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...