Hannibal – A Book Review

I understand the pressure that Thomas Harris has been under. Really, I do. Since the second of his Hannibal Lecter novels was released as a film in 1991, the public has been calling for a sequel. Silence of the Lambs won five Oscars, all well-deserved, and the book reads with little difference from the finished film. A rarity in such movies.

So in the weeks before Hannibal, the third of Harris’s Lecter books, was released in June 1999, the press was clamoring about the inevitable movie. Even going so far as putting Anthony Hopkins masked face on the cover of Entertainment Weekly before he had agreed to reprise his role.

“The Honey in the Lamb”

So here it is, like a gift from on high. For sale everywhere. Libraries carry hundreds of copies and still maintain a waiting list some yards long.

And how is it?

Well, let me restate that Silence of the Lambs (the book) read with the exact pacing as its cousin (the film). Everything in the book could be found in the movie, and vice versa, save a few minor details.

Hannibal is a much more ponderous book. Literally. Harris takes the reader on many a tangential journey, and not all of them are rewarding. Where the reader dealt with the brusque reality of events in Silence, in Hannibal bright light is shed on character introspection and flights of dark fantasy.

The setup is intrigueing. When we last left our anti-hero, he had escaped federal custody and free to dine on the unsuspecting bureaucrat who had tormented him. Hannibal takes place seven years later, and Lecter has taken to calling himself Dr. Fell. His face altered, his sixth finger removed, he has managed to weave himself into the fabric of Florence, Italy.

The villain in Hannibal is one of Lecter’s earlier victims. An embodiment of cruelty and vengence with only one functioning arm, one lidless eye and no face, Mason Verger’s condition is the result of Dr. Lecter’s therapy some twelve years ago. He hopes to see Lecter suffer in a most original way.

Then there is Clarice Starling. In what seems to be a recurring theme in today’s “trust no one” paranoia, Starling has gotten herself involved with a botched federal raid, the reference obviously being to the FBI’s activities at Ruby Ridge. Clarice will eventually be caught between the stately cannibal and the mutilated sadist.

I do not want to say more, because the places this tome will take the reader are interesting and often surprising. And quite unsettling. There are times that the current of activity will rivet the reader, actually maintaining a suspense. And at other times, there are compelling glimpses into the mind of Hannibal Lecter, into what Harris calls his “mental palace” — these are the times where you indulge Harris’s attempt to make this novel into an epic.

One more thing. When I read the last twenty or so pages, I found myself wondering if Harris somehow resents Hollywood’s assumption that he the one to present them with another fatted calf for public consumption. Just as in the final episodes of television’s Twin Peaks, when writer/director David Lynch was aware that ABC no longer intended to appreciate his product, the storyline took on a bitter quality and all of the charm faded into deep shades of black, so does the conclusion of Hannibal. The book becomes everything its predecessor was not — practically unfilmable.

Reading Hannibal is not a waste of time, at points entertaining and chilling, but come to this book with the understanding that you are entering a dark place and your eyes might not adjust once you are deep within.

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