Movies

Having an Old Friend for Dinner

Defending Ridley Scott's Hannibal

“I came halfway around the world to watch you run.”

Movie sequels are a real crapshoot. There’s no exact formula to getting them right, and you’re almost guaranteed to never please everybody. Public opinion is mysterious; people will praise some movies for doing things that they criticize in others. A lot of this has to do with execution; what works in one movie won’t necessarily work in another, for various reasons, and when it does and doesn’t work is largely in the eye of the beholder. I, like most of you, probably find myself mystified by public opinion as often as I agree with it, and one such case is with Hannibal, the sequel to the undisputed classic The Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal, upon its initial release, was not well received at all, by critics or audiences. It seems to still be largely derided today (although for me it falls into the same category as The Godfather Part III – also a sequel, interestingly – where I’m constantly told how reviled it is but don’t personally know anyone who’s seen it and doesn’t like it). I love Hannibal, and put it on par with Silence and above Red Dragon, which I also like; in terms of the books, I actually like Hannibal better than Silence, partly because I like Silence the movie better than Silence the book. It’s also one of my favorite Ridley Scott movies. There are plenty of reasons why I love it, and I find that many of them are the same reasons other people don’t. These are the criticisms I’ve heard most often, and why I disagree with them (if you have different ones, comment below and I’ll be happy to debate you)…

*Spoilers for The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon*

The Characters Are Different

This is probably the biggest gripe people seem to have about Hannibal, and most of the others stem from it. “Hannibal isn’t interesting if he’s not in prison.” Huh? You want the most dangerous man in the world to be toothless for an entire movie bearing his name? “Clarice is different than she was in Silence.” I should hope so; she’s been doing stuff since then. People aren’t the same in every stage of their life; I thought and felt  things in my teens that I completely changed my mind on in my twenties, and now in my thirties I’m different again, and I’ve never even met a cannibal. Hannibal treats its characters (one of whom, let’s be real, is pretty arch) like real human beings.

Take Clarice. In Silence, she was a rookie, not even out of the academy, and she was suddenly dropped into this world of men’s men who didn’t respect her (outside of Jack Crawford, and even he made a well-meaning mistake or two), dealing with a psychopath who eats people and another who skins women alive to build himself a suit. She was great at investigating, even at this stage, but she was still completely unprepared for the degree of evil with which she had to contend. Through all of this, though, she was still very feminine; she played the role of someone who “knew her place,” because she reckoned it was the best way to get her job done with a bunch of guys who looked down on her; when she had to get tough, she was bad at it because she knew no one saw any authority in her. Her single-handedly solving the Buffalo Bill case and subsequent induction into the FBI signaled that she was no longer that girl who didn’t know how to assert herself. She’s Special Agent Starling of the FBI; watch out, bad guys.

Hannibal understands this and makes its Clarice Starling a changed person. She no longer shows undue deference to people who don’t respect her. In the opening scene, a local cop tries to throw his weight around and she shuts him up right away. When the FBI bigwigs question her judgment and abilities at every turn, she fights back instead of just taking it, as the old Clarice probably would have. She has grit now, partly due to her experience in Silence and partly due to living in a world that’s hostile to her at almost every turn. Julianne Moore doesn’t play Clarice like Jodie Foster did because she isn’t playing the same Clarice; hers has been changed by the hard life she leads, and that’s much more interesting than just showing her go through the motions.

Hannibal Lecter Isn’t Scary Anymore

Good Lord, do I disagree with this. It was when Hannibal came out that people began to turn on Anthony Hopkins, accusing him of overacting and playing a parody of Hannibal Lecter as opposed to an actual character. (The internet is too hip for its own good sometimes.) I’m a big proponent of everyone being entitled to their opinion, but this one puts my resolve to the test.

First, I would argue that Hannibal Lecter was always a larger-than-life character, at least as played by Hopkins. (As of this writing I haven’t seen Michael Mann’s Manhunter or the Hannibal TV show, but I plan on watching the former today before Silence and Hannibal; what better way to spend Halloween?) Clarice is an amazing character, and Hannibal still manages to steal The Silence of the Lambs out from under her with fifteen-twenty minutes of screen time; Hopkins even won the Best Actor Oscar – that’s lead, not supporting – for the role, so magnetic and forceful was the performance. He did that by projecting, by turning a serial killer into an icon whose presence is felt even when he’s off screen. That isn’t done by giving a natural, subdued performance. Hopkins went for the gusto with Lecter, and it was the exact right decision; part of what makes Lecter so much fun is his theatricality, and Hopkins knows how to play that up for maximum effect while still making Hannibal scary as all get-out.

In Hannibal, Lecter still has a penchant for the dramatic, and it’s as delicious as it was in Silence. It isn’t enough for him to just capture, interrogate and gruesomely kill Inspector Pazzi; he has to show him slides depicting the brutal fate of his ancestor, because he likes to toy with his victims. (This is established in the Mason Verger flashbacks, when Hannibal psychologically tortures Verger before getting him to cut his own face off.) He’s got lots of creepy one-liners, but he had those in Silence too, and he uses them for the same effect in both movies: to unnerve. He likes it when people are afraid of him, and he takes every opportunity he can to induce fear in those around him. It’s why his creepiness while in hiding still feels in character; he doesn’t want to do anything too obvious to give himself away – before beginning his correspondence with Clarice, that is – but he can’t change who he is. (Also, keep in mind that he doesn’t know Mason Verger is offering a bounty on his head, so he feels free to play a bit.) As often happens, the things people complain about now are the very things they once loved.

We also don’t know what Hannibal has been doing since his escape in Silence. We don’t see him eat anyone, but there are hints here and there that he may be up to his usual antics (to heavily euphemize cannibalistic serial murder). He’s campaigning for the position of a library curator after the previous holder of the title disappeared. Did the fellow simply run away, or was he a meal of Lecter’s? When he overhears someone suggest that he and his paramour “go get something to eat,” Hannibal grins mischievously and says to himself, “Why not?” Is he talking about eating foie gras or a human spleen? We don’t know, but it could very well be the latter.

And Hannibal does some very creepy things in the movie itself. He guts Pazzi while hanging him in the center of Florence. He savagely slits a man’s throat, smiling as he lets the blood fly. He convinces someone to feed his nemesis to hungry pigs. He cuts a guy’s head open, cooks and eats his brains at a dinner table. In the final moments of the film he feeds some of the leftover brains to a child! Hannibal is still as psychotic as he was in Silence, despite the showiness of the character and despite playing a different role in the new story.

Hannibal Lecter is the Hero This Time

And let’s talk about that new role. In Hannibal, Lecter is the hero of the movie, or at least the co-hero with Clarice. (Anti-hero might be more accurate, but that’s splitting hairs; he’s the protagonist this time alongside Clarice.) All of those scary, violent, horrifying things I mentioned a paragraph ago are done to evil people who deserve their fate (except the kid, of course, and an argument can be made for Pazzi as well). He is the victim of Mason Verger’s scheme. He puts himself at risk to help Clarice when she gets in trouble with the FBI top brass. He cuts off his own hand to protect her in the end. This isn’t the Hannibal Lecter we’re used to. That’s a good thing.

Hannibal Lecter has never been the antagonist of a movie or book. The closest he comes is Red Dragon (and, presumably, Manhunter), where he colludes with the Tooth Fairy to kill Will Graham, but he’s an accomplice more than the actual villain. Hannibal serves as the x-factor in those stories, the catalyst to bring about change, always seeming to help the hero while hiding ulterior motives. Since Red Dragon takes place before The Silence of the Lambs, there is a pattern: from conspirator with the villain to ally with the hero against the villain to protagonist in his own right. The character evolves not only as a person, but in his function in the plots.

This evolution is also a result of the filmmakers’ (and, indeed, of Thomas Harris’) understanding of fan reaction to The Silence of the Lambs. Let’s not beat around the bush; Hannibal Lecter is everyone’s favorite character in Silence. Clarice is terrific and we love her, but it’s Hannibal that brings us back so many times. We watch that movie waiting for “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, ffffffffffff!” and his many other great lines. When he makes his escape from prison, we’re most disturbed not by his brutality, but by the fact that we’re actually rooting for him. His closing line about “having an old friend for dinner” (one of my favorite lines, and favorite endings, in any movie) makes us cheer for what’s sure to come for Frederick Chilton, despite the fact that Chilton, while a jerk, isn’t really evil and doesn’t deserve to be eaten alive. Hannibal understands all of this and runs with it, making Lecter the hero. It’s uncomfortable, and it should be, just as his likability in Silence was uncomfortable, but we secretly love it because we love him.

I would also argue that Hannibal Lecter had the makings of an anti-hero in Silence. He may be evil, but he’s got a sense of justice and morality, loose though it may be. When Miggs disrespects Clarice in particularly degrading fashion, Lecter offers the help he previously denied as recompense, and even repays Miggs in full for the slight. He’s kind and respectful to Barney because Barney treats him the same (and Barney, in Hannibal, tells Clarice that Lecter “preferred to eat the rude”). I’m not saying he’s Atticus Finch or anything, but there’s a certain conscience at play, albeit a warped one. Hannibal is a neat exploration of that.

Hannibal Lecter is Too Humanized

This is kind of an offshoot of Lecter being the hero. This time, the world’s greatest monster is revealed to be all too human. He’s not just a serial killer, not just a devourer of flesh; he’s a man in love with a woman who will never love him back. Most of what Hannibal does in this movie is out of love for Clarice. He goes to great lengths to help her, and he nearly destroys himself for her, offering himself up to Mason Verger on a silver platter. And, in the end, she rebuffs him (as any sane person would), putting her own life in jeopardy to bring him in. In response, Hannibal cuts off his own hand, choosing to hurt himself instead of hurting her and leaving himself with a permanent reminder that she will never be his (a piece of him is literally missing without her); as Clarice serves justice, Hannibal serves his heart.

Again, the movie is aware that Hannibal is our favorite character and uses this to humanize him. He is not only the hero of the movie, but he is now the audience surrogate. He’s the lovelorn outcast, fantasizing about a woman forever out of reach; basically, he’s all of us in high school, and most of us beyond as well. As with our secret rooting for Hannibal, this is disturbing; we don’t like the idea that an evil man is, at heart, not all that different from us. Does this mean we all have the capacity to be a Hannibal Lecter? Wisely, the movie doesn’t tackle this head-on; it just subtly puts it out there, letting us mull it over on our own.

Some would say this is a misunderstanding of his and Clarice’s relationship in Silence, that he didn’t love her in that movie in any normal, romantic sense of the word. I agree, to an extent; Hannibal didn’t seem like he was in love with Clarice because he likely didn’t realize he was. He found her fascinating. He was compelled to defend her honor. He helped her not only advance in her career but put her inner demons to rest. (The closing line of the book is a wonderful testament to this.) He found himself wanting to be around her. He told her at the end that “the world’s a more interesting with [her] in it.” He even inquired as to her welfare. (“Well, Clarice? Have the lambs stopped screaming?”)These are the actions and feelings of someone in love, even if they don’t know it. In the ten years separating the events of the two films, he’d have had plenty of time to reflect on his feelings; it’s entirely feasible he would discover that he loves her. And a monster in love may be the most dangerous monster of all.

It is Wildly Different From The Silence of the Lambs

This is the crux of it. People wanted Silence 2: Return of the Lambs, and they got something completely different; Lecter isn’t in prison, Clarice isn’t a rookie trying to make her way in a world of men (although that struggle is still there for her; she just reacts to it differently), and it’s even harder to classify than its predecessor. This is something that people complained about a lot in that era, even when the movies weren’t sequels; to use some of my very favorite filmmakers as examples, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski were initially disappointments because they weren’t carbon copies of Pulp Fiction and Fargo, respectively, although they’ve grown exponentially in public regard since then. (Based on my experience, people still seem to want this in their sequels, but only when done wholesale.) 

I disagree with this; I think it’s much more interesting to do something different (with certain exceptions where the formula is part of the funJames Bond films, for example). Why would you want to watch something that was exactly the same as The Silence of the Lambs? Just watch Silence again. For all the reasons above, Hannibal is a completely different animal, and it manages to grow the characters we loved in the previous film without making them go through the motions of a “Silence Film.” The opening scene finds Clarice on a case that not only doesn’t involve Hannibal Lecter but has nothing to do with serial killers; she’s on a high-profile drug bust, and that turns into a bullet-riddled fiasco that seems more at home in something like Face/Off or Heat than The Silence of the Lambs. Right away, the movie is telling us that it’s nothing like what we were expecting.

There are nods to Silence throughout, but they’re small and they fit perfectly within the film. Barney the guard, for example, has a small part in the beginning, and his scene with Clarice is the perfect callback to the first movie; these are two people who aren’t exactly friends, but they’ve both been through something that no one else can really understand in their dealings with Hannibal Lecter, and that creates a kinship between them. These may be the only two people on Earth Lecter actually likes, at least on an intimate level, and as such they have a special insight into the mind of a true monster. Since Clarice spends much of the movie fighting with her smug superiors over her unique knowledge of Lecter, this scene is crucial to setting up that idea, or at least reaffirming it for fans of Silence. And that’s it for Barney in the film. He doesn’t become Clarice’s sidekick or anything silly like that; he has a great scene that serves its purpose to the plot/themes, then he disappears back into his normal life, a good man forever haunted by his proximity to evil.

There are other instances; Dr. Chilton is name-dropped, but nothing is said of what happened to him after the events of Silence, and that’s exactly as it should be; why ruin that movie’s perfect ending? Paul Krendler (who was a background character in Silence, and wasn’t played by Ray Liotta, so was, by default, exponentially less cool) is in this film too, but his role is expanded and he’s one of the central villains, in addition to being the face of Starling’s crushing opposition at the FBI, so he’s important to the story and the themes. Hannibal’s famous mask from Silence returns, but with a purpose; he’s once again in captivity and the world is safe from his appetite, but Clarice now elects to free him instead of trying to keep him caged.

Moreover, the omissions Hannibal makes are the correct ones. Jack Crawford doesn’t appear, which reinforces how alone Clarice is until Hannibal shows up to help her. (Crawford is in the novel, and as much as I love the book, he does feel kind of tacked on.) Clarice isn’t partners with her old roommate/classmate from Silence, indicating that she’s grown beyond that stage in her life and has actually made new friends. She doesn’t have to go to those two bug experts from Silence, because why the hell would she? (Interestingly, in The Silence of the Lambs the book, she and one of the bug guys actually become romantically involved; there are hints of that in the movie, but it isn’t really explored, which was the right choice because it would’ve bogged down a terrifically-paced film.) This is a carefully constructed movie, and fans of Silence are treated without being pandered to at the expense of the plot.

***

Hannibal is more than a worthy sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a completely different movie that does justice to two beloved characters, growing them while keeping them consistent.  It gives us enough of what we loved about its predecessor to feel like a companion piece while being its own distinct story, honoring Silence while refusing to be constrained by it. And it’s fun, scary, heartfelt and unnervingly human. Or, to put it another way: you wouldn’t want to eat the same meal over and over, would you?

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