September 11, 2003

Take One

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Take One: Deep Within An Author’s Dark Mind

Growing up in the deep South fifty years ago, a desolate young boy stood over a bridge in Rich, Mississippi and shot at snakes and turtles with a .22. He returned home, only to estrange himself from the vibrant children outside, preferring to unwind in his own company, surrounded by his beloved books. No one seemed to reach out to the boy, allowing him to reside solely within his potentially dangerous thoughts. According to the Miami Herald, a former neighbor insists that “he was different from most boys. The truth is, he just didn’t fit in.” The boy, named Thomas Harris, would grow up though, and the thoughts that ran unbridled through his mind during his lonesome childhood would find themselves on paper. Paper that would make him an isolated millionaire.

Not surprisingly, acclaimed author Harris’s first novel, Black Sunday, told the story of a young boy not unlike Harris himself. This boy grows up in the South, skips a grade, and is forbidden to play football by his mother — all events that occurred in the life of Harris himself. But in the novel, the main character, Michael, develops into a mass murderer, as a direct result of his introverted and troubled childhood. It seems a bit chilling to think that perhaps this is what Harris fantasized about as a child, while all the other children were playing football in the street. Harris describes the “dull heaviness” that pervades Michael’s inner self, no doubt a form of an indirect autobiography by the reclusive novelist. Harris, of course, was not at all finished with his enthrallment to evil serial killers. In the recesses of an already dark and troubled mind grew a character who mixed charm and evil, intelligence and sin, and who undoubtedly represented aspects of Harris himself.

Hannibal Lecter, through the novel and then the film The Silence of the Lambs, became a rapid cultural phenomenon. Unlike any other screen villain, he captivated not only other characters in the story, but the avid readers and moviegoers as well, with his unnerving riddles, and with his haunting pitch. Recall, again, the focus in the novel on the childhoods of both Lecter and FBI agent Clarice Starling. The prose delves deeply into the troubled nature of their early lives, perhaps again reflecting Harris’s own distressed younger years. Much has also been said about the tendency of Harris to pay extreme attention to detail. His willingness to elaborate on seemingly the most trivial of things is evident in all of his novels and is not surprisingly an unmistakable trait in the serial killers he has created, including Dr. Lecter.

The Hannibal Lecter trilogy, chronologically from Red Dragon to The Silence of the Lambs, and then to Hannibal, has become an industry within itself. Readers and viewers seem to share in Harris’s fascination with these characters, especially Lecter. Though Lecter’s childhood in Europe was touched upon briefly in the books, much has been left — perhaps purposely — undeveloped, including the intricacies of his relationship with his sister, Mischa. But now there’s reason to stop all the guessing. Harris, basically in hiding since his last book was released three years ago, is in the process of writing another, entitled The Lecter Variations: The Story of Young Hannibal Lecter. Intended as a prequel to Red Dragon, the tale follows the cannibal from his childhood in war-ridden Lithuania through his teenage adventures in Paris and finally to his dramatic arrival in the United States. The novel’s title, by the way, is derived from Johann Sebastian Bach’s ambitious keyboard piece Goldberg Variations, in which Lecter utterly absorbs himself during his memorable escape from custody in The Silence of the Lambs.

A film, of course, is intended to follow the book, and while there is no word on whether Sir Anthony Hopkins will be asked to appear in the movie at all, the producers are reportedly considering actors to play Lecter at various ages, ranging from five to about twenty-two. The current rumor is that Macaulay Culkin will play the character in his late teenage/early twenties years. Of course, this version of Culkin is far removed from his Richie Rich or Home Alone days, as evidenced by his dark portrayal of a drug addict in the recently released Party Monster, and while this choice may work, I might suggest the relatively unknown Michael Pitt, whose performances in Finding Forrester and Murder by Numbers were exemplary and dark enough to merit the mention. Jude Law, made just a bit younger by the magic of computers, would work quite well too.

With the release of the book, and then the film, and even a Hannibal PC game in November, Harris’s world of dark suspense and malevolence continues. Expect the novel to reveal not only more about Lecter’s obscure world, but about Harris’s as well. After all, perhaps the only thing more terrifying than Hannibal Lecter is the man who had the mind to create him in the first place.

Archived article by Avash Kalra