Once upon a time there was a newspaper reporter for the Associated
One day Harris and a couple of friends hatched a cool plan by
which terrorists could kill nearly everybody in
attendance at the Super Bowl. They decided to dramatize it as
a novel, which they started as a group project. But the two
friends dropped out and Harris completed the novel alone.
Black Sunday was published in 1975. It became quite
popular, in part because of Harris' clear descriptive prose and
meticulous attention to detail. It was made into a popular
movie in 1977.
Harris was bitten by the writing bug. For his next project he
decided to write about the FBI's Behavioral Science section,
which tries to catch criminals by using psychological profiling
to model their behavior and predict what they will do next.
You can say a lot of things about Thomas Harris the writer, but
one thing you can't say is that he writes fast. It took him six
years to complete the project.
The villain of
is Francis Dolarhyde, better known to the public of his fictional
world as the "Tooth Fairy" after one of his favorite weapons.
Dolarhyde was born deformed (with a cleft palate) and horrifically
abused, not least by being denied the surgery to fix his palate
until he became old enough to join the Army.
Dolarhyde is obsessed with William Blake's watercolor
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. He yearns
to Become the Dragon, and he pursues this dream in singular fashion.
Like any would-be superhero he works out. He creates a distinctive
appearance, not by adopting a cape and mask but with tattoos.
He makes many sacrifices. Among these are the families that will assist
him. He seeks out those those who seem the happiest and best-adjusted,
and he murders them horrifically. With bits of mirror placed in their
dead eyes they Become the first to see what he will Become, and they
draw him ever closer to that final godlike Becoming.
Dolarhyde's nemesis is Will Graham, an FBI Behavioral Sciences agent
who comes out of retirement to try and catch Dolarhyde before he can
sacrifice another family. Graham has a legendary talent for
thinking enough like a serial killer to guess his future moves.
Graham is retired for two reasons. Most obviously, his most famous
collar nearly killed him. More ominously, he is afraid of being
consumed by his talent. The original tagline for the book (before
everything became about Hannibal Lecter) was "Enter the mind of a
serial killer... you may never come back." You can still see that
tagline on the IMDB page for the 1986 movie
which was based on Red Dragon.
Graham is lured reluctantly into the hunt for Dolarhyde by his old
boss Jack Crawford. Crawford is no superhuman, but is in fact a human
at the peak of his form; when he is not an expert he knows where to
find one, and he knows what to say to get him back in the game.
Crawford does not have the luxury of respecting Graham's desire
to stay retired. He has a major problem he can't solve, and so he
leans on Graham to go back to doing what he least wants to do.
Lecter is very much a bit player in Red Dragon. A good question
would be to ask what he is doing in the story at all. What purpose
does he serve? The main conflict is between Dolarhyde and Graham.
A secondary conflict is Graham's conflict with the inner demons that
make it possible for him to think like a Dolarhyde. There is yet
another conflict between both men and sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds.
In another side plot Dolarhyde trips both himself and Graham up when
the unexpected affection of the blind woman Reba McClane brings his Becoming
to an interesting crisis. It would not seem necessary to complicate
the story even more with Lecter.
The answer, I believe, is that Lecter is an example of the state of
perfection to which Dolarhyde aspires and which Graham fears. Lecter
is the embodiment of what both men are capable of Becoming. Lecter
respects Graham but has contempt for him because he will not Become
what he could ultimately be. Lecter likes Dolarhyde (his "Pilgrim")
because he demonstrates potential, recognizes Lecter as the ideal to
which he aspires, and is working hard to realize that ideal. Lecter
corresponds with Dolarhyde giving him encouragement and advice.
Although Graham prevails, stopping Dolarhyde, he is again nearly
destroyed by his triumph. He retires again, this time for good, as
we can tell because he is only mentioned twice in passing in
Silence of the Lambs and not at all in Hannibal.
He has succeeded in not Becoming, and his success takes him right
out of the continuing story.
Silence of the Lambs
Working at his usual feverish pace, Harris managed to complete the
sequel to Red Dragon in a mere seven years.
Silence of the Lambs
came out in 1988. The book itself was a major hit, and is for good
reason considered one of the classics of its genre.
In many ways SOTL is a twisted mirror image of Red Dragon.
Instead of seasoned veteran Will Graham, we have plucky neophyte
Clarice Starling. Like Graham, Starling is put on her case by Jack
Crawford. Most likely he would rather have again recruited Will Graham,
but Will is now really out of the picture. Instead Crawford sends Starling
to see Lecter, sensing that her relative guilelessness might tempt the
monster to drop them all a morsel of Clue about their new nemesis.
This villain is one Jame Gumb, another victim of horrific child abuse who
like Francis Dolarhyde inherits a big house and a monstrous appetite from
his abuser. Unlike Dolarhyde, who sought
to Become something other than himself, Gumb seems just fine with
himself; it is his victims who Become. In his lighter moments
he enjoys hunting them down in his huge pitch-dark basement with the
slight advantages of night vision goggles and a gun. When he
is finished with them he poses their bodies in obscene tableaux, and
stuffs moth chrysalis into their throats to symbolize their
transformation. Unlike Dolarhyde, Gumb does not seem inclined
to risk danger to himself.
We are told that Gumb "thinks" he is a transsexual, but isn't really—a
plot point that helps the FBI locate him. Instead of Becoming
a girl, he decides to make himself a girl suit out of the
skin of real girls. This takes tremendous skill, which Gumb has
painstakingly acquired by study and trial and error. And it takes
raw material, which is how he comes to the attention of the FBI.
Harris seems to have given a great deal more thought to the character
of Hannibal Lecter this time; he is still a relatively minor actor,
but we are given more details about him and of course his escape forms
a dark backdrop to the otherwise triumphant ending. Barney,
the orderly who earns Lecter's respect by respecting Lecter, did
not appear in Red Dragon. Nor did we hear much about
Lecter's actual crimes in the original book. Harris shows us
Lecter in much the same way the original Alien movie showed
us the monster; only a bit at a time, and we're never sure how
much of it is hidden out of our sight.
Lecter does not respect Gumb as he respected Dolarhyde; he cheerfully
sells Gumb out for his own personal advantage and minor amusement.
Of Gumb as his patient Dr. Lecter tells Senator Martin, "He said
he wanted help to stop but actually he just wanted to schmooze
about it. To rap." In other words, Gumb wasn't Becoming
anything. This makes him uninteresting to Lecter.
So what does Lecter see in Starling? At first he helps her simply
because another inmate flings semen at her; this reflects badly
on Lecter's hospitality. Simple etiquette demands that he offer
up something to compensate for such rudeness. (Later, he talks
the inmate into swallowing his tongue, casually killing him
as if by remote control; his weapon is nothing more than his
terribly complete understanding of other—one might say
Lecter continues to help Starling because he finds her
interesting. Despite her obviously poor upbringing he recognizes
in her an uncultivated aptitude. Within the "well-scrubbed
hustling little rube" with her "good bag and cheap shoes"
is a person who might Become something more than she is. Lecter
directs his energy not so much toward helping Starling catch
Gumb as toward helping Starling improve herself.
After the Silence I
At this point I would like to speculate that Harris may have had
a plan for the third book which isn't what he ended up writing.
Harris had now given us a grizzled veteran who had
almost turned himself into a serial killer himself and a plucky
ingenue who really had no idea what she was getting into. My
guess is that the next story was originally to be of a third
detective who would do what Graham feared—who would Become
like Lecter in the process of bringing Lecter down.
I don't think this was his plan for Starling because at the end
of SOTL her story has achieved a satisfying closure;
Harris could have left her alone with the lambs quieted and
her fame protecting her from the likes of the loathsome Krendler
and nobody would have complained.
After the Silence II
While SOTL was enormously popular by suspense novel
standards, the whole project Became something on the order of
Elvis, Zeppelin, and Stephen King with the production of the
Jodie Foster gave an amazingly convincing performance as the
awkward but hard-working Starling, and Anthony Hopkins set
the world on fire with his portrayal of Lecter.
I did not personally find Hopkins' portrayal of Lecter as
enthralling as most people did; I actually thought Brian Cox's
portrayal of Lecter in Manhunter came closer to what
Harris had written. But the audience spoke, and Harris actually
wrote Lecter more to the Hopkins specification in the third
novel, just as he kept Starling at the center of the story.
And let us not forget that Harris kept writing on schedule.
It took eleven years for him to write the third book,
which is one reason I suspect there was a midcourse correction
when the movie came out.
Hannibal I: Lecter
came out in 1999. It was one of the most anticipated releases
in the history of modern fiction, and a huge number of Harris'
fans hated it.
Hannibal suffers in comparison to its predecessors in part
because Harris is no longer able to hide the monster in the
shadows, making us wonder exactly what he looks like. He has to
tell us. So it's a little like the difference between the
original Alien and Predator movies and the fusion
sequel AVP; a Lecter with a back story and
motivations and vulnerabilities just isn't as scary as Hannibal the
In SOTL Lecter instructs Starling to ask of her villain:
"What does he do, this man you want?" Her lesson is that he
doesn't kill, he covets; killing is just a means
to the end of making his girl suit. Likewise, Lecter is no
simple killer. Suppose we ask the same question of him?
Lecter's senses are extraordinarily sensitive; he can learn your
life story from the aftershave you haven't used in three days.
He can smell the chemical that induces schizophrenia. He can
be annoyed by this sensitivity; the odor of a waiter's watchband
distracts him from his carefully chosen wine. In the midst of
a dramatic escape he takes time to put unguent on a small fabric
burn he has received. But he can also turn this sensitivity off
at will; he betrays no emotion and conducts himself calmly as
preparations are made to feed him, alive, to a herd of pigs.
Lecter has perfect memory and is extensively versed in many
fields of knowledge. He knows many languages. He can rapidly
pick up skills requiring manual dexterity that most of us would
need considerable practice to duplicate. He is physically
healthy and strong. He always has enough money to fund his
expensive tastes. We are told explicitly that he doesn't do
anything as crass as kill people for their money; he has
received gifts and bequests from people who find him charming,
and he followed through with sensible investments.
Lecter is not quite the Nietzschian Superman for one reason:
He does not divert his feelings and emotions. In fact, he arranges
to feel and experience the world much more exquisitely than
most of us can. He could turn those feelings off, and
he does when it suits him; but he appears to find the world
more interesting when it is filled with sensations.
And, of course, he kills people and eats them. What's up with that?
Lecter was an intense boy who
frightened everyone except his sister and his nurse. Overtaken
by war, his family was killed and his sister was eaten by soldiers
who had herded her and Hannibal and and other children together for
sustenance in the bleak closing years of World War II. It is hinted
that Lecter may have helped to eat his sister without realizing what
the food was at the time. It is clear that the soldiers would have
eventually eaten Hannibal too, except that in some unspoken way the
six year old boy managed to overcome the situation. (Harris' upcoming
fourth book will apparently shed some more light on this part of his life.)
The lad who may have avenged his eaten sister had the aptitude to Become
something more than human, but it was the incident with the soldiers
and the eaten sister that forced him to start the process.
Harris implies that at this point Lecter didn't possess any of
the other talents that will come to define
him, but it appears that the experience would inspire him to embark
on a lifelong self-improvement project.
Lecter does not dine at random; as Starling says in his defense,
"he only eats the rude." Lecter's method isn't simply to remove
annoying things from his environment, but to turn them
into something pleasant. Thus, the flutist who can't carry a
tune leaves the orchestra to become a fine meal for his friends.
We might argue that Lecter's methods are a bit excessive;
but Starling makes another observation about him which is critical:
"He won't deny himself."
Hannibal Lecter recognizes that he is no longer merely
human; he is something more like a god, and it is his
right to indulge those urges he finds amusing regardless
of what mere humans think.
Hannibal II: Mason Verger
With Lecter's power so fully exposed Harris needed to give him
a worthy opponent. It's obvious that any straight-up conflict
between Lecter and Starling would end up with Starling munchies
being served. Besides, if Starling is to Become (which is
the only way to thematically complete the trilogy) then she
must be forced into alignment with Lecter. So she can't
provide the major conflict.
Thus we meet Mason Verger, another of Hannibal's victims.
Lecter let Verger live instead of killing him because—you
see this coming, right?—it was more amusing. Verger
is paralyzed and has no face, but he is also fantastically
wealthy and cruel. Verger lays expensive, intricate plans to
get Lecter before the cops do, and exact his revenge by
feeding Lecter alive to specially bred pigs. Meanwhile
he amuses himself with smaller cruelties. He affects to run
a camp for impoverished children at his estate, but his real
purpose is to torment them. When they cry, his staff bring
him martinis salted with their tears.
Many readers found Verger "over the top," like a comic book
villain. But Lecter is already something of a comic
book superhero, so where else is he to find a worthy challenge?
Verger's money buys him everything his ruined body cannot
provide: Loyal helpers willing to abuse children and commit
murder for him, police, government officials, even Starling's
boss at the FBI, and not least of all his own sister.
Before Lecter breaks his neck Verger shows no tendency
to inspire awe; he plays with cruelty and he plays sex games
and he plays with people, but that's all he really does.
He plays. Lecter forces him to Become something greater,
a dark sinister directed force. By paralyzing him and
stealing his face Lecter turns him from a petty sex fiend
and Eurotrash wanna-be into a creature worthy of, well,
being on the cover of a comic book.
But Verger can never be the equal of Lecter. One telling
passage occurs as final preparations are being made to feed
the captured Lecter to the pigs; Verger wonders consciously
what he will do for amusement once he has dealt with Lecter.
The obvious answer is that he will be a bit empty. For all
his power and focus Mason never has learned to create his
own sense of purpose. Lecter, of course, has; and
this is the source of much of his power.
Hannibal III: Starling
In order to bring Starling back into the story Harris has to
begin by destroying her. This is a consistent theme; Becoming
is painful, even agonizing, because before you can Become
something new, the thing you were Before must be destroyed.
Harris begins to feed Starling into the meat grinder on page one
as a routine bust goes horrifically wrong. Starling is
forced to gun down a woman carrying a baby, and things go
rapidly downhill from there.
By the time we reach the novel's climax Starling is
stripped of her job, her authority, and her gun in a
situation where it is understood by all that the murderous Lecter
might be snooping around her. Her one remaining advocate, good
old Jack Crawford, is weakened by the loss of his wife and a heart
attack. Clarice is left with
nothing but her wits and the fact that Lecter likes her.
Nevertheless, many of her fans reject her final turning;
"How could she do it?" they ask in unison. And it's a good
question. The answer, as it turns out, was right there on the
cover of the first edition of Red Dragon: Enter the
mind of a serial killer, and you may never come back.
Graham enters Lecter's mind through his killing urges, but
Starling enters through the more hospitable doorway of his
Early on in Hannibal Starling muses that the catalogs
and fashion magazines she is collecting to flesh out her understanding
of Lecter's taste are a kind of pornography, which she has always
denied herself. In Lecter's care she is no longer merely reading
the pornography; he lets her experience fine things.
This is the first element of her seduction.
Lecter uses drugs and psychotherapeutic techniques to weaken
the memories that are holding her in the world of mortals, her
love for her father and the lambs screaming at slaughter. He
actually digs up her father's bones and confronts her with them,
forcing her to create a sense of closure over his death. This
is the second element of her seduction.
Finally Lecter confronts Starling with the man who has worked
so diligently to ruin her mortal life, and prepares to feed her
the very quivering brain which has architected her destruction.
By the time she realizes that Krendler is about to be killed on
her behalf she is just far gone enough to want to see what
Lecter will make of him. Krendler himself, drugged and about
to have his brain eaten hot out of his skull, recognizes that
something is wrong:
"Who are you anyway?" Krendler said. "You're not
Starling. You've got the spot on your face but you're not
Minutes later, as Starling tests the bits of Krendler's
prefrontal lobe that Lecter has expertly prepared for her,
the conversation continues:
"How is it?" Krendler asked, once again behind
the flowers and speaking immoderately loud, as persons with
lobotomies are prone to do.
As if she dines on the brains of her enemies all the time. But
in all of this Starling may just be displaying a drug-induced
passivity; the real turning point occurs when she utters one
of the single best lines I have ever read in any novel:
"Really excellent," Starling said. "I've never had caper
"See if I sound like Oliver Twist when I ask for MORE!"
So Lecter has pulled it off; Clarice Starling has Become ... what?
Perhaps not a killer like Lecter, but someone who shares his
tastes and certainly will not complain when he indulges his urges.
As Harris finishes the story with a portrait of the life Hannibal
and Clarice have together, there is a sense of familiarity. And
so it is; the picture Harris paints, with words instead of
watercolors, is none other than
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun.
Harris has distracted us with
stories about would-be Dragons, but in Clarice we see the Becoming
of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. She is no killing Dragon but
a godlike creature nonetheless, and a worthy companion for a
godlike creature such as Lecter.
Hollywood Fails It
All of the movies took shortcuts, some more damaging than
others. In the SOTL movie Clarice tries to save one
lamb and fails; in the book she tries to save a blind horse
which is doomed to slaughter, and she succeeds. Hannah the
horse lives out her days giving kids rides at the orphanage
where she goes after the farm. This is an important
distinction; her early experience is one of saving the victim
instead of just being crushed by circumstances.
The later Red Dragon movie
with Hopkins as Lecter and Ed Norton
as Graham borrowed heavily from SOTL, which didn't
exist when Manhunter was filmed, in order to give
Lecter a bigger role. And bearing in mind the original
tagline, I'm supposed to believe that Ed Norton is in serious
danger of turning into ... Naaaaah. The danger of Graham's
Becoming was much more palpable in Manhunter, where
Graham and Lecter were physically and expressively similar.
Jodie Foster took one look at the ending of Hannibal and
picked up her toys and went home. Fair enough; Ridley Scott
found another actress who looked enough like her to work as a
stunt double ... then he fucked up the ending anyway.
Gary Oldman's Mason Verger doesn't frighten, his fascinating
sister Margot and her odd friendship with Barney are gone,
but most of all Clarice does not Become. We are left only with
a muddled depiction of twisted affection that accomplishes
nothing for anybody.
To be Transhuman is to be something other than human. Just as
we might expect a machine intelligence to seem alien to us and
to consider us alien, we might also consider such humans who
transcend their humanity to be as different.
The usual answer to this from would-be Transhumanists is that,
if Transhumans are going to have all the talents and abilities,
they are going to have the advantage in any war. Join up or
find yourself on the losing side.
But Harris shows us a view of Transhumanism so revolting that
one might expect the entire human race to rise up en masse
and divert every effort to stamping it out if it should ever
become more than an occasional curiosity. While most would-be
Transhumanists probably do not plan on becoming cannibals,
the whole point is that you really can't plan at all
on what a transhuman being would think is an appropriate way to
treat traditional humans. Even if that potential transhuman
being is the one that was once you. Just ask Clarice Starling.