'Hannibal' - the Route from Novel to Screen
Created | Updated Nov 14, 2008
Over the space of a couple of decades, the psychopathic Dr Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter has evolved into one of the genuine literary and cinematic great 'monsters'. Despite the fact that Lecter tends to occupy little more than a supporting role in the novels, the macabre nature of both the stories and the character have made him fascinating, compelling and (at times) loathsome all in one. This, however, is not an entry about Hannibal Lecter. This is the tale of how Thomas Harris' fourth novel (and the third to feature Lecter) became a major feature film. The story begins with the response to an earlier film that really cemented Lecter in the hearts of a very bloodthirsty audience - The Silence of the Lambs.
What Went Before
The 1992 Academy Awards marked the end of a strange year for the film adaptation of a best-selling novel. Up for best picture, it faced strong competition from Disney's hugely popular animated remake of Beauty and the Beast, The Prince of Tides, a psychological drama starring and directed by Barbra Streisand, and two biopics, one on gangster 'Bugsy' Siegal, the other on Jim Garrison, chief character at the centre of the JFK conspiracy investigations. Any other year, each of these could have been a contender. In 1992, however, Hollywood's tastes had changed. For the first time in Academy history, the award for Best Picture went to something totally at odds with the artistic aspirations of the ceremony, something second only to pornography in the eyes of many critics. In short, it went to a horror movie.
Now, to reduce The Silence of the Lambs down to merely a 'horror flick' is seriously underestimating its success. It was a taut, well-made thriller with top-line leads and, like Prince of Tides, based on a best seller. More than that, though, it finally acknowledged the vast proportion of Hollywood productions that aren't romances, worthy issue-based dramas or feel-good comedies. Those film projects that merely set out to entertain by playing to our basest desire - fear.
It was a winning formula. Anthony Hopkins' surprisingly brief on-screen performance of serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter was rewarded with the American Academy's Best Actor statuette; Jodie Foster grabbed her second Best Actress award1, rank outsider Jonathan Demme grabbed Best Director, and Ted Tally's smart screenplay collected Best Adapted Screenplay. All this was even more surprising when taking into account the Academy's traditionally short memories - The Silence of the Lambs had been released on 14 February, 1991, more than a year earlier. Evidently, the creators of the film had made something that would live on in the minds of its audience long after the film ended. More significantly, it left them wanting more. For that, they'd have to wait nearly a decade.
Movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis is not renowned for quality cinema. Rather, he's infamous for over-blown, epic fantasies that more often than not failed to impress critics and audiences alike; Barbarella, Death Wish and Flash Gordon typifying his creative output. But back in 1985, De Laurentiis picked up the rights to a novel by Thomas Harris - Red Dragon, which introduced readers to the fascinating serial killer, Hannibal Lecter - and secured first option rights to all further novels by the author. De Laurentiis hired slick director and Miami Vice creator Michael Mann, who in turn hired Scottish actor Brian Cox to play the imprisoned psychotic psychiatrist. Their adaptation of Red Dragon - renamed Manhunter - failed to ignite audiences and soon it took its place on video rental shelves and cable rerun packages. When the option for Thomas Harris's follow-up to Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, came around, De Laurentiis passed, not wishing to revisit the clearly unpopular Lecter. By the time Lambs was raking in record profits though, De Laurentiis knew he'd made a mistake, an error he was determined to rectify with Harris's next novel.
With the success of Lambs, serial killers had become big box-office; Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995), Se7en (David Fincher, 1995), The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce 1999) all riding the crest of the wave. In all this, the pressure was growing on Thomas Harris. He had apparently signed a deal for a third Lecter novel worth $3.5 million back in the late 1980s with a view to publication in 1995/96. After a long wait, in which rumoured titles for the ultra-secret book included the rather sombre 'The Morbidity of the Soul', the slightly more obviously-titled Hannibal was eventually released in hardback in late 1999. Though reviews were generally enthusiastic, the ending proved a real divider with readers either embracing or ridiculing the concept of Dr Lecter brainwashing Clarice into joining him for dinner with a grotesque main course.
Such had been the success of Lambs, any suggestion that the same team wouldn't be behind the follow-up must have appeared ludicrous. But as the probability of Hannibal the film grew, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally and Jodie Foster were all playing cautious, stating that they'd not be committing to the project without seeing what Thomas Harris had in store. Arguably, the director and writer would be immaterial to most audience members, but Foster's reticence from the beginning began to lay the possibility of someone else playing Clarice in people's minds. However, despite the fact that Brian Cox had played Hannibal Lecter earlier, Hopkins had truly made the part his own. For the picture to have any chance of being produced, Hopkins more than anyone else would have to sign.
Perhaps aware of this, Thomas Harris, who'd previously appeared unconcerned by any of the film adaptations of his work, sent early proofs to Demme, Foster and Hopkins. Straight away, concerns were voiced over the level of violence. Demme bailed almost instantly, and, showing solidarity, Ted Tally also voiced his disapproval of the novel. Foster, in particular, seemed less-than enthusiastic with the way 'her' character had been taken (Foster had spent much of the last ten years evangelising Clarice as a brave, feminist warrior), and said she'd now need to see a script before committing. De Laurentiis had already secured the critically-acclaimed writer/director David Mamet to provide a first draft. Hopkins, however, seemed happy to wait and see who Demme's replacement would be.
De Laurentiis had picked up the rights to the book, thanks to his existing agreement with Harris, for a reported $9 million. But Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock also had a claim to the property after an out-of-court settlement with De Laurentiis, in which he'd claimed De Laurentiis had promised him first refusal on his adaptation of the Lambs sequel. This deal committed Universal to pay half the cost of the film rights and a percentage of the production costs in return for North American distribution rights, the foreign rights resting with De Laurentiis. Complicating matters further though MGM then got involved, claiming that De Laurentiis's deal with Harris gave him the rights to Hannibal Lecter - after they bought the rights to Lambs to help out the bankrupt Orion pictures, they now owned Clarice Starling lock, stock and barrel. This dispute was eventually sorted by allotting the North American distribution rights to MGM, with Universal bagging the rest of the world.
With Demme now resolutely unwilling to tackle Hannibal, De Laurentiis's first choice for director became Ridley Scott. Though Scott had entered the movie business on a high - his second picture was the visceral Alien, his third the glossy Bladerunner - few of his subsequent features had managed to achieve similar success. With too erratic a career-path, some might say that his decision to direct a sequel was madness. But then. this was the man currently working on a revival of the sword-and-sandal genre, a project many expected would be his latest flop. A project called Gladiator.
While filming another project in Malta, De Laurentiis met up with Scott and convinced him to undertake responsibility for the most eagerly-awaited follow-up outside of the Star Wars saga.
David Mamet's first draft of the screenplay arrived in September 1999. Though it was good enough for Hopkins to finally commit to the project, few others were impressed. Foster in particular was still unhappy, maintaining that it had been Clarice's heroism that had attracted audiences: 'I won't play her with negative attributes she would never have.' As time went on, Foster bailed, claiming the film would clash with her next project, which she intended to direct. An understandably bitter De Laurentiis would assert that it had more to do with his refusal to match her pay demands, claiming that he'd never been convinced she was right for the role in the first place.
Having provided the first draft and collected a co-writer's credit, Mamet moved on to his next project. leaving the way clear for Steven Zaillian, a writer who had bagged an Oscar for paring down Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List down to a workable script for Steven Spielberg's film version. Unlike the adaptations of his other work - which included his non-Lecter thriller Black Sunday - Thomas Harris appeared more willing to play a part in Hannibal, working with Steven Zaillian and Ridley Scott in providing a new ending to the picture. After six weeks, Zaillian produced a first draft that met with Universal's approval.
Zaillian's draft, as with his Schindler's List script, saw many omissions from the novel, removing Mason Verger's steroid-pumped lesbian sister, Margot, Clarice's mentor Jack Crawford (one of the only characters to have appeared in all three Lecter books aside from Lecter himself), Senator Ruth Martin (whose brief appearance in the novel led to rumours that actress Diane Baker would also be returning for the screen version), and Clarice's best friend Ardelia. Also changed from the book was Mason Verger himself. His paedophilic past was glossed over and, though originally bed-ridden, Zaillian introduced a motorised wheelchair to allow the character to take a greater part in the action. Strangely, though the set included Verger's huge eel, figure-eighting in its tank, it no longer played a part in Verger's demise, its place being taken by the voracious pigs Verger bred to despatch Lecter.
Also gone from the script were the flashbacks to Lecter's childhood, in which he saw his sister devoured by German deserters in 1944. Perhaps this explanation of Lecter's origins was felt too much of a concession to his human side, reducing the monstrous traits that we'd all loved so much down to something as easy as revenge. Most significantly, the ending was changed to something that allowed Clarice a greater level of heroism.
But not before she'd been force-fed a few pieces of Lecter's culinary masterpiece - the final meal being the one part of the book that - despite a change in tone - remained intact for the movie.
Search for Clarice
With almost everything in place then, one major piece of the puzzle remained. Who would replace Foster as Clarice Starling? The press, understandably, went into a rumour frenzy. Popular choice Gillian Anderson was forbidden from taking the part due to a clause in her contract on The X Files that prohibited her playing FBI agents in other projects. Ally McBeal star Calista Flockhart and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow were also apparently in the running. But the most coveted role since Scarlett O'Hara went to Julianne Moore, who'd impressed in films such as Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Gus Van Saint's controversial remake of Psycho and Paul Thomas Anderson's porno exposé Boogie Nights. With Ray Liotta signed to play the scheming Paul Krendler, Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini down as the detective who uncovers Lecter's new life in Florence and Gary Oldman agreeing to tackle the repulsive Verger2, Hannibal was finally to begin production.
Ridley Scott was proud to note that the filming itself ran smoothly and according to schedule. The only real hiccup came near the beginning, with their arrival in Florence. Firstly, the sequence set in an unlicensed market drew complaints from legitimate traders. A scene was rewritten to accommodate a local shop-owner. Additional disruption came from some of Florence's political parties who condemned the film for depicting the beautiful Florence in such a brutal way (evidently forgetting that it was Florence's bloody and violent history that had inspired Thomas Harris to write the book in the first place). Despite this set-back, it remained a relatively uncomplicated production. Filming resumed in the States and the 16-week shoot finally wrapped in September 2000, on schedule and within budget.
Having enjoyed some successful previews (Scott noted with some pride that only two people walked out in disgust during the whole preview period), Hannibal was passed uncut by the British Board of Film Classification and granted an 18 certificate. Public awareness for the film was massive - the first teaser trailer had been released the previous spring utilising clips from Silence of the Lambs. By the time of its release in February 2001, it was impossible to avoid Hannibal, with the iconic image of Anthony Hopkins's jaundiced face with its blood-red eyes leering out from bus-shelters and billboards across the world. Few could doubt that it would be a success. By May 2001, just three months later, its domestic box-office of $165 million had already outstripped Silence of the Lambs by $30 million with worldwide box-office nearing $400 million - proving what a shrewd move Universal made in accepting foreign distribution rights in their wrangles with MGM. Though the reviews were hardly as gushing as they had been for Lambs, to paraphrase the film's marketing strapline, its success was undeniable, its cunning unspeakable, its name unforgettable... Hannibal!
FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling finds herself splashed across the tabloids when a drug bust she is in charge of goes horrifically wrong, leaving her suspects and some of her team dead. As she puts together the events of the operation, she begins to suspect that someone is working against her, someone within the FBI. In Florence, a police detective discovers that the curator of a local museum bears a striking resemblance to escaped serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Working to bring about his capture, the detective instead becomes Lecter's latest victim. And in Maryland, Virginia, the horrifically disfigured millionaire Mason Verger is confined to a life-support machine. He conspires to bring about a brutal and bloody end to the man who put him there - Hannibal Lecter.