I don’t think I’ll ever understand the urge to try and turn horror icons into badass antiheroes, but I believe I’ve pinpointed the mistake that serves as the catalyst for that sort of storytelling. Hannibal Rising is the second prequel to Jonathan Demme’s seminal The Silence of the Lambs and the fourth – and hopefully last – movie in that particular horror franchise. I had only ever seen The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, so I figured that for my annual October horror movie marathon, I’d give the entire series a watch in the chronological order in which the events of the films took place rather than their release dates to watch the Grand Vision unfold. Like all of the movies featuring the iconic serial killer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector, Hannibal Rising was based on a book by Thomas Harris, though to what degree this movie – or any of the other Hannibal Lector movies – remained faithful to the books I haven’t much of a clue, as I have yet to read any of them. Harris seems to have carved out a financially lucrative literary niche for himself, for which I fault him not one iota. Maybe someday I will delve into the novels, but for now, all I know of the Lector-verse is what I’ve seen on screen, and well, let’s just say that Hannibal Rising was nowhere near the calibre of The Silence of the Lambs and the amazing Hannibal TV show.
Hannibal Rising has two fundamental failures that keep it from ever achieving anything noteworthy narratively, thematically, or cinematically. The first major fault is that this mediocre movie or character was in any way marketed as relating to The Silence of the Lambs or the character of Hannibal Lector as portrayed in that great movie. Promising to delve into the twisted past of one of cinema’s most iconic villains, it instead offered a tired, pop-psychology look at Lector’s pathology and turned the serial killer who once ate a census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti into a badass samurai warrior with a love interest on a quest of righteous vengeance against the men who murdered and ate his sister. I don’t know if director Peter Webber just never saw The Silence of the Lambs, but the tone of Hannibal Rising does not mesh with that movie, like even a little bit. Part of the problem might be an inability to understand, even at a layman’s level, psychopathy, or even to understand and/or establish the cinematic rules of your version of psychopathy that you’re going to use within the fictional universe of your movie. Or maybe it’s an unwillingness to adhere to any sort of consistency in character in order to “break the mold” and put your own spin on a story.
Instead of any kind of psychological depth, instead we get the tired trope of “character has one traumatic thing happen to him to which all later bad behaviours and pathologies can be directly traced.” You wouldn’t expect this kind of hackneyed character development out of a high school student, yet we tolerate it out of professional writers and filmmakers writing for other adults. For me, this kind of development is the psychological equivalent of the “and it was all a dream” narrative ending that is an unfulfilling as it is unoriginal. Never mind that human psychology is far more complex than simply drawing straight lines from Point A to Point B, this is unengaging and uninspired storytelling. The truth of the matter is that most real-world psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t typically shaped by one single life-defining trauma; it’s often a the cumulative effect of years of environmental issues and some never have anything particularly traumatic happen to them to make them the way they are, and their behaviours are shaped by deeply ingrained biological factors. This is also a far more frightening prospect from a narrative perspective; the fact that somebody who had no sever trauma and, in fact, either led a completely normal life or had nearly every possible advantage in life could still turn out to be a monster is a far more frightening proposition than “a bunch of murderous Nazis killed my sister and fed her to me in a stew so I guess I’m a cannibal and a serial killer now.” Not only is it completely disconnected from the complexity of real-world psychology, it’s just plain lazy and boring storytelling.
What it boils down to is that it’s impossible to draw any sort of line from the character of Hannibal as established in Hannibal Rising to the Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs. Gone is any sense of the cold and calculating predator that stalked his prey through the untamed savanna of their psyches as surely as he did through dark city streets, replaced by a samurai-sword-wielding action hero bent on bloody revenge. Not only are Hannibal’s (Gaspard Ulliel) actions – and by actions, I mean grisly murders and cannibalism – seemingly justified by his lover Lady Murasaki (Li Gong) constantly acting as an accomplice to his horrendous crimes, but the way the movie goes out of its way to try and demonstrate that all of Hannibal’s victims were all terrible people in some way implicitly suggests some sort of moral high ground that Hannibal Lector has staked a claim on. I’m assuming that both Harris and Webber both either watched Dexter or read the books the show was based on, because this definitely feels like a shared trope they’re drawing on. Dexter was able to balance that tone a lot better (For the first four seasons, anyway. I haven’t seen the rest of the show yet, but I’m sure they were able to stick the landing.) and I never felt like it was trying to justify Dexter’s actions as much as explain them. With Hannibal Rising, I felt like their goal was the opposite; it seemed like the filmmakers wanted us to be on Hannibal’s side.
All of this character and tonal incongruity is based on the second and more fundamental failing of Hannibal Rising, namely confusing empathy and sympathy. This is not an uncommon problem in a lot of recent movies, especially horror movies, and I’m not sure exactly what its ultimate cause is, though I can make some educated guesses. I suspect that it has something to do with big studios making decisions based on marketability and profit, but since the early 2000s, the trend has become more pronounced. Just so we’re all on the same page, when I talk about confusing empathy and sympathy in terms of storytelling, let me quickly define my terms here: empathy is being able to understand a character’s point of view and sympathy is agreeing with or endorsing that point of view. (I go into this difference a little more here.) The Silence of the Lambs does a great job of getting the audience to empathize with Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) while still not encouraging us to sympathize with him; yes, he is charming, intelligent, and captivating, but he’s also a deeply disturbed individual who murders, tortures, disfigures, and dismembers innocent people with no hesitation or remorse for his own selfish ends. The tone and imagery of the film clearly indicate to the audience that we are meant to be horrified and disgusted by his actions even as we marvel at his intelligent its into other people’s psychology and his intricately planned escape.
Hannibal Rising, on the other hand, is clearly trying to manipulate the audience into sympathizing with Hannibal Lector. All of his murders are narratively justified as part of a revenge plot that, while gruesome, makes sense within some kind of code of honour. We know that we’re being primed to view Hannibal through this lens with all of the samurai imagery not just presented in the film but directly associated with Lector. The samurai were the warrior class in feudal Japan, and had a very clearly defined and prescribed code of honour in our modern understanding of them, and it’s no accident that we’re meant to associate Hannibal Lector with this sort of noble warrior. I think that this confusion of empathy and sympathy comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of storytelling exacerbated further by an industry driven purely by profit. The protagonist of a story does not mean that the character adheres to any sort of morality that we could label as heroic, but simply that they are the main character around which the story revolves. That is, the protagonist of a story does not have to be a “good guy” in any traditional sense of the word, and the audience doesn’t even have to agree with anything they say or do. The main boundary between empathy and sympathy in storytelling has to be maintained in order to effectively evoke either: Just because you like the character doesn’t mean you have to like the character.
There’s a very specific reason why the antagonists in the Hannibal series kept getting progressively worse; it was simply to make Hannibal Lector seem less worse in comparison. In Hannibal, the antagonist is Mason Verger, a rich child molester. In Hannibal Rising, the antagonists are cannibal Nazis who eat children. The rhetorical manipulation is so shamefully obvious that I can’t in all honesty dismiss out of hand that it’s an in-joke with the filmmakers or Thomas Harris himself to openly insult their audience to their faces and still walk away with their hard-earned cash firmly in hand. I can’t blame them, I guess: if I could devise a system where I could reliably and openly mock people’s intelligence right to their face while simultaneously having them pay me for the abuse, I don’t know if I could resist the irony on such a massive scale.
The problem with trying to make Hannibal Lector’s antagonists even worse than him is that all it does is highlight even more how horrible of a person he is. He’s a murdering, manipulative, psychopath who eats other people. Hannibal Lector is a total asshole, and there’s no way narratively to dig him out of this hole, and no conceivable reason why you’d even want to do so, other than to appease a theoretical audience so stupid that I can only pray it doesn’t exist. The minds behind Hannibal Rising seem to think that those of us watching can only watch a film where the protagonist has to be a “good guy” in some way, or at least redeemable as a human being, even if it’s a serial killer with a code of honour who only kills people morally more culpable than himself. Let me be the first to extend a warm welcome to Hollywood to pull your collective heads out of your butts, start trusting the audience to display a modicum of intellect, and tell stories that are internally consistent with characters that feel like they could realistically exist in the worlds you create with behaviours and psychologies at least complex and coherent enough to allow us to reasonably suspend our disbelief.
Hannibal Rising is a passable film that would have functioned far better as a standalone story that as a continuation of The Silence of the Lambs Lector-verse. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie was the irony of its title as the fourth and final film in the franchise. I wish I could say that this is the last film about Hannibal Lector that will be unleashed on a totally suspecting public, but knowing what we know about the current state of the movie industry, I expect to be talking about the reboot of the franchise in the next three to five years that either turns him into a badass secret agent secretly recruited by the US government to work on secret black ops missions or he gains supernatural powers and stalks half-naked teens as an unstoppable, immortal killing machine. Maybe, in a twisted sort of way, it’s comforting that some thing always never change.