Insightful. Cunning. Mysteriously elusive. Wickedly dark. Such descriptions could just as easily apply to novelist Thomas Harris as they could to his most famous creation -- one of the most notorious literary (and cinematic) villains of all time. Hannibal Lecter has left a wake of murder and chaos through a trilogy of horrifically mesmerizing thrillers: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. Now, twenty-five years after making his debut, Lecter is back in Harris's fifth novel Hannibal Rising.
From within the shadows of a darkened cell lurks a human monster with an intellect as sharp as a straight razor and a conscience as blank as a death shroud. He's Hannibal Lecter, a formerly brilliant psychiatrist turned prisoner after it was discovered that the good doctor had some rather, err... unconventional appetites.
Ever since the release of the film version of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Hannibal Lecter has been one of the most famous fictional villains in popular culture, perhaps only rivaled by Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. But what of Lecter's creator? Thomas Harris is quite a bit less accessible than the cannibalistic psychopath he crafted. While Harris is infamously media-shy, it is well known that he was once a crime reporter working for the Waco Tribune-Herald, later becoming a reporter and editor for the Associated Press. Harris would carry his fascination with true crime over to the world of literary fiction when he wrote his debut novel in the mid-70s. Black Sunday, the harrowing, terrifying tale of a terrorist attack plotted to take place during the Super Bowl, was inspired by the real-life assassination of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The novel revealed a young author with a gift for building palpable suspense out of a seemingly improbable situation (at least, in 1975 the idea of a mass-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil was considered to be highly improbable). Two years after the novel's release, it became a major motion picture directed by the late John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) and starring Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern. Black Sunday was the first film based on a book by Thomas Harris, but it was by no means the last.
In 1981, Harris finally published his second novel. It was Red Dragon that first introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter as he assists Special Agent William Graham of the FBI in his quest to hunt down a ritualistic killer. Lecter was a villain unlike any other: calm, controlled, insightful, even humorous, but ready to strike like a viper at any given moment. The book became a massive hit, both critically and commercially, paving the way for further adventures featuring the flesh-eating Lecter.
When Hannibal "The Cannibal" returned in a novel that propelled the character into the realm of superstardom, he was once again pitting wits with an FBI agent bent on bringing down a serial killer. However, this time the agent was infinitely more complex, her relationship with Lecter infinitely more provocative. Clarice Starling's battle of wits with Lecter was detailed in The Silence of the Lambs, one of the finest thrillers in print. The critical accolades were astounding: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Examiner, and the Chicago Tribune are just a sampling of the periodicals that praised The Silence of the Lambs. But it was Jonathan Demme's film adaptation of the novel that really sealed Harris's -- and Lecter's -- position in pop culture. With Anthony Hopkins giving a career performance as the doctor, The Silence of the Lambs is widely regarded as one of the greatest horror films in cinema history. In fact, it is the only horror film ever to sweep the Academy Awards, winning trophies for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress (Jodie Foster as Agent Starling), and Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Published.
Not surprisingly, expectations were high when Harris published Hannibal in 1999. However, this reunion between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling was deemed too-much-of-a-grisly-thing by many critics who felt that the story had stumbled into the realm of gross self-parody. That didn't stop many from praising the book, though. In his review for the New York Times, fellow horror-master Stephen King said that Harris's fourth novel was "one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist." Larry King wrote in USA Today that Hannibal was nothing less than "a work of art." Once again, the story found a home on the big screen with Anthony Hopkins returning as Lecter and Julianne Moore taking over the role of Clarice. Much like the book upon which it was based, Hannibal received mixed notices because of its graphic violence despite the fact that the original ending of the book had been softened considerably.
For those hoping that the mixed reaction to Hannibal did not result in an end to Lecter's exploits, Harris's next book should be a bit of gruesome good news. Hannibal Rising is a prequel to the Lecter trilogy, tracking how an abandoned boy in Eastern Europe came to become one of the most diabolical creations in literature. So, settle down with some fava beans and a nice chianti, and hold tight... Hannibal Lecter will be back before you can say, "I'm having an old friend for dinner."
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Harris is making his screenwriting debut with an adaptation of his Hannibal Rising. Starring the young French actor Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal Lecter, the film is slated for release in February 2007.
Harris supposedly declined to be involved in the making of The Silence of the Lambs, but when the film wrapped, he sent each member of the cast and crew a bottle of wine.
Hannibal Lecter made his big screen debut as played by Brian Cox in the 1986 Michael Mann film Manhunter, an adaptation of Red Dragon. Sixteen years later, Brett Ratner remade the film with the novel's original title and Anthony Hopkins resuming his role as Lecter.
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