Trompler Foundation Archives

Red Dragon



In a few ways, Brett Ratner’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon is more faithful than Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter, and for those small moments I am actually rather grateful.  Most notable is the Brooklyn Museum scene--omitted in Mann’s film--which starts to give the character of Francis Dolarhyde (the eponymous serial killer, played here by Ralph Fiennes) the complexity to elicit in us some of the sympathy that both plagues FBI investigator Will Graham (played here by Edward Norton) and permits him to find Dolarhyde.  Nevertheless, Ratner’s work remains even more faithful to the motive behind its conception: to most efficiently and shamelessly milk as much profit from the franchise as possible.

Certainly, the talent assembled here is impressive: Norton, Fiennes, Harvey Keitel (Jack Crawford), Emily Watson (Reba McClane), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Lounds).  It was in anticipation of memorable performances by some or all of these artists that I decided to view Ratner’s film.  Sadly, only Watson’s portrayal of the blind photo technician that gives Dolarhyde a route out of destruction leaves any lingering impression, providing a blend of courage and vulnerability that makes her role and effect upon Dolarhyde plausible.  Fiennes puts a very human face on Dolarhyde, eliciting sympathy for the abused child, but neglecting the murderous rapture of the Dragon rampant.  Keitel’s Crawford is serviceable and understated, but also underwritten.  Hoffman seems to have hocked back a few more phlegmmy drops of his role in Happiness to smear over his equally underwritten Lounds.  This was disappointing as I had thought that, seeing as how Lounds is a rather minor character, Hoffman might have escaped Ratner’s deadening hand and injected some brio, but artistic vision was not what Ratner was hired to achieve.  Only in the case of the tiny role of Ralph Mandy, Dolarhyde’s and McClane’s smarmy co-worker whose entrance is heralded by the cycling of a darkroom "airlock," does this festival of stuntcasting result in a delightful surprise: Frank Whaley.

What?  Oh yes; Lecter.  By far the most grievous damage done to Harris’s novel by Ratner’s film is also the most predictable: enlarging and overstating the role of Hannibal Lecter at the expense of what is properly the central character, Graham.  Clearly besotten by the financial success of The Silence of the Lambs, Ratner and executive producer Dino de Laurentiis have decided that the only way to present Lecter is in the mode of predatory seminar leader, alternately burping Blake couplets and leering at his (apparently interchangeable) FBI-sponsored graduate students.  In Harris’s novel, Graham only goes to Lecter once, not for lessons in art history, but to refresh himself on the criminally insane mind.  It’s a mistake, which Graham realizes almost immediately.  The teacher-student relationship between Lecter and Clarice Starling in Silence is particular to those two characters and their ages, and is meant to parallel the Crawford-Starling relationship.

Ratner’s film churns out several Lecter-Graham encounters, most egregiously in the film’s preamble, which goes further than Harris’s novel does in detailing Graham’s "apprehension" of Lecter.  In the novel, Graham consults the pre-arrest Lecter, not soliciting forensic psychological advice but rather as a routine interview about one of Lecter’s patients, who also happens to be one of the victims of the serial killer Graham is hunting.  During the interview, Graham flash-intuits that Lecter is the killer, and Lecter notices the intuition.  Graham excuses himself and calls the police, only to be stabbed by Lecter.  Harris never explains why Lecter fails either to kill Graham or to escape, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to accept Ratner’s invention, wherein it is revealed that Graham has been petitioning Lecter for advice throughout the case.  When Graham confides to Lecter his revelation that the killer is a cannibal, it is Lecter who excuses himself to collect his knife.  Then Graham intuits Lecter’s guilt (alas, no Wound Man; Graham induces from a cookbook), followed by Lecter’s swift shiv.  In order to keep Graham alive for the rest of the movie, Ratner has him shove a handful of arrows into Lecter’s gut, followed by four bullets (not, apparently, Glaser Safety Slugs), all of which are absorbed by little Tony Hopkins, who collapses long enough for the Baltimore police (called by whom?) to arrive and cuff him.

By shoehorning Lecter further into the film and enlarging his responsibility for the Graham’s profile of Dolarhyde, Ratner utterly occults Graham’s pathological insight into the serial killers he hunts, and the profound damage inflicted on Graham and his family by the exercise of such insight.  Anti-social and alcoholic when not on a case, Graham becomes less congenial the closer he approaches the mind of his quarry.  Section Chief Crawford has his hands full managing his crew in Behavioral Sciences and dealing with Bureau politics and local jurisdictions, but he finds Graham’s contributions so valuable that he personally nurses Graham through his bouts of depression and rage.  The Graham-Crawford relationship is another casualty of the ill-considered expansion of Lecter’s role in Ratner’s film.

We already know that Edward Norton can portray deeply divided characters, that he can wrestle with self-loathing and conflicting duties to family and "the greater good."  That we remain confident he will continue to indulge his considerable talents in future performances slightly mitigates the otherwise lamentable fact that he was prevented from using those talents in honoring Harris’s conception of Graham’s character.

I saw Mann’s film Manhunter a year after it was released, and afterwards I immediately sought out Harris’s novel.  It was not Mann’s first feature-length film, but it was his first film project after his breakout success in television, Miami Vice and Crime Story.  While I thought some of Mann’s deviations from Harris’s novel ill-conceived (I particularly objected to the transformation of Graham into an action hero: the stakeout in Washington and the altered ending), Mann was at that time pushing the limits of a visual style that had a fluency with the interior lives of men rarely seen among his contemporaries.  In the end, this fluency transcends the fetishes with firearms and cheesy synth music.

Brian Cox’s Lecter in Manhunter provides an unnerving example of the truism: less is more.  The style of his delivery is as spare as the modern art museum Mann selected to stand in for the mental hospital, and he strikes the contrast between his civilized manner and his uncivilized thoughts much more discretely.  Mann gives us a couple of brief glimpses of Lecter then lets his off-screen menace haunt every moment of Graham’s self-doubt.  One wonders if Hopkins agreed to Ratner’s remake so that he might turn in another overblown performance and thereby force widespread critical comparisons in Cox’s favor.

To be fair to Hopkins, responsibility for much of the ill-conceived distortion of Lecter’s character can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Ted Tally, who adapted Harris’s novels for the three films made after Manhunter.  Lecter’s first scene in Silence, crucial to distinguishing the Lecter-Starling encounter from approaches by other interlocutors, is marred by Tally’s reduction of Starling’s perceptiveness to deciphering juvenile anagrams.  Harris wrote his novel Hannibal only after being cajoled for years by an avaricious De Laurentiis and finally turned in a story set in a different moral universe than that of the preceding two novels.  De Laurentiis and Tally abandoned Harris’s conception of Lecter as the hero and tried to contrive more "mentoring" encounters between Lecter and Starling, despite the fact that both characters had moved well beyond such a relationship.  Harris knew that the only way to keep Lecter and Starling together would require Starling to conform her mores to those of Lecter, which was rejected by De Laurentiis.  Tally was therefore obliged to cobble together a denouement that was both illogical and unsatisfying.

Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is internally coherent, but Demme clearly didn’t trust viewers to discern the horror of Lecter’s mind without heavy-handed lighting and bass reverb.  Hopkins and Jodie Foster make Silence work, and their sum is greater than their parts.  De Laurentiis didn’t let Foster’s (and, later, Demme’s) withdrawal from the Hannibal project spoil his appetite for another course from the Lecter menu, and he tapped Ridley Scott to direct the sequel.  Scott has demonstrated little talent for illustrating psychological complexity in his characters; fortunately, Tally’s script requires little.  The best portion of Scott’s Hannibal is the Florence sequence, featuring the only human character in the film, the Italian detective Pazzi.  Had De Laurentiis actually remained faithful to Harris’s Hannibal, Julianne Moore might have pulled off the contortions Harris puts Starling through.  Scott certainly couldn’t have directed it; Todd Solondz, perhaps.

Despite the resounding critical and financial success of the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, it took Harris ten years to pen a sequel.  Before the details became public, I had hoped that Harris’s third novel would have been a prequel to Red Dragon, the full story of Graham’s hunt of Lecter.  Harris instead found inspiration for Hannibal while living in Italy, resulting in the most vivid and naturalistic portion of the novel.  Hopkins isn’t getting any younger, and he’s already tried to retire once.  Given that De Laurentiis seems to have premised his investment in films featuring Lecter upon Hopkins’s involvement, and considering how little of Harris’s work De Laurentiis was eventually able to use for the film adaptation of Hannibal, I doubt that De Laurentiis will wait for a fourth novel.

So we have three novels and four films.  While the faithfulness to the novels of the film adaptations has been uneven, the filmmakers’ contempt for the audience has steadily increased with each successive adaptation.  De Laurentiis doesn’t have a useful understanding of Lecter any more than Chilton does.  In his final letter to Graham, Lecter might as well be describing Hollywood: "We live in a primitive time . . . neither savage nor wise.  Half-measures are the curse of it.  Any rational society would either kill me or give me my books."  Give me my books, indeed.

Copyright © 2002 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.