Book vs. Movie: The Trouble with Hannibal

Yesterday there was an article posted here on The Horror Syndicate announcing the upcoming 4KUHD and Blu-Ray re-release of Ridley Scott’s 2001 adaptation of Hannibal, the follow-up to horror/thriller masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs. Based off the 1999 book by Thomas Harris, the movie was widely anticipated and performed very well at the box office, but I remember leaving the theater on opening day feeling cheated. I absolutely hated this movie. In terms of style alone, it was a complete departure from The Silence of the Lambs, and the absence of Jodie Foster in the role of Clarice Starling was keenly felt, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Hannibal, the book, is one of my all-time favorite horror novels. It’s fast-paced, epic in scope, full of the psychological and visceral horror that made the earlier two novels in the series so popular, and it expanded upon the characters in a gratifying way that didn’t do any damage to the source material. Now, as a bibliophile, I am very aware that there is always going to be something lost in translation between the page and screen; I accept that as an inevitability. Movies are subject to time and editorial constraints and some things just have to be left on the cutting-room floor, but we all know there are many faithful adaptations of great books that have gone on to become cinema classics in their own right (including The Silence of the Lambs). To me (and probably for anyone who has read the book), this movie was so far gone from Harris’ original narrative, using only a few major plot points as a skeletal structure, that it’s not at all a representation of the novel. There are several reasons I think this wonderful book became a clusterfuck of a movie, and I’m going to discuss them in detail in the paragraphs below.

WARNING: There are major spoiler alerts ahead for anyone who has not read Hannibal…

The biggest problem is that the filmmakers did not honor the source material. Anyone who has read The Silence of the Lambs and watched the movie will tell you that there is very little difference between the two. I never understand why Hollywood will option a novelist’s work, only to impose their own “creative” vision upon it; all too often this ruins an adaptation. I always think of Stephen King’s The Shining as a prime example of this. Kubrick’s movie has become a classic in its own right, but King has always been vocal about his dislike of Kubrick’s vision, going as far as to say the director missed the point of the book entirely. That is exactly what I think happened here. The director of Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme) was a fan of the book and made sure to preserve the integrity of the novel, but here we have Ridley Scott brought on board to direct and he didn’t even know what the movie was about (when offered Hannibal by Dino DeLaurentis, he thought the movie was about the ancient story of Hannibal crossing the alps and reportedly said, “But, Dino, I don’t want to make a film about elephants…”)

One of the main themes of the book is that Clarice and Lecter are not foils for each other, not opposing forces, but dopplegangers of a sort. The book focuses on ruination and disintegration of the moral structure that is programmed into us since birth. We see the beginnings of Lecter’s disintegration in flashbacks as he and his family are subject to the horrors of WWII when he was a very young boy; we also see, in great detail, the ruination of Clarice Starling brought about by crooked people in the government she has pledged an oath to. And make no mistake, Clarice is as deadly as Lecter; her reputation as a marksman is what gets her drafted into joining the botched DEA/FBI raid that is the opening point for both the book and movie; a raid in which she is forced to kill 5 people, including a mother with her baby strapped to a carrier on her chest. It is her job to track Lecter down, yet we see her touching upon the edges of an epiphany, that perhaps the people that she kills for may not be the force of “good” as all her training and moral upbringing has brought her to believe. There is nothing of the Lecter backstory left in the movie and we see very little of any change affecting Clarice. She remains the dedicated soldier throughout, even as those in power do their level best to destroy her completely. This is a point I will come back to.

Mason Verger, the true villain here, becomes a weak caricature in the film. I don’t fault Gary Oldman for this, I think he did a fine job of portraying the disfigured and disabled Mason, but the film doesn’t take any time to develop Mason’s character to make him as menacing and disgusting as he was in the novel. In the book we get to see in detail Mason the pederast, Mason the torturer, Mason the co-hort of Idi Amin, Mason the brilliant sadist with unlimited money and resources in the government power structure that even Clarice can’t access. The Mason in the movie is simply a grotesque man in a wheelchair, another choice I feel that hurt the movie badly. In the book, Mason is bedridden, dependent on a hard-shelled respirator to deliver each breath. I think of Silence of the Lambs and how they used all the claustrophobic close-up facial shots to create an aura of tension with Lecter and Clarice in the asylum, and they should have employed this device with the character of Mason. In the pages of the book, Mason is much more frightening and evil than Lecter could ever be, even given the fact that he is trapped, as Lecter was much of the first film. His is a mind full of disease and in the movie he comes across simply as an invalid hell-bent on the destruction of Lecter, who put him in his current condition.

I know that it is impossible to put every single detail of a book into a film, but the movie did suffer greatly from the omission of two important characters: Ardelia Mapp and Margot Verger. Ardelia is Clarice’s friend, roommate, and fellow FBI agent. She was in the movie version of Silence, and she should have been in Hannibal. Clarice has no family, no ties to anything, except Ardelia who serves as her last tether to sanity. But the biggest mistake was not to include Margot, Mason’s sister and long-time victim. Margot is tied to Mason for his money even though he has raped and savaged her many times in their childhood. She plays a large role in the book and is a perfect example of exactly how heartless and cruel Mason is, that he could ravage even a member of his own family. She is the one who kills Mason in the book after Lecter escapes the pigs with the unconscious body of Clarice in his arms. Mason’s death at the hands of his sister is not just more satisfying than in the movie (really, in the film his death feels like an afterthought), it is almost poetic, and grisly. We really missed out by not having it depicted on the screen.

And now I come to perhaps my major bone of contention: the ending. When the book was released in 1999, there was a huge controversy over the final chapters. Clarice, under the spell of hypnotic drugs and introspective sessions with Dr. Lecter becomes a seemingly whole new creature. There is a surreal scene in which she and Hannibal dine upon the brain of still-conscious Paul Krendler (the man who ruined her life and career) and at the ending of the book, the two of them are spotted years later attending the opera in Argentina, very much in love. Man, people flipped their shit over how the book ended back then. Some called it absurd, some said it had to be all a sick joke or a hallucination; I thought it was brilliant. A fitting ending. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the main theme of the book being ruination and disintegration of Clarice Starling. Once they stripped her of her career, which was her whole life, there was nothing left for her. Once she realized that the people who lorded their power over her were working with Mason so he could watch Lecter be eaten by his horde of carnivorous swine, her notions of good and evil crumbled. She went on her own, stripped of all her official power, to rescue Lecter because she was driven by the thought of his suffering, as she was in Silence by the plight of the young girl in Buffalo Bill’s basement, as she was driven away from the last of her family when awoken by the screaming lambs as a small child. Lecter has her at her most vulnerable and uses his psychological prowess to foster the growth of a new individual from the ruins of what once was Clarice Starling. It’s all very epic, very literary, I know, and I understand why the filmmakers shied away from Harris’ ending, but what we got in the movie felt very much tacked-on. But, more than that, in the movie, Clarice’s narrative arc is incomplete. She undergoes no real change. Her loyalty at the end is still with the very people responsible for breaking her. She gives Lecter up (or tries to), and to what end? I prefer Harris’ ending because if nothing else, it should make us think about the nature of good and evil and how we are conditioned to assign those labels and never to question the actions of those that move about the world in the guise of “good” even as the perpetrate acts we have come to recognize as “evil”.

Almost 20 years later and I guess it’s pretty clear how disappointed I was in this movie. I urge anyone reading my rantings and ravings here to go check out the book, and if you have, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

About Brian White 21 Articles
I am a lifelong horror junkie, musician, and writer. I'm in the process of publishing my first book of poetry as well as writing my first novel. I'm 38 years old and I live in Canton, Ohio.