This was one of those weeks where I was glad to have started this project in the first place. Since my teenage years, I have made a considerable effort to read books that were soon to become movies. (I certainly did the same thing before my teenage years as well, mostly through fantasy novels or the work of Stephen King, but I didn’t turn it into a mission until my teen years.) I find it to be very illuminating, educational and downright exciting to see, at least from the outside, the process that happens from the book page to the script page to the screen. It also helps me broaden my literary horizons, even though it’s often I’m plowing through best-selling, mass market stuff that everybody else has read. (This January, for instance, it felt downright strange to read Stieg Larsson’s violent and pulpy Swedish political procedural The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, only to follow it up with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, about the relationships between African-American maids and the lily white women they serve in 1960s Mississippi.) I have yet to prove if doing such a thing makes me a better writer, as I am clearly not a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter, and even if I was, I feel connected enough to the whims of most novelists that I would hate to be that person who was assigned to tear apart your book and leave it as a 120-page outline of what it once was.
This has its downside, as I tend to mostly read plays, books of collected essays, pop culture treatises or histories of film/television/theatre, so I rarely pick up a novel that isn’t either already a movie, becoming a movie or has been mentioned as potentially becoming a movie. I’m getting better, though. I really am.
(I would also say that bits of this, aside from my love of film, was instilled in me by the American educational system, as reading books and then watching their cinematic adaptations in class seems to be a good way to get literature across to children/teenagers.)
This process can certainly backfire, and it’s often difficult to watch a film and not feel like many, many mistakes were made in what to keep, what not to keep and what to alter, and it often blocks me from even properly enjoying any number of films. It took me at least four movies to simply give into the film adaptations of the Harry Potter series, but I also still find myself distracted by what could have been. I try to avoid this problem, at least slightly, by reading a book far in advance from its theatrical release date, so I have enough distance and can enjoy myself more.
But with Hannibal, I didn’t read it until it came out in paperback in 2001, and I think it was only a matter of a week between me finishing the book and seeing the film in theatres. If you’ve both read the book and seen the movie, you could maybe relate to how this is a bit of a struggle.
Hannibal is a surprisingly bizarre film, but it’s even more absurd of a book. It’s a big, sloppy ensemble piece that doesn’t quite come together, and it tides its readers through some of the lamer procedural stuff and character assassination with almost shocking amounts of violence and gore. (I would say the same for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but it won me over halfway through book two through the characterization of Lisbeth Salander as well as its aggressive insistence that I give a shit about Sweden.) So coming off of Thomas Harris’ much-maligned book with images I couldn’t shake — remember the character, excised from the film, of Verger’s dominatrix sister, who he once raped, using a cattle prod on her disfigured brother in order to attain the semen he promised her, then murdering him by shoving an eel down his throat — the film struck me as a neutered but well shot thriller. The clothesline of a plot was there, but the spirit of the book, as wrongheaded and over-the-top as it often was, was nowhere to be found.
But here I am, ten years later, having wasted your time with that lengthy intro, far removed from the book and…say it with me…finding the movie to be somewhat of a delight. I think I have a better grasp on what makes a proper film adaptation, or at least why certain choices are made during the development process, and I’m not longer the teenager who stubbornly thinks a novelist’s choice should always, always be protected.
Hannibal, by way of screenwriter Steven Zaillian and director Ridley Scott, is gleefully strange. Too strange to suck and too silly to simply be chucked off. It’s a $100 million gross-out fest filmed as if it were a deeply felt globetrotting drama, a story of loyalty and honor that just happens to have face-slicing and brain-eating, and…a love story? It’s also uproariously funny at times, often while it’s trying to make you lose your lunch. At no point is the film frightening, which, if you’re comparing this one to The Silence of the Lambs, makes this a complete failure. It’s a different take on the material, though; expensive, lush, operatic and almost ironically classy. It cements my belief that Ridley Scott is insane. Not, like, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle insane, but an “I can do anything I want and they’ll still give me money” insane. If only they had kept the book’s ending.
Hannibal Lecter as a character, instead of simply seeming like a defanged version of his former self, is now fascinating to watch as he is allowed to freely roam the world as an academic, and his modus operandi as a murderer and cannibal somehow makes a lot more sense than it did when I was 18. I find myself greatly appreciating Giancarlo Giannini’s work as the doomed Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, a performance good enough for a three-hour Italian epic. And Gary Oldman’s unbilled performance as the disfigured Mason Verger comes straight from a planet in outer space, so violently out-of-control and unpleasant that it couldn’t possibly have been done by a member of Planet Earth.
And so, ten years later, I learned to stop worrying and love the movie. I still have some major reservations, mostly focused on the film’s structure (see my Free-Floating Thoughts below), but this was another genuine surprise of a rewatch. And to think, I could have chosen to rewatch Saving Silverman.
-Frankie Faison (The Wire) ain’t no fool, and he’ll guard the shit out of Hannibal Lecter
-Anybody ever see Hannibal Rising? I like the director and lead actor, but I simply never got around to it.
-I would have loved to see David Mamet’s take on this, but allegedly none of his screenplay remains. (Oh…whaddya know? It’s on dailyscript.com)
-Holy shit! They offered the role of Mason Verger to Christopher Reeve? Is that hilariously insulting or…kind of appropriate?
-I’m glad Verger has a key light simply to illuminate his face and terrify all those who visited him.
-“‘Try peeling off your face…and feeding it to the dogs.’ It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
-“He preferred to eat the rude.”
-One thing that, for obvious reasons, plays completely differently now than it did in February of 2001 is the eerie moment when, in showing the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted website, there is a close-up of the one and only “Usama Bin Ladin.”
-The act structure doesn’t entirely work. In regards to the Florence sequences, it’s not long enough to be a parallel story, but it’s conversely too long and comes in too early (and leaves too late) to simply fit into itself as “the second act.” This is more the book’s fault than anything else (and the screenplay’s cutting of many of the characters back in the United States, which leaves a giant chunk of the film without an appearance by Verger), but you’d think Zaillian would have had a better solution. It’s tough to balance Hannibal’s and Clarice’s story effectively, and it’d be hard to use all of this as a proper second act and tell an audience to mostly forget about Clarice for at least 30 minutes. It would also make the same mistake of having the third act be too long, so…man. I see why this had to go through so many drafts.
-Man, those are some big-ass killer boars.
-It’s nice to see such a well shot Firenze as I’m in the midst of playing the 15th century Italy-set videogame Assassin’s Creed II. In fact, this fits like crazy into Assassin’s Creed II, as Giancarlo Giannini plays Inspector Pazzi, a descendent of the Pazzi family, who are villains early in the video game.
-“On a related subject, I must confess to you, I’m giving very serious thought…to eating your wife.”
-“What’s it to be? Bowels in, or bowels out?” Huzzah to the intestines money shot.
-There isn’t enough build-up to Verger’s death, but it still helps prove that one should never, never ever ever trust Zeljko Ivanek.
-“Are those shallots?”
-I think the Anthony Hopkins/Julianne Moore/Ray Liotta brain-eating scene should be its own comedic one-act. I prefer that a film try out a sequence this ludicrous and somewhat fail, as opposed to not trying at all.
-This is, by the way, Ray Liotta’s best performance, based solely on his acting during the “brain sequence.” He’s even better here than he is Goodfellas. (“Cahhhh-fee.”)
-The ending they went with is very nice thematically and is not at all a betrayal of Clarice’s character as it is in the book, but…come on. You know you’d like to see millions of audience members flip out and tear up their seats.
Response to the Critics
(I try to read reviews from the same sources after each movie I watch. Here are a few handpicked excerpts I enjoyed, sometimes followed by my reactions.)
–Onion A.V. Club: “Though disturbing behind glass, Hopkins’ Lecter seems more camp than creepy when let loose in the wild. Seen swooning over handcrafted furniture and smoking cigarettes wrapped in brown paper, he bears a closer resemblance to The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob than some creature let loose from nightmares or the nether regions of the id.”
-While I think Julianne Moore is a tremendous actress, I’m not entirely sure if she works in this movie. I agree here, with the Village Voice: “Moore’s Clarice is heavily dependent on Foster’s earlier incarnation, but radiating impatience throughout, she projects little of the solitude or vulnerability Foster brought to the role.”
Although I do like the San Francisco Chronicle‘s response: “As an actress, Foster is good at playing problem solvers, but no one is better than Moore at depicting anguish and emotional paralysis, Clarice’s mental state 10 years later.”
Still, I don’t think it’s an A-level performance. I don’t think she’s given enough to work with, so it’s hard to pinpoint where the major problem is.
–San Francisco Chronicle: “It may be the most well-crafted piece of garbage this year.”
-And, as would be expected, I love Ebert’s opening paragraph of his 2.5-star review: “Ridley Scott’s ‘Hannibal’ is a carnival geek show elevated in the direction of art. It never quite gets there, but it tries with every fiber of its craft to redeem its pulp origins, and we must give it credit for the courage of its depravity; if it proves nothing else, it proves that if a man cutting off his face and feeding it to his dogs doesn’t get the NC-17 rating for violence, nothing ever will.”