Before delving into Thomas Harrisís latest creation Hannibal Rising, letís paint a picture that longtime fans of Harrisí work might relate to. Before Hannibal Lecter existed, Harris wrote his first book in 1975 titled Black Sunday, which was made into film starring Robert Shaw of Jaws and The Sting fame and is memorable for the scene with the Goodyear blimp at the Superbowl. Fast-forward to 1981: Red Dragon is released, the first novel where Hannibal Lecter appears, a literary gem, and tremendously successful. It, too, was made into a film Ė twice. Once by Michael Mann in 1986 under the title Manhunter with C.S.I.ís William Peterson starring as Will Graham, and once again in 2002 as Red Dragon, with Edward Norton as Will Graham, Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dollarhyde, and of Sir Anthony Hopkins reprising his role as Hannibal.
With such a tremendously successful novel in Red Dragon, with the bar set so high, could Thomas Harris deliver another novel that would knock readers socks off? The answer is of course Ė absolutely! In 1988, Silence of the Lambs was released, and it was another literary gem. Though years had passed between Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, it was well worth the wait. If you were floored with Dragon, you were astounded, thrilled, scared, moved and excited with Silence. We met Clarice Starling for the first time and followed her plight to capture Buffalo Bill. The film was a huge success in 1991, and the Hannibal Lecter character acquired mainstream notoriety. By this time, the publicís demand for more Hannibal Lecter was insatiable. But it would be more than a decade before Harris would write Hannibal, which was released in 1999. By that time, many fans of the previous novels had developed their own ideas of what Hannibal should and shouldnít be.
Was Hannibal as good as the previous books? If youíd been on this long journey since the beginning, you would probably say no. But with the bar set even higher than before, I donít know if it really could be. How many times can you top yourself? Once you reach the top of Mt. Everest, where do you go? The moon? Sure, the ending left a bad taste in the collective mouths of longtime fans, and perhaps Harris was a bit verbose in his descriptions of Italy. But Ė and itís a big but -- if you read Hannibal without any preconceived notions, you got a pretty damn good book filled with memorable characters like Mason Verger and detective Pazzi. In all honesty, Harris was in a no-win situation: he couldnít write another book with Hannibal locked up in his cell, and writing the one he did, in which the beast that is Hannibal was free to wander, it changed the dynamics of what people had grown to love. This was also made into a movie, but Jody Foster did not reprise her role as Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore did an admirable job filling that role). Hopkins was back, the book did well, and the film did tremendous box office business; financially Hannibal was very successful on all fronts.
Now that the table is set, letís move to present day, December 2006, and a prequel to the Hannibal Lecter series is released entitled Hannibal Rising. Itís been a seven-year wait for avid fans of Thomas Harrisís work. Was it worth the wait this time around? HmmmmmÖ Good question. If you go into Hannibal Rising with the mindset that this is going to be another Silence of the Lambs, you will be disappointed. If you go in with the mindset that this novel will somehow redeem Harrisís previous novel, again, you will be disappointed. This is not supposed to be another forensic/police procedural type thriller. What it is supposed to be is the genesis of Hannibal Lecter, an illumination, if you will. Does Hannibal Rising do a good job of this? Not really. It reads like what it is Ė a novelization of a screenplay; Harris did write the screenplay before working on the novel. Outside of Hannibal and his baby sister, Mischa, none of the characters really resonate or leave any substantial impact.
Thatís not to say the book doesnít have its moments: the opening chapters with the Lecter family evading the Germans during World War II; Poscil questioning Hannibal; and the glimpses of Hannibalís memory palace. But thatís all they are: a few pages here, a few pages there, without any real cohesive plot. Without giving too much away, the basic premise is a window into young Hannibal from ages eight to eighteen wrapped around a bland revenge story that does give some illumination on what made Hannibal become a cannibal Ė though there is much yet unresolved. Some will say itís dry and dull, but others will say its strength is in its subtle style of telling of Hannibalís hardships. Youíll have to read and decide for yourself. All in all, Hannibal Rising is a quick read that you will plow through in a couple hours and leave you empty as you yearn for the next installment - hopefully sooner than later, and hopefully a thrilling work on just how Will Graham did capture the good doctor. Until then, your best bet is to re-read Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs and save the Chianti and fava beans for next time.