Why do people love Hannibal Lecter so much? Why did people so eagerly await "Hannibal?"
To quote the happy, saucer-eyed response to electronic music of a child that an old composer friend once told me about: "MONSTERS!"
Exactly. Young or old, we love monsters. And need them. We spend so much of our lives feeling humdrum and at the mercy of larger forces that we need to imagine vile creatures who seem to be at the mercy of nothing.
That's why "Hannibal" is going to annihilate all competition in this weekend's movie houses. That Ridley Scott's adaptation of Thomas Harris' best seller is a terrific movie in its bizarre and unexpected way is gravy.
Little kids need "pocket monsters." That's why the Japanese gave them Pokemon. We older folks condemned to plug away 2 4/7 at ordinary life have the exact same psychic needs. That's why we've got Hannibal Lecter.
He is, remember, the Lancelot of serial killing monstrosities. He saves his gory homicidal genius for the corrupt, the oppressive and the criminally insane and generally leaves nice folks to walk the streets unharmed. That is no small blessing when a maniac is able to slit a throat or disembowel a victim with a single stroke and then consume the remains with fava beans and a good Chianti.
Readers and moviegoers feel the same thrilling, shuddery affection for this modern Gothic monster that kids do for their Pokemon. That's why novelistic creator Thomas Harris - perhaps the most accomplished concocter of large scale pulp fiction in our time - was all but forced to give him a novel of his very own, after giving him escalating roles in "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs." When the film of "The Silence of the Lambs" won every Oscar in sight, the poor master of the fictional gargoyle was no more able to leave Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter in the dust than Arthur Conan Doyle was able to kill off Sherlock Holmes. The world, quite literally, clamored for more Hannibal.
Some people hated the book. But many didn't. When it came time to make the film, Jodie Foster dropped out. She couldn't take what they'd done to her character, FBI agent Clarice Starling. Screenwriter Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme dropped out, too. Only Anthony Hopkins was left to reprise Hannibal the Cannibal. And why not? This was his star turn. And any classically trained actor who just made a film of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" - the original monster chef - would hardly have moral objections to reprising the popular success of his life. Lest anyone think that would condemn "Hannibal" to mediocrity, you have to consider the replacements.
Replacing Jodie Foster was Julianne Moore, every bit as fine an actress as Foster and, in some ways, perhaps better suited to convey the new, tougher, more experienced and masterful FBI agent. Replacing Tally were playwright David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, screenwriter of "Schindler's List." And replacing Demme was Ridley Scott.
That is, by any intelligent standards, the cream of the crop among current Hollywood's talent-for-hire.
It's the only Lecter novel I've not yet read, but the movie is superb. It's creepy, horrific, funny and weirdly beautiful - as elegant as a new century horror film is likely to be.
A few caveats are necessary here. It is not at all scary in a "BOO!" kind of way. It is far from taut edge-of-the-seat suspense, too, but that's because it's after something else entirely. And it is, by no means, to be attempted by anyone of any tender sensibility whatsoever. Frankly, I have no idea how the macabre and horrifically funny dining room brain surgery of the finale escaped an NC-17 rating.
What it is, really, is the damndest Valentine's Day movie ever made. It's a love story - "Phantom of the Opera" with human organs and flesh for dinner. Or, to go back to the primal root, it's the Grand Guignol version of "Beauty and the Beast."
The Beauty is Clarice Starling, whose career in the FBI has made her so ultra-competent and hard-nosed that the Guinness Book of Records lists her as the female FBI agent with the most kills. The Phantom/Beast who guides her career and protects her is Lecter, who, after his escape, has hidden himself in plain sight in Florence, Italy, as the would-be curator of an art museum. He walks along the Arno in a jaunty Borsalino hat and peppers everyone with near-psychotic wisecracks.
You'd think he'd have been spotted long before an Italian cop (played with wonderful bassett-hound scruffiness by Lina Wertmuller's old star Giancarlo Giannini) gets around to it.
In the meantime, Starling is in disgrace at the bureau, mostly through the incompetence and malevolence of others: a local D.C. cop who initiates a shoot-out that shouldn't have happened and a former lover of Starling's in the Justice Department (Ray Liotta) who has become Sexual Harassment incarnate.
To complicate matters nicely, there is a multimillionaire sexual predator named Mason Verger (played brilliantly by an uncredited Gary Oldman) whom Lecter has earlier convinced to peel off his own face and feed it to the dog. From his motorized wheelchair, Verger leads an attempt to catch Lecter and feed him to the pigs that he has starved and trained for the occasion.
When all plots converge, it is Lecter - who once sneered at Starling's "cheap shoes" - who proves his bizarre love and saves her career. The Harris ending (which colleagues briefed me on) has been changed, but it scarcely matters because Hans Zimmer's quasi-operatic music constantly underscores how much of a lunatic love story this is.
Hopkins is, if anything, better here as Lecter. His self-aware theatricality doesn't have to be so over-the-top (he is, after all, supposed to be in hiding from the FBI 10 Most Wanted List). He can be the chortling monster we all want him to be - the snob so contemptuous and punctilious that nothing less than murder and cannibalism assuages him. In other words, TV's Frasier gone as far down the road to madness as you can go.
And Clarice - CLAR-EEES in Lecter-speak - is brilliantly played by one of the most extraordinary actresses in movies.
In an odd way, I think, "Hannibal" is a rarer achievement than "The Silence of the Lambs." In place of what once took the world by surprise, we have a black comic horror opera of weirdly meticulous beauty and sophistication.
Put it this way. Other films and TV could copy "Silence of the Lambs." And Lord knows they did constantly. (The TV show "Profiler," for instance.) No one is ever likely to replicate the tone of "Hannibal."
One final thing: given the horrific contents of his imagination, is it any wonder that author Thomas Harris has been only slightly less mysterious and approachable than J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon? What on earth could anyone ask of the originator of such stories? What could the reputedly sophisticated, opera-loving gourmet cook tells us except that Lecter is just the psychotic monster version of himself?
If the world got any closer to the poor man - who merely wants to live and write - it would probably never let him alone.
Hannibal *** 1/2 (Out of four)
Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore, above, in long-awaited new film about Hannibal Lecter. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Opening Friday in area theaters.