Red Dragon & The Silence of the Lambs: A trail of limbs by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon & The Silence of the Lambs: A trail of limbs by Thomas Harris

I think that this could be my longest post yet. I’m writing this beforehand so maybe I’ll delete this paragraph in later drafts, but if all my thoughts do end up in the final post it’s going to be a doozy.

So, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, if his name does not appear in every single top ten list of evil fictional characters ingrained in popular culture that, my friends, renders it automatically invalid (look at me stating my opinion as fact on the Internet. So avant-garde). From the lesser known interpretation of Brian Cox in Manhunter -where the character was named Lecktor for reasons yet unknown to me-, to the iconic incarnation of Sir Anthony Hopkins , and most recently to Mads Mikkelsen’s fascinating take on the Hannibal TV show there is no denying that there is something about this character that has captured and fascinated people ever since it was conceived by author Thomas Harris.

I suppose a bit of context is necessary for this post, because I presume that my seven followers will be anxious to know all the details that keep them glued to the screen anxious to read every single word (imagine my ego trip when I reach ten subscribers). There are two reasons why I’ve read Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs:

The first one and simplest to explain before I go on my tirade to discuss the trip from book, to movie(s) to TV show is because of David Foster Wallace, which as you may know from my previous post became an author that popped in my radar primarily thanks to films like Liberal Arts, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the excellent The End of the Tour. In my desire to learn more about him and the craft of writing, I came upon this article that contained a list of books that were mandatory reading for the students of his English class (back in 1994) to “provide competence in critical reading, knowledge of formal characteristics of novels and short stories, including their development as genres”. In that list, at numbers four and five, there are two novels of Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs is number five you lazy bastard, click the link for some seriously fascinating stuff). I also found through www.openculture.com another list of his top ten favorite books for the compilation “The Top Ten: Writer’s Pick Their Favorite Books” by  J. Peder Zane, and because I sometimes indulge your laziness to click links and others I find it repulsive (but I still love you faithful reader), allow me to post it below and indicate which ones I’ve read for sheer self-indulgence (this is also for you, future-me, make sure you read them and don’t be judgemental when you re-read the blog of your thirty year old version, you old fuck):

1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis GOT IT, Loved it!

2. The Stand, by Stephen King GOT IT, Meh!

3. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris GOT IT, Loved it!

4. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones

5. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong

6. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris GOT IT, Loved it!

7. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein GOT IT, …. need I say more?

8. Fuzz, by Ed McBain

9. Alligator, by Shelley Katz

10. The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clancy

This concludes reason number one.

INTERMISSION

(time to go to the toilet and grab a beverage to refill the pee tank…. preferably not from the same place)

Reason number two is *get ready to have your mind vaguely blown* not because of the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which I throughly enjoyed, but that ultimately did not have the huge impact to spark my desire to know more on the subject. My interest grew out of the TV show Hannibal.

Hannibal
Nothing against Hopkins but I just love Mads take on the character.

It ran for three seasons in NBC and was unfortunately cancelled due to lack of viewers despite having great reviews. It stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham (the main character in Red Dragon) and as previously mentioned Mads Mikkelsen as the titular character, and it was developed for television by Brian Fuller (creator of the criminally underrated cult-classic Pushing Daisies).

Author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less than Zero) mentioned in his podcast (I wish I could remember which one because I hate misquoting but I think this will sum it up quite well) the decline of quality in movies and how much he enjoys the whole cinematic experience; he also mentioned that today’s culture of Netflix, HBO and other paid TV has shifted quality writing from movies to TV shows but  that despite that fact one of his problems with most TV shows is how, with few exceptions, “TVesque” and how un-cinematic most of them are. One of this exceptions is Hannibal which has both excellent writing and beautiful cinematography.

Hannibal (the TV Show) is aesthetically different and that makes it unique in many different ways: from the recreation of a crime scene in the very first episode, to the Wendigo imagery throughout all seasons, the cooking segments (Random Trivia: I honestly can’t believe there is a Hannibal cook book), the display of the victims and pretty much all season three; all this elements make it beautifully grotesque. But the ultimate reason that I did not list and that truly makes Hannibal great is that it is based on excellent books and that it borrows and expands on small elements of these novels and builds on them to enhance the story. To be clear, I’ve only read two of the four Hannibal novels (more of that later), but it truly is worth higlighting the level of detail that Brian Fuller and his team of writers took to turn these books (especially if you consider that they did not have the rights to The Silence of the Lambs) into a TV show.

Both novels, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, are thrillers that are close to perfection and it is all due to the skills of author Thomas Harris. There are three characteristics of his writing that I really want to highlight: style, pacing and research.

The first two can be quickly seen if you pick up any of the books and read the first chapters. Thomas Harris has a really effective writing style. He is a master chosing descriptions that do not overdo it and also effectively tell you everything you need to know about a scene or a character. In the book “On Writing” by Stephen King (which technically should be reason three, it did not come to me until I got to this point of the post) he exemplified the power of an effective description with a sentence from the first page of The Silence of the Lambs. If I recall correctly the sentence is on the first page of the book: “She knew she could look alright without primping” and it is used to describe the main protagonist Clarice Starling. It is explained much better in his book (which I highly recommend as it is both insightful and entertaining), but ultimately he argues that precise word choices that don’t overdo descriptions are key to good writing. Not only do I agree with this but after reading both novels I can confirm that Thomas Harris nails this aspect.

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Simple yet effective cover design

My copy is a 2001 edition published by Cresset Editions (Random Trivia: bought on the 16th of August 2016 in Abebooks.uk for 2 £, along with A Confederacy of Dunces for a total expenditure of 5.6 £ -that includes shipping cost and a voucher with a 10% discount-). Red Dragon has 355 pages and 54 chapter and The Silence of the Lambs has 352 pages and 61 chapters. That makes 6.1 pages per chapter and is a good mathematical indicator of the effective and quick writing style and also, as I mentioned above, his pacing. Thomas Harris rarely lingers, he keeps the momentum going and going, grabbing the reader by his/her metaphorical balls and not letting go until he is through (if you are mildly aroused with the last sentence I can assure you that you are not alone).

And finally we are down to his research (click on it if you truly want to read more on this subject). Thomas Harris’s time spent at Quantico (a location of the FBI training facilities) must have been a key element in the shaping and development of the scenarios, processes, procedures and most importantly the characters in his stories  (after all, one is a collaborator/consultant with the FBI and the other a student training to be an FBI agent) but his most iconic character has always remained a bit of a mystery.

It is fairly well-known that Ed Gein (who also inspired Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and Psycho’s Norman Bates) and Ted Bundy were some of the inspirations for the Buffalo Bill character, but Hannibal Lecter did not have a clear reference to draw from and the lore of his inception remained a mystery until the release of the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Silence of The Lambs. In this edition, the author explained that Lecter was inspired by a Mexican Doctor who murdered a young woman and fit her body parts in a very small box. Later investigations have identified the man as Doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño, and it is clear after reading more about him that Lecter may draw inspiration from this particular doctor, but he truly is a unique creation from the mind of Thomas Harris.

Like I said before there are more elements that make these books a fantastic read (yet another example that “bestseller” does not automatically equal shit you prejudiced ape) and both of them have been absolute page turners – on reviewing my post I remember a Jimmy Carr joke about books being “page turners” and his punch line was “aren’t they all page turners? That’s how they work”, still you get the idea-, however I suppose I should not end this post without addressing the elephant in the room. What about Hannibal and Hannibal Rising? The third and fourth novels.

Well, I’ve seen the movies and wasn’t too impressed. I’m also vaguely familiar with the books (I loved how they used some of the elements in them for the TV show-) and a quick search will let you know that they have not been received with the same praise as Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs; in fact one of the reasons why Jodie Foster did not reprise her role as Clarice Sterling in the sequel Hannibal is  due to the turn that the character takes in the book (it is different from the movie but I won’t spoil it for you), and yet I’m still curious about them. I won’t be rushing to the store for either one of them and I think I’ll give Hannibal a rest for a while, but if I’m ever low on suggestions and they are not too pricey (a.k.a cheap ) I think I’d be up for another dish served by the good doctor.

I finished reading Red Dragon the 5th of November 2016 and I finished reading The Silence of the Lambs the 15th of April 2017 (in between I read A Confederacy of Dunces, What Dreams May Come, Instrumental and Starship Troopers). It was a good idea to space them out so at least I learned that lesson after the Philip K. Dick omnibus.

Editorial note: It turns out that this is my longest post. You guessed correctly past-me!

P.S: if you still hunger for more (get it?) on the cinematic universe I truly recommend this Old VS New comparison of Manhunter and Red Dragon by The Nostalgia Critic:

 

Starship Troopers & Robert Heinlein

Starship Troopers & Robert Heinlein

I don’t get Robert A. Heinlein. I’ve tried to get him, but I just don’t. This does not mean that I dislike his books, it is just that his mind frame severely differs from mine and because of that I can’t find any common aspects that make his books relatable. To be honest most of the times, what I get from Heinlein is total and complete what-the-fuckness  (can I swear in my own blog? I hope so) . I guess you could say that I don’t grok him. 😉

So why bother reading him? Well, there are a few good reasons. One: he has a huge reputation and is considered one of the greatest science-fiction writers in history. He is up there with Asimov and Clarke in a sci-fi Holy Trinity (which I don’t think he deserves but this is just my opinion). Two: just because I don’t get where he comes from it doesn’t mean that I don’t find it interesting. Three: he is a good writer. Four (and last): whether good or bad he is, along with Philip K. Dick, one of the few science-fiction writers that I’ve read whose personality completely imbues and even transcends his writing. Heinlein writes science-fiction novels, but he is also putting a piece of his mind in there, and like him or not that is something that is bound to create some interesting output.

Starship Troopers is the third book of his that I’ve read. The other two are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land which, according to my understanding, means that with this last one I’ve tackled his greatest hits. Out of the three I think that this is his most accessible book and, whilst this post is about it, I do feel a bit of context about the other two novels I’ve mentioned is necessary to explain my feelings on the book and the author.

I really enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The dynamic between the Earth ruling over the Moon like a colony, the “moon-speak” and “moon-writing” (difficult at times but granting the text a uniquely characteristic style), the family dynamics with male-female ratio disproportion, the idea of farming tunnels and the sentient supercomputerthe-moon-is-a-harsh-mistress-book-cover are the top things that I’d highlight from the novel. Overall a really good science-fiction story with some very interesting elements and ideas.

On the other hand, we have Stranger in a Strange Land which was the first Heinlein novel I ever read. I got the 1991 uncut version that has the original manuscript, as opposed to the version published in 1961 that edited out nearly a quarter of the book. I chose SIASL first because it was his most popular novel (apparently the open sexuality in the book struck a chord with the hippie movement back in the sixties) and is considered by many one of the great science-fiction novels. I also wanted to know if that popularity was deserved and if the book was any good. Random Trivia:  Do yourself a favour and listen to the fantastic Iron Maiden song titled after the book – and read the lyrics damn it -.

I don’t know about the 1961 edited version, but the 1991 unabridged version has some serious pacing issues and was a chore to finish. A very engaging first chapter lead to a slug of characters going over tedious conversations and themes of identity and society again and again (which is fine when you don’t write about it more than fifty times). I don’t think I could cover all the themes of that novel in a single post, and mind you I’m always cautious about quoting single phrases without context, BUT to explain why I don’t get Heinlein I want to quote a phrase from this novel: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault”. Now this phrase was told by a character that enjoys stripping –stranger_in_a_strange_land_cover if memory serves me well – in front of people so that may imply a certain twisted view in regards to sexuality and political correctness, and I also understand that some books are products of their times and maybe the world back then was more sexist and this novel is just the result of that (unless Mad Men is lying to us). However the book is plagued by these type of comments and this particular phrase was so blunt that I just made me think about what the author (not the novel) was trying to communicate to me as a reader.

Coincidentally, I experienced a similar issue with Starship Troopers. Like SIASL, it starts with a great first chapter and then it is just turns out to be the story of a young man enlisting in the military, his career – with some aliens way in the background posing as a threat – and plenty of text explaining the importance,virtues and challenges of said military life. Now, I want to be very clear: I actually respect a lot the decision to join the military and I have zero problems with that ( I am specially grateful on those occasions where their actions are in line to protect me). I do however have a problem with military propaganda, and I don’t know if I’m the only one that got that feeling reading the book but I could not shake it off. Much like SIAS, Heinlein does not have a problem to hammer his point again and again. In this case being: Military life will make a man out of you and it is the greatest thing since porn (I may be simplifying but you get the idea). It is exactly how Heinlein insists on this message again and again what brings me to the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers.

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My book cover is so meh  that I’d rather show the movie poster – and it is not great either -. 

This movie fits my definition of a guilty pleasure: the acting is really bad and over the top and the cheesiness factors are dialed-up to eleven. But what can I say? I can clearly see the flaws but I still love it. I first saw this as a kid and it just blew my mind. The special effects still hold up, and it is yet another great film by a director that knows how to use gore effectively and is also a great science-fiction adapter mister Paul Verhoven. Starship Troopers is his second adaptation of a science-fiction writer after Total Recall, which is based on the short story by Philip K. Dick “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, and his third science fiction movie (his first was Robocop and his fourth and last was Hollow Man).

Having read the book many years later, I have to say that it has helped to increase my respect for the movie. In the movie, all the military worship of the book is turned upside down and delivered with a spot on parody of a militarized society. The movie is smart enough to laugh at absurdly obvious military propaganda. It is actually kind of brilliant seeing what Vernhoven did (I recall reading that he discarded the book entirely after growing tired with the first few pages) and the direction he decided to take with the film. It is like a bizarre version of Heinlein’s novel in all the right ways, and I can only imagine that if he’d ever watch it he’d despise it. Doing a bit of digging I found this video of Michel Ironside talking about the film,its message, Vernhoven, the book and the direction they took. I’d highly recommend it as it echoes some of the impressions I’ve described here.

So taking into account all of the above you might imagine that I disliked the book, but surprisingly enough I did not. I didn’t love it either and it took me a while to read it, but I’m glad I got to it precisely because of what I said at the beginning. Heinlein’s ideas differ a lot from mine and as crazy (military propaganda) or wrong (the rape quote) as those ideas may seem, I actually enjoy the fact that I’m exposed to them if only for the sheer fact that I can think about why I don’t share them and the reasons behind that line of thinking. I don’t always want to read things that please me or that I agree with. It is actually a great thing reading things that you disagree with, specially if reading them helps you to discover, reaffirm or question your convictions, because ultimately it is up to you to decide how those ideas affect you and to make up your own mind about it.

I finished reading this book the 16th of March 2017, but it took me a while to write all this down a mix of laziness, work and also because I felt there was something important for me to think about after reading it. Last, a message from my sponsor: