I read Red Dragon and thought, “Wow, it’s about the forensics of how they catch a killer. Cool!” I read The Silence of the Lambs and thought, “Wow, it’s about exploiting the dark side of human psychology to catch a killer. Cool!” I even read Hannibal and thought, “Wow, Thomas Harris is a sick m*therf*cker.” I was with him in Hannibal through training the pigs to eat people. I was with him through all the child sexual abuse stuff. But when Officer Krendler is fed sautéed parts of his own frontal lobe…I knew I wouldn’t be reading any more Harris novels.
Don’t get me wrong…I can stomach pretty much anything in the name of narrative or art. I’m not insensitive to the artistic need for expression when it comes to exploration of our darker nature. But for me the more graphic or specific the violence the greater the need it has to serve the narrative. And for me Harris crossed the line with Hannibal. But I want to talk about The Silence of the Lambs…the film and specifically about the character of Hannibal Lecter.
Saturdays at this blog are for psychos and they don’t come more frightening than Sir Anthony Hopkins Academy Award winning portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He scares us because he’s a contradiction. He’s a sophisticated, educated man, yet he partakes in two of society’s biggest taboos: Serial killing and cannibalism. What’s even worse is he often turns others into cannibals by serving them human flesh unknowingly. That fact alone terrifies. And in Hannibal (as mentioned above) he even turns one man into an auto-cannibal.
We like our Boogey Men to be readily identifiable, but Lecter is highly intelligent and blends in with the upper crust of our society. He appreciates fine art (his sketches in his cell are meticulous). He has a large vocabulary (“Thrill me with your acumen.”). He is refined and witty. He is a gourmet (he reads Bon Appetite magazine), yet he eats a man’s liver with fava beans and some nice Chianti. Harris’s point in this story is that in modern American society, it’s not that simple to determine who the bad guys are any more. Lecter’s affect is extreme to the point of theatricality when he speaks to Clarice Starling (another Academy Award winning performance by Jodi Foster). He has a keen sense of how people’s minds work and he works Clarice.
He frightens us because he is essentially what we are supposed to aspire to be…externally. His character is revealed to us through his physicality. He is neat and meticulous. It is revealed through his facial expressions…at one point he winks at Clarice, so charming. His character is revealed through his calculation of words, deployed at times almost sadistically, for example when he asks Senator Martin with the missing daughter if she breastfed her daughter, and then he says, “Amputate a man’s leg and he can still feel it tickling. Tell me, Mom, when your little girl is on the slab, where will it tickle you?” It’s diabolical. He’s cruel on a nightmarish level. He takes people to the mental breaking point and then pulls back. He is a master manipulator. It’s Senator Martin who pegs him though when she says, “Take this thing back to Baltimore.” This sentiment is echoed by Clarice later in the film when she is asked if Lecter is “some kind of vampire” and she replies, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”
He is also ruthless in his pursuits. We see this near the end when he makes what has to be one of the most spectacular escapes in movie history. The slow, methodical way in which he beats the guard calls to mind the animalistic behavior of the ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey as he discovers the power of weapons for the first time. The animalistic comparison is not incidental. It’s where Lecter's true character is revealed to the reader/viewer. Up until this scene, we’ve been shown a man of slight stature, maybe a little intimidating when riled, awesomely egotistic, but all the security appears hyperbolic. Actions speak louder than words and in this scene Lecter’s actions are unmistakably savage. No matter how he hides it, perhaps even to himself, no matter how above the common man Lecter sets himself, no matter how deeply he steeps himself in sophistication… he is a savage, ruthless, psychotic monster with no regard for human life.
It’s not his attempt to balance the two aspects of man’s good and evil that ultimately makes him interesting. In fact, he makes no attempt at balance at all, but is merely an opportunist waiting to exploit other’s mistakes. It’s the fact that he masks his psychosis so well. Put him on the other side of the prison cell wall and he blends effortlessly. Imagine the intellect of a master chess player, then imagine him/her as your opponent. Then imagine making it to the end of the game and realizing all the pieces you lost were eaten!
Thank you, Mr. Harris, for your creation of a complex character worthy of the Psycho Saturday list! Even though I haven’t read it, I can only imagine that your book Hannibal Rising is an interesting exploration into what it took to create the mind and pathology of a Hannibal Lecter. .