First off, I know that I’m way, way, way behind. I do have my reasons.
You see, back in the day I read Red Dragon and fell in love with the character of Will Graham, a man whose ability to get inside the mind of monsters was so profound the FBI thought he might be psychic. The question of whether he was or not remained unanswered by the end of the book, and I liked that it was left up to the reader to decide whether Graham’s power came from something unexplained by science or his own tamed monster. Red Dragon was the first book I read to suggest that the state of being monstrous was not necessarily something to be shunned; neither was it something that could necessarily be seen or explained.
I liked the original film, too, and got on okay with Silence of the Lambs in both formats. The problem was that it was the character of Hannibal Lecter that attracted all the attention — he was the more obvious monster, but a charming and handsome one, which made it fine to indulge in the thrill of having a secret crush on him.
So then we had Hannibal, which, for all its Mediaeval Memory Palace references and culture, for all the attention it gave to the titular monster, didn’t really become monstrous until the end. I’m not talking about the part where he serves up Krendler’s brain as an appetiser, either. The truly monstrous part was the romantic interlude, and they left that out of the movie.
I found it an incredibly strange decision however I think it was because Lecter’s popularity was fuelled by the same romantic notions that have led to sparkly vampires and werewolves that don’t smell of wet dog. Lecter being in love with Starling from a distance was romantic. Lecter actually making Starling his beloved companion, who shared his sense of aesthetics as well as his life… Well. That’s a bit like Dracula marrying Mina Harker and undying happily ever after. Serial killers don’t get happy endings. That would be amoral. Most people don’t like amoral romance to find fulfilment.
People don’t like amoral.
But, see, that’s the point. That was the thing I always liked about Lecter: the idea that he arrived fully formed, monstrous only because his moral stance was at odds with that of society: a man whose sense of aesthetics was impeccable and who set the highest of standards. For everyone.
Lecter as played by Brian Cox was cunning and intelligent but obviously insane, prone to petulance and self-absorption. Lecter as played by Hopkins was an educated sociopath and aesthete making the most of enforced asceticism. He also understood the nature of passion.
Hannibal Rising purported to tell the story of what made Lecter what he was: a childhood experience so dreadful that his heart died, taking his soul with it, and leaving a monster in its place. The entire film is about making him somehow lovable, about making him intelligible, about putting the viewer in a position where he feels he might understand how it is possible for Lecter to exist as he does.
For me that ruins it. Never mind the ridiculous and completely unwarranted martial arts training shoe-horned in there —presumably we need the “martial arts give you superpowers” trope because a fine sense of aesthetics and a predatory drive can’t possibly explain keen senses and reactions, oh no— I don’t need or even want to feel that Lecter exists because of something that could happen to anybody. That, to put it bluntly, is pretty much what this film says. Rather than Lecter being, in his own way, a unique and exquisite piece of art, he is just some poor kid whose sister was eaten by soldiers and who vowed to take revenge.
The Lecter of Hannibal Rising resembles Creepy Thin Man from the Charlie’s Angels franchise more than he does the Lecter who could and would take a woman apart and put her back together again so he would have someone fit to sit at his side while attending the National Opera.
When I first encountered the work of Thomas Harris it was Graham who interested me. More accurately, it was the monster that might live inside him that interested me. It was the monster in Lecter that I came to admire, living by his own rules and his own standards, which were, despite his capacity and tendency towards murder, so much higher than those of the population at large. He killed a viola player to improve the sound of an orchestra — and I can assure you, as a one-time orchestral viola player myself, that there are plenty of violinists who could understand that sentiment.
Lecter as explained by this prequel is no more than a disturbed child who went and got himself a good education. He’s no longer a one of a kind, never-to-be-repeated flash of lightning in a clear sky.
We don’t always need reasons. Some things are the more beautiful for their absence.