Where it started: ‘Hannibal’ not so delectable

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, February 15, 2007

“Hannibal Rising”

The Weinstein Co.

1 hour, 57 minutes

Prequels, thanks to our buddy George Lucas, have become the film flavor de jeur lately and, though I usually support any continuation of a great story (I’d love to see Peter Jackson get the chance to do “The Hobbit”), sometimes there’s just one story too many.

Exhibit A: The perplexing case of the early days of one Dr. Hannibal Lecter, M.D., Ph.D., Cannibal, et al.

“Hannibal Rising” sounds like pure gold — a veritable money-making machine. Everyone loves the exploits of Hannibal Lecter — let’s see him as he gets started; his childhood and early 20s. One: Hannibal’s a known commodity, a brand name, if you will, and two: we don’t have to pay Anthony Hopkins’ exorbitant salary.

Unfortunately, I think the filmmakers either outthought themselves or didn’t think hard enough. This movie fails for two main reasons. One, the movie doesn’t seem to understand the character, and two — no Anthony Hopkins, the man who made Hannibal Lecter.

The first problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Hannibal’s creator, Thomas Harris, who wrote a quickie book that was released a week before the movie, in the hopes of maximizing sales. The story — Hannibal as a sad, war-torn son of Lithuanian nobles is forced to watch as horrible atrocities befall his family, particularly his little sister, Mischa.

Later, he moves to Paris to live with his Japanese aunt (by marriage), where he learns about cooking from her chef, and about samurai patience and honor from her. He also learns about cruelty and revenge as he methodically hunts down Nazi sympathizers who visited the previously mentioned horrors upon his family.

The subtlety and affection for story and character Harris shows in his previous novels are gone here as we are treated to clumsy “aha!” moments throughout the film. Oh! So that’s where he learned to cook. Huh! So that’s how he became a cannibal. These revelations are awkward and untrue. And, without Anthony Hopkins to bolster the film, the whole thing feels flimsy.

Hannibal Lecter, on film, isn’t famous simply because of who he is, it’s who plays him. After all, another Brit, Brian Cox, played him first in Michael Mann’s early version of “Red Dragon,” an ’80s neon extravaganza called “Manhunter.” Hopkins, however, brings such delicious malice to the role that without him, Lecter’s just another killer.

My main issue, however, goes back to the problem of character, and excuse the long-winded nature of the discussion, but I’ve thought about it a lot. In this film, Lecter is essentially given excuses for who he is, as if he is a man who needs to be understood.

What the filmmakers don’t understand, and what Harris has apparently forgotten, is that Lecter isn’t a man at all. The character is much more akin to a supernatural force. In ancient myths he would have been a descended god, come to play among the mortals. He does evil things and he does good things, not because he is good or evil, but because they amuse him. He stands outside the normal confines of morality. You’ll note that in the first two stories, “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs,” Lecter is neither protagonist or antagonist. He is there to guide either the hero or the villain, or both, as it pleases him.

In “Lambs,” much as might have occurred with any Greek god, Hannibal falls in love with a mortal, a neat literary trick because it adds an element of vulnerability to the previously invulnerable. The third story, “Hannibal,” works because we go with the conceit that the god decides to stay on Earth a while and see what other mischief he can stir up. There is a growth of sorts for his character, but he never actually becomes human. A lot of people, including the writers of the film version, hated the ending of the book, “Hannibal,” but I didn’t. I thought it was absolutely true to the character.

In “Hannibal Rising,” the character is a confused jumble. Though we are ostensibly here to explain all of his characteristics away, parts of his personality pop out fully formed after his first murder. “Rudeness is epidemic,” he hisses. Where did that come from? And yet, as he dispatches victim after victim, all we see is a Hannibal consumed with righteous anger — he might as well be the Punisher or any other super anti-hero.

As a film with no connection to the Hannibal Lecter mythology, “Rising” would be a mediocre period thriller. But as a prequel, it rings false, hollow — an insult Lecter himself would surely never allow to go unanswered. Grade: C-

“Hannibal Rising” is rated R for violence, gore, language, and sexual dialogue.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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