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.

9780091901349-uk
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:

 

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