Hannibal Inc.

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Back in 1979 author Thomas Harris was in Mississippi writing a novel about an intrepid detective named Will Graham who was on the trail of a particularly gruesome serial killer dubbed the Red Dragon. During long nocturnal walks through a cotton field, Harris came up with an ingeniously creepy notion: Graham would seek expert advice from a murderer he had captured years earlier-the baddest serial killer of them all, one Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Nearly a quarter-century after Harris got the Big Idea, Red Dragon is about to hit the big screen, the latest film in one of Hollywood's least likely but most lucrative franchises. The critically hailed The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and last year's bloody, operatic Hannibal-both adapted from best-selling Harris novels-have grossed $623 million worldwide. If Red Dragon can match Hannibal's performance, the total could approach $1 billion.

For this, Universal can thank Anthony Hopkins, the erstwhile London stage actor now synonymous with the savage and intellectual Lecter. "He's Darth Vader," says Red Dragon director Brett Ratner. "He's Superman." Hopkins, who was paid more than $10 million for the leading role in Hannibal, was reluctant to revisit the part a second time. "My agent said, ‘Do you want to do it?'" recalls Hopkins, 64. "I said, ‘I've done two,' and he said, ‘Well, it wouldn't be a bad idea.'" Not bad at all. For his supporting role in Red Dragon (as in Silence of the Lambs, he has only a few choice scenes), Hopkins will receive 7.5% of the movie's gross, with $8 million of it in advance, as well as bonuses.

Lecter, who once drugged a man and persuaded him to peel off his own face with a knife, has also incited some unseemly behavior at Hollywood studios. MGM-which owns the movie rights to Harris' Silence of the Lambs-threatened to sue before Universal rolled the cameras on Hannibal. MGM laid legal claim to the character of fbi agent Clarice Starling, who had been introduced in Lambs. Ultimately, Universal made MGM a partner on Hannibal.

But Hollywood is willing to do almost anything to keep the doctor in business, even if that means making the same movie twice. Michael Mann's 1986 thriller Manhunter was also based on the novel Red Dragon. Studios adore the Lecter movies because they share an attribute extremely rare among violent thrillers: fascinating female characters beloved by both actresses and female moviegoers. Jodie Foster won a Best Actress Oscar as Clarice Starling in Lambs; Julianne Moore stepped into Clarice's sensible shoes in Hannibal. Red Dragon's female lead is British actress Emily Watson (see following story), who plays a tough, young blind woman.

Despite the appetite for more Lecter movies, the $80 million Red Dragon almost didn't get made. "Hannibal was a big hit," says an agent, "but most people in Hollywood thought it was an awful movie that almost killed the franchise." With its baroque gore and pitch-black humor (Ray Liotta ate his own brains), the movie was jarring compared with the more subtle Lambs, which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And even though Manhunter made peanuts at the box office, it is highly regarded by some filmmakers.

"I talk to some important directors," says Red Dragon producer Dino De Laurentiis, 83, in his thick Italian accent. "Everybody is scared to do Red Dragon because Manhunter is good movie. But Hannibal Lecter is a two-dimensional character in Manhunter." Screenwriter Ted Tally (who also adapted Lambs) wasn't intimidated. "I didn't have any interest in re-creating Manhunter, which to me was kind of like a Miami Vice episode," says Tally. "I love the book." His script, which explores all the characters' psychological underpinnings, helped get the esteemed cast on board: Edward Norton as Will Graham, Ralph Fiennes as the serial killer and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a tabloid reporter who expires, memorably, in a speeding, flaming wheelchair.

Red Dragon opens with a scene borrowed from the Lambs novel, in which Lecter serves a musician to his unwitting dinner guests, and ends with an oblique reference to Starling. Lecter's cell from Lambs has also been re-created by production designer Kristi Zea. The references didn't come cheap, since the movie rights to Lambs still belong to MGM. This time, Universal avoided litigation by offering MGM a share of Red Dragon's box office.

The question is, With all three of Harris' Lecter books having been filmed at least once, what happens to the franchise? The secretive author is not expected to write another Lecter novel soon (if ever). "He takes years to do a book," says Harris' agent, Mort Janklow. "I have no idea whether his next project is going to have Hannibal." Hopkins says he's through playing the role: "I've done my act, and I've got no more to show."

But Hopkins also tells friends how much he loves playing the part. And De Laurentiis has approached Tally about writing yet another Lecter screenplay-with or without a Harris book. "In Hollywood you can never say never," says Tally. "But what would it be? Hannibal Lecter in an old folks' home? As a school kid? As a fetus? I don't know. Dino says, ‘Maybe we'll do a television series!'"

Tally laughs, but at least one person close to the author (he declined to be interviewed) says Harris may be willing to work with a screenwriter. Universal production exec Mary Parent chooses her words carefully: "There have not been hard conversations [about that prospect]." Don't be surprised to find Lecter eating lunch in this town again.

-With reporting by Heather Won Tesoriero

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