Becoming Hannibal Lecter

  • Share
  • Read Later

Sir Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs"

Consider the boy, at 13 or 18, through the two-way mirror at a police station — oh, he knows you're watching — and see a creature of preternatural poise. He already has the disquieting gift of lowering the temperature of any room he enters. He is armed, by birth and training, with courtly courtesy; it would be called charm, if he were human. These impeccable manners do their best to conceal two of the lad's salient traits: his contempt for people and his almost artistic curiosity in how he might hurt them.

A Paris police inspector, Pascal Popil, has been interested in this boy for five years, and is convinced he has recently murdered a half-dozen men. Yet Popil does not charge him with any of these killings. No, the inspector intuits in the boy a trait stronger and stranger than homicidal brutality: a remoteness from fellow feeling."I don't want a conviction," Popil says, "I want him declared insane. In an asylum they can study him and try to find out what he is.... There's not a word for it yet. For lack of a better word, we'll call him a monster."

Everyone knows the monster this boy evolved into: Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant psychiatrist who murdered people and ate them. In 2003, the American Film Institute chose his screen incarnation, by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, as the No. 1 villain in Hollywood history. (Clarice Starling, the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster in Silence, was named the top female movie hero. But that was due to either affirmative action or gilt by association.) The AFI also chose Hannibal's description of how his disposed of one of his victims — "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti" — as the 21st most famous movie quote of all time.

Hannibal the Cannibal made his debut in Thomas Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon and reappeared in the 1988 Silence and the 1999 Hannibal. All three novels were filmed, Red Dragon twice (once under the title Manhunter). Now there's a fourth novel, a prequel to the others — Lecter's life to the age 18. Hannibal Rising has just been published, with all the hoopla and suspense-mongering of a Harry Potter novel: a first printing of 1.5 million, and no advance copies to reviewers. On Feb. 9 there will be a movie version, for which Harris did the screenplay. That could be unique: a best-selling novelist writing a new book and the movie version to come out almost simultaneously.

The story in brief: Young Hannibal, the son of a Lithuanian count and an Italian noblewoman, lives idyllically with them and his beloved baby sister Mischa — the first of the women Hannibal will love, venerate and dominate. The Nazi blitzkrieg flushes the Lecters out of the family estate and into the woods, where they survive by foraging. In the devastating winter of 1944-45, with the country starving, some army deserters with Nazi tendencies kill Hannibal's parents and round up the local children. "We have to eat or die," one deserter tells them — the kids are to be killed, cooked and eaten. That fate befalls Mischa (who, at two, is oddly thought to have more meat on her than her eight-year-old brother). Hannibal must watch as the brutes boil and devour her; he faints away, and when he comes to he does not speak for five years.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4