“Fear comes with imagination, it’s the penalty, it’s the price of imagination.”
–from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
The crime thriller, a combination of the classic pulp thriller and “true crime” accounts of the 1950s and ’60s, was beginning to solidify into its own genre by 1981, when Thomas Harris published his second novel, Red Dragon. This new genre broke away from the much older tradition of mystery fiction by identifying the killer early in the novel and then setting up a cat-and-mouse game between the killer and the protagonist, usually a cop or, more often, a federal agent. Rather than focusing on the protagonist’s effort to solve the crime (as a mystery novel would), the crime thriller took the time to characterize the killer and, often, try and “explain” him or her. The genre frequently used detailed descriptions of forensics methods to fill pages and, in some cases, distract the reader from a predictable plot or flat characters. To distinguish his novel from the bevy of thrillers that had by then saturated the market, Harris needed a hook, something unusual to make his novel unique.
He found two. The first was to have his protagonist, special agent Will Graham, consult an infamous serial killer for help on his case. But this killer couldn’t be some generic sociopath, nor even a strangely charismatic (but still berserk) type like Charles Manson. This killer would be an intellectual, he would be supremely cultured; elitist even. And he would eat people. As such, he would need a name that rhymed with “cannibal.” Thus was Dr. Hannibal Lecter born. In his original incarnation, he is described as having maroon eyes, a “pointed” tongue, and six fingers on one hand – a much more obvious manifestation of evil than the calm blue eyes and ten fingers of Sir Anthony Hopkins.
But a character as gimmicky as Lecter cannot carry a novel alone, as both the novel and film adaptation of Hannibal made very clear. Red Dragon needed something more. Harris envisioned a sleuth who was just one step away from being a psychic, for whom a capacity for “imagination” replaced the supernatural talents claimed by others. In the course of the novel, Graham tries to get inside the killer’s head, forcing himself to think exactly as the killer does. This is no small strain on his psyche; in the case of Lecter, it drove him to a temporary stay in a psychiatric ward.
Red Dragon is a better novel than either of its literary sequels, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, though it lacks the psychological mystique of the former and the humor of the latter. It also has the distinction of being the only book of the Lecter trilogy to be filmed twice: as everyone knows by now, it was first adapted as 1986’s Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann (The Insider, Ali). Mann’s adaptation is a good one, though I will not fall in line with the many critics who find it fashionable to tout Manhunter’s supposed superiority over director Brett Ratner’s new version.
Red Dragon does have one hurdle to get over initially: the fact that it is clearly an attempt to cash in on the franchise that was started not by Manhunter but by 1991’s sleeper hit Silence of the Lambs. It took more than a decade from the writing of Silence for Harris to complete Hannibal, and another year for the film version to come out; then, two years later – boom! Red Dragon. Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott…Brett (Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2) Ratner? Red Dragon smelled like Hollywood cashing in on a franchise, and many reviewers were quick to follow that scent.
Surprisingly, Red Dragon defies its cynical detractors. There’s certainly no question about the producers’ motivations – Universal Pictures and MGM Studios gladly put aside their differences in this joint venture to rake in the cash – but that didn’t prevent the cast and crew from putting out a film that stands up well to its fifteen-year-old predecessor. Ratner may be something of a novice director, but when your film stars Sir Hopkins, Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel and Ralph Fiennes, you can just point the camera and something good will come out of it. Fortunately, Ratner does even more than that, and the result is an adaptation of the literary Red Dragon that is as good as, if different than, Manhunter.
Since this is first and foremost a Lecter film (despite Lecter’s relatively minor role in the original novel), Red Dragon begins with a fairly faithful rendition of Lecter’s capture by agent Graham (Norton). From there, the plot is similar to that of Silence of the Lambs: it’s a few years later and a serial killer is on the loose. Nicknamed “the Tooth Fairy” for his predilection toward biting his victims with his hideous dentures, the killer wipes out two suburban families before the baffled FBI turns to Graham for help. Now retired and living in Florida, Graham is reluctant to return to the game after his painful experience with Lecter (who nearly managed to disembowel him before going down). Finally his boss (Keitel) coerces him into taking a look at the case. Graham tries to imagine the killer’s mind and motivations, but he too is brought up short. With only a few days before the next expected killing, Graham turns to the one man who might be able to shed some light on the killer’s behavior: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
In Manhunter, Brian Cox’s performance was both fittingly low-key and surprisingly creepy; his Lecter toyed with Graham, but did so more successfully because he didn’t talk slowly or put on airs. In Lambs and Hannibal Hopkins redefined the character, and now he must work backward from his characterization in Lambs. Back in his cage, the sense of barely contained chaos Lecter inspired in that film is restored. You get the sense that cutting the man loose would unleash hell on earth. Sadly, Hannibal revealed that wouldn’t be the case, as Hannibal the Cannibal was transformed into everyone’s favorite creepy grandpa. But in Dragon Hopkins makes the good doctor a threat once more.
Of course, Lecter is really ancillary to the main plot, which involves Graham’s efforts to track down the Tooth Fairy, aka Francis Dolarhyde (Fiennes). Norton is a bit young for the role of Graham, but he brings a naivet to the role that acts as a good counterbalance to William L. Petersen’s more been-there-done-that take in Manhunter. Fiennes, playing the heavy, is in full-psycho mode, but ultimately I found it eerie how similar his performance was to that of Tom Noonan in the previous version.
In fact, Red Dragon contains whole scenes that seem to have been lifted out of Manhunter and deposited in Red Dragon, despite having a screenplay written by Ted Tally, author of the Lambs script. This is largely due to the fact that both films really heavily on the book for dialogue, a rarity in this day and age. (On a side note, the dialogue never seems off-kilter – a sharp rebuke to those critics that sniffed at Harris’s supposed “tin ear” for dialogue when Dragon was originally published). But Red Dragon restores a number of plot twists from the book that were absent from Manhunter. In one memorable scene, Dolarhyde, in an effort to quell the beast within, goes to a museum to find the original William Blake painting of the Red Dragon, which he believes has been tormenting him into committing crimes. I won’t reveal what happens; but while it’s an interesting scene, the film fails to explain why Dolarhyde does it. The audience is left with an odd cul-de-sac that serves only to reinforce Dolarhyde’s status as a standard movie psycho.
The cast is rounded out by Harvey Keitel as Graham’s boss and Emily Watson as Reba McClane, Dolarhyde’s bizarre love interest. McClane role, in the both the book and the movie, is to suggest that Dolarhyde may not be quite as bad as he seems to be. Unfortunately all the Watson role does is emphasize Dolarhyde’s textbook social ineptitude and overall creepiness – it’s difficult to believe a woman who seems so chirpy and well-adjusted would ever stick around with a guy who behaves as Dolarhyde does. Finally, the reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman (who always reminds me of Joe Don Baker) gives some sardonic punch to the thankless role of tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.
Of course, the filmmakers give Lecter much more time than he has in the book – ultimately this is a “Hannibal Lecter movie.” This leads to at least one unnecessary scene in which Lecter enjoys a pleasant dinner (sans hominids). But Hopkins does manage to bring back some of the creepiness and edginess of his original portrayal – watch as his face twists into a demon’s visage as he petulantly cries “No” in response to Graham’s pleas for aid.
My biggest concern for Red Dragon was whether it would focus enough on what I feel is the most significant theme of the novel, that of Graham’s imaginative powers and how they are both his blessing and his curse; also, the way Lecter is blessed with the same gift, but minus the fear. I must give credit to Manhunter for doing a better job with this theme than Dragon. While the exchange quoted in the introduction to this review is given more weight by being moved from Crawford to Lecter, the theme is never played out. We never learn why Graham had to spend so much time in an institution after capturing Lecter, or worry that he might have become so much like the killer that he’s a threat to others.
Red Dragon delivers more scares than Manhunter and is a much better film than Hannibal, although Manhunter still wins for stylishness and Silence of Lambs remains the best of all four films. I will concur with my fellow critics in one respect: let this be the end to the good doctor’s adventures.