL RISING, the fourth to feature world-renowned psychiatrist/gourmand/cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Since the publication of RED DRAGON in 1981, Hannibal Lecter has become arguably the most famous literary character of the last thirty years (thanks in no small part to Anthony Hopkins's chilling performance in the film adaptation of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). Every novel Harris writes is a fairly major media event due to Lecter's popularity, and Harris's notorious reclusivity and infrequent publication schedule.

Between RED DRAGON, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, HANNIBAL and now HANNIBAL RISING, the Lecter books have sold millions of copies around the world, inspired five movies (yes, more movies than there are books, as RED DRAGON was filmed twice), and elevated Harris to J.D. Salinger-esque levels of fandom and curiosity.

But when the announcement of HANNIBAL RISING came a few months ago, rather than the usual hurrahs associated with beloved returning characters, this book was met with a mix of apathy and vitriol.

Why do we need another Hannibal book?
Harris wrote this just because there was a movie in the pipeline.
Money is clearly the only motivation.

I do not recall one person welcoming the cannibal back with fully open arms. It was a fascinating response, for sure. For a character as ingrained in pop culture consciousness as Lecter, the gold standard to which every written and/or filmed villain aspires to, the public (at least the outspoken critical public) seemed less than embracing.

This does not pertain to the actual critical reception to the book HANNIBAL RISING, which was released last week and debuted at #6 on the New York Times bestseller list. I have not yet read the book, but I'm fascinated by the critical backlash which accumulated before the book was even published. Many fans and critics questioned the author and publisher's motives. Many readers felt betrayed by Hannibal in the previous book, 1999's HANNIBAL, in which many of the villain's motivations were laid bare and also ended with the rather unexpected (and perhaps unwanted) coupling of Lecter and his nemesis FBI agent Clarice Starling.

Perhaps the reception was due to the public's love for Hannibal, as there's nothing worse than feeling a beloved character has betrayed your trust or gone astray. And like any relationship, the more intense the emotions are the more extreme the reactions will be. You're more likely to have a knock down, drag out fight with someone you love dearly than a passing fling. So readers, who loved Hannibal intensely, felt betrayed, felt that their lover/partner had done something so out of character as to render their former experiences moot. Hence the reaction to HANNIBAL RISING, which played those criticisms to an even higher degree (we didn't want to know his motivations in the first place, now they're publishing an entire book about them??).

On the other hand, Harris has only written four books featuring Hannibal, and in two of those he was a secondary character. There are dozens of authors who have created franchise characters whose literary tenure has surpassed four books, many of them several times over. In every longstanding series there have been books that have ranged in quality or didn't meet fans' expectations. Yet never was the return of a famous character met with such ire. You never hear Michael Connelly's fans claiming he wrote the 14th Harry Bosch book just for the money. Or Laura Lippman's fans claiming the next Tess Monaghan book only came out because Hollywood already had a script in place. Those authors have rabid fans just as Mr. Harris does, yet their characters are never treated in such a critical manner simply for daring to occupy shelf space.

I thought HANNIBAL was a better book than most give it credit for, and you cannot take away the fact that between RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Thomas Harris wrote two of the greatest suspense novels of the modern era. So is Hannibal Lecter's chilly reception due to fans' perceived betrayal? Did they feel HANNIBAL was such an inferior work to the previous two, and further stories were henceforth unwelcome? I think there's a bit of both, but I also think there's an inherent cynicism people have these days towards hugely hyped books, even before criticism of the books themselves can be rendered (see John Twelve Hawks, Jed Rubenfeld, and to some extent even Charles Frazier). Then there tends to be tremendous schadenfreude if the books don't live up to the hype, either critically or commercially.

So what is it, do you think, about HANNIBAL RISING that caused this reaction? And if you've read it, I'm very curious to hear readers' takes...


Blogger Dave White said...

I haven't read it, but my guess would be that starting in Hannibal, Hannibal became less creepy.

What worked with him in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs was that he'd gotten so little screen time. He was just that... creepy, mysterious, scary.

Starting in Hannibal and now leading up to Hannibal Rising it seems he's starting to get a background... we're seeing what made him the way he is and that's making him sympathetic and not scary and that doesn't work at all.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

In this week's New Yorker Anthony Lane offers a pretty helpful checklist of criteria for a good Hannibal novel, including. I think number one is: He has to be incarcerated.

Have you ever read David Mamet's unproduced screenplay for Hannibal? Now that's a wreck.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jason, I think you nailed it when you said that the characterization in the third book negated the character we'd become entranced with in the first two. Harris wrote one of the great character-defining lines for Lecter: I'm lazily paraphrasing, but something like: "There's no explanation. I just am."

HANNIBAL took that great, archetypal, superhuman character and made him human. I was pissed. Much as I admire Harris as a stylist I'm not going to read HANNIBAL RISING because I still read RED DRAGON and SOTL about once a year and I don't want my experience of those classic books spoiled.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Will Entrekin said...

I liked the ending to Hannibal. I thought it was pretty ballsy of Harris to let the story go in the direction it wanted to, and that ending was pretty much the direction it had always wanted to go.

I admit I have no real inclination to read the new one yet. It wasn't the ending but rather the verbosity that bothered me about Hannibal; wasn't nearly as suspenseful as the others.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My comment is perhaps premature (I'm only about a third of the way through Hannibal Rising), but I'm of two minds about this whole matter.

I was among the many who didn't care for Hannibal. There was a good story in there somewhere, but the execution didn't excite me the way a good thriller should. The bizarro ending didn't help matters, either.

So when Hannibal Rising appeared on the literary horizon, I wasn't ecstatic at the prospect. Not that anyone was going to make me read it, but the whole thing seemed superfluous. Consequently, I figured I'd check it out from the library and give it a go. If it was lousy... well, it's not like I paid anything.

It turns out that not only was I wrong about the book in terms of its concept (prequel), but it's actually quite good. I'm genuinely impressed by Thomas Harris' almost delicate prose in this novel, and look forward to finishing it off over the next day or so. Who knew?

I realize there's still time for the book to go south, hence my fear of giving it too much praise too early, but so far it's a far worthier successor to Harris' earlier efforts than Hannibal. In fact, I'd say Harris has moved beyond genre with this installment, as Hannibal Rising is a great deal more literary in character than any of Harris' other Lecter-related work.

2:58 PM  

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