Friday, May 19, 2017

REVIEWING THE HANNIBAL LECTER SAGA PART TWO; HANNIBAL THE FILM

Hannibal as a novel and film was quite controversial from the get go. Thomas Harris worked on the follow up to Silence Of The Lambs for almost a decade, while Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster, and Anthony Hopkins were all anxiously waiting to return to that world in the inevitable film adaptation. Though a best seller, the book was met with a very mixed response. The two biggest critics, three counting Silence screenwriter Ted Tally, was Demme and Foster who declined to be apart of the sequel once they got a hold of the "lurid" novel. The violence in Hannibal was far greater then it was in Silence (and remember, Gene Hackman passed on directing and starring in that film because of it's violent content) and neither director or actress could see themselves taking part in this grand guignol.

Producer Dino De Laurentis, who owned the rights to the Lecter character and had produced Mann's Manhunter, but not Silence, was eager to capitalize on the Lecter gold mine with Hannibal and approached Ridley Scott. Scott's one of my five directors, in fact along with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, he was the first director I knew by name and looked for his films. I'd seen Alien with my dad at the age of five and was forever effected by it. Later it was the same with Blade Runner. Scott is a stylish director who has tackled many different types of stories through his career and for my money he's always been pretty damn successful. Scott had some initial reservations about coming aboard, one, he wanted to make sure he wasn't stepping on Demme's toes and two, something had to be done about that ending.

Probably the most controversial thing about Hannibal the novel was the fact that it ends with Lecter
and Starling becoming lovers. I've never met anyone that bought that ending. Fortunately for Scott, Harris wasn't married to the ending and allowed changes to be made. That was one saving grace the film had going for it, the other was Hopkins agreed to return to the role of Lecter. Everyone knew that without Hopkins they had no film.

Hannibal was going to be a hard road regardless of who was involved or what ending the film had. Silence in both book and film were massively successful, multi-award winning, and had a rabid public with high expectations for a sequel. That's almost always a recipe for disaster and few franchises are able to deliver sequels as good as the original.

However, the screenplay was written by David Mamet and Steve Zaillion and Julianne Moore was cast to replace Foster. In Part One of this series I expressed my overall disappointment with Moore in the role, but I want to say again, it was not because she did a bad job, it was because Foster was imprinted in my mind so deeply, that anyone else in that role would be distracting. It could also be that Starling in Hannibal was now a seasoned, hardened ten year vet with the Bureau, so the natural innocence that Foster brings to everything she does might have hindered the movie. Who's to say? In the end it's a minor gripe and Moore is a tremendous actress. Scott also brought in production designer Norris Spencer, cinematographer John Mathieson, and composer Hans Zimmer, all of whom Scott had worked with in the past, which helped to give Hannibal a very 'Scott' feel.

Where Silence had very few scenes of violence and gore (most of it took place off screen, and we were only shown the aftermath or told about it), Scott inverted the ratio and gave us several harrowing and gory set pieces. Which may not be surprising coming from the guy who Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space, but Alien and all subsequent Scott films had actually been quite light on gore. This time though, Scott gave us disemboweling, cannibalism, disfigurement, and dinner table brain surgery. The most disgusting (and awesome) effects belonged to Gary Oldman's Mason Varger character. Varger had been Hannibal's only surviving victim (unless you count Will Graham), but he survived at a great cost. In Hannibal, we see him years after his meeting with Lecter, disfigured, paralyzed, and seething for revenge. After Lecter had escaped custody at the end of Silence, Varger had planned a very special revenge against him; he's going to have Lecter fed to wild boars he'd bred for this specific purpose. Oldman was completely unrecognizable in the role and went uncredited in the theatrical release. As a secondary antagonist, he practically stole the movie, for me, especially considering I feel that the film peters out in the third act.

Not that the third act didn't have one spectacular highlight, namely Lecter removing the top of Ray
Liotta's (who played Paul Krenndler) head and made him eat a part of his own brain. Hell, later Lecter fed a child a bit of that brain too! By the time the credits rolled, Scott had given us a classy grind house exploitation film, but the ambiguous ending, which saw Lecter escaping once again was a let down. Neither Lecter or Hopkins were young men, how many more times could we believably accept the further exploits of Hannibal Lecter? He wasn't Michael Meyers, he wasn't an unstoppable killing machine. It would have been far more satisfying with Starling either returning him to custody in the Baltimore State Prison for the Criminally Insane or killing him. When it was all said and done, it Starling I wanted more of, not Hannibal.

I get it though, Hopkins remained magnetic on screen. The way he delivered his lines, the way he moved, the life he brought to the role. They really would not have had a movie had Hopkins declined to return.

Though the film had the highest grossing opening weekend for a  R-rated movie at the time, critics were mixed and mostly dismissive of Hannibal. Roger Ebert called it a "carnival geek show" and gave it a thumbs down. It was mostly considered a gross and inferior film to Silence, which had enjoyed rave reviews to go along with it's numerous Oscar wins. I think there was a grand amount of unfairness and misunderstanding on the part of critics, though. Hannibal needed to be judged as an individual stand alone film and not held up so closely to Silence. Hannibal wasn't the same sort of slick, commercial, psychological thriller Silence was. It was very much a horror/crime film with it's own aesthetic. Scott was not beholden to Demme's vision, nor has Scott ever been turned off by violence the way Demme initially was before he accepted the Silence job.

There are four different Lecter "universes"; The Hopkins, The Rising, The Mann, and The Fuller. We're only concerned with The Hopkins right now though, which is Silence, Hannibal, and Red Dragon (which is a remake that basically exists to correct what DeLaurentis considers the mistake of Mann's Manhunter). All three films are so tonally different that they have to be judged more on their own merit than as a whole. Having three different directors, with three distinct styles doesn't help. The books though can be easily compared and ranked, with Silence and Dragon being strong than Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which are both very strong books at the end of the day. Back to Hannibal the film though, I think the critical response was due more a misperception and/or prejudged misconceptions about what the film was and was not. How could anyone had gotten around that though? Silence was a juggernaut and Hannibal was doomed to wither in it's shadow before a single frame was shot.

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