Thoughts and memories of film adaptations and the novels that inspired them.
The science building at Mt Gravatt High School was a shadowy two levels; linoleum and strong, cheap timber which shone with varnish. One afternoon in 2002 I was leaving Chemistry, my last class for the day, with Thomas Harris’s Hannibal tucked inside my bag. I was eager to get home to continue down its dark path. This displaced moment only came back to me recently — after speaking with a friend who was astonished that I couldn’t remember what I was reading as a teenager. Even now, I only remember having the book, and the slanting afternoon light through the windows, the way the building hungrily soaked it up. I started watching the Hannibal TV series a few weeks ago, itself a show about the mind and the way we can suppress the things that happen to us, and this is what dredged up the recollection.
The Silence Of The Lambs was more than just a film when I was a child. Within a decade of the movie’s existence, it was frequently referenced in other films, transcending genres and sub-cultures, and the title became a harbinger of dread, an omen. I was curious, and that was a theme in my life. The first M-rated video I ever rented from the Marsden Shopping Centre was Alien. As I was eventually drawn to The Silence Of The Lambs, Alien called to me similarly through whispers and blinks that this was something ‘dangerous,’ or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I think I was craving challenge. In that outer-suburb-Friday-night-VHS-and-take-out universe, these were my first steps away from the cycle. Years later, when I was in undergrad, the main reason I wanted to read American Psycho was because it was banned from sale in Queensland. Earlier this year, I bought tickets to see The Rite Of Spring based on the knowledge it caused a ‘riot’ at its inaugural iteration.
Although I’d already approached grown-up movies throughout my teen years, the transition from young-adult to adult literature seemed more daunting. My extra-curricular activities focused more on getting stoned than reading, but there was the inverse of that, too. A double-life that rarely seemed to meet the other. I was part of a very small Modern History class of combined grades, in which we were spoken to as adults, or at least as though we had adult potential. We were encouraged to read and face troubling issues, examine them. It was the first time that it was made clear to me that education is not limited to a classroom, and that we should be curious, be engaged, and ‘stay awake’ after 3pm, and on weekends, too.
Red Dragon and The Silence Of The Lambs taught me that our own pathologies are never clearer than in the face of extremism. This may seem elementary now, but for a 15-17 year old, this was a revelation. It also framed how I looked at fiction, and what I wanted to get from it. I wanted that extremism, the ‘sick shit’ that was so entertaining, which also worked to uncover some quotidian truths. The human element of Harris’s novels lives fully through his characters, rather than an agenda partially present within the author’s own voice. These characters were brought to vivid life in the film versions of both Silence and Red Dragon. In the end, the books are procedural-crime, but that peek behind the curtain of what makes a serial killer is exactly what injects the stories with horror. Both Jodie Foster and Ed Norton provided painstakingly subtle depictions of FBI agents ‘just doing their jobs,’ and paying both the psychological and physical prices for it. The actors’ restraint allowed Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter to not necessarily steal any scenes, but to appear as truly mad, truly brilliant and most importantly, truly and deeply frightening in a world full of right angles and official jargon. In Silence, Jonathan Demme’s visual storytelling is entirely sympathetic with Agent Starling’s anxieties. He incisively films through the ‘male gaze,’ enforcing Starling’s concerns of being objectified within the male-dominated FBI. When I watched it, I become an extension of Starling; the things happening around her happened around me. I felt helpless and terrified in the face of a killer who is selecting female victims based on their size and the quality of their skin. When Lecter gets inside Starling’s head, it’s like he’s in mine too.
The way these stories mix the pedestrian with the extraordinary goes further in highlighting the way the extraordinary could not care less about our daily lives. When terrible things happen in the real world, we’re never truly ‘prepared’ for them. Things happen which hold absolutely no acknowledgment of our own existence, but we’re compelled to react, to establish how we feel, personally, about them. These books make me think of high-school, and when I think of high-school in this context, two events come back to me vividly. One afternoon in grade 11 Biology, we were unable to leave the classroom because an armed man was wandering the school oval. Later that year, instead of our teacher’s planned lesson we watched two buildings on a TV screen burn until they collapsed. The very specific type confusion I felt upon being told that was not fiction, not a movie, but the news, real life, is something I haven’t felt since. The extraordinary is far more common in fiction, and maybe that has two causes. Ideally, fiction can help us externalise our feelings – at least help us take steps towards a sense of preparedness. Or perhaps it desensitises us. Extreme situations only occur on the page, on the screen, until they happen in the real world and then we have no idea how to react, because we’ve never really needed to.
What I adored about Harris’s novels, and the adaptations of Silence and Red Dragon, were the real-world implications (personal and societal), the moral ambiguities, and the characters themselves. These things were lost with the novel and film Hannibal. I neither read, nor saw Hannibal Rising. The TV show, however, has brought them back in its reimagining of the chain of events prior to Hannibal Lecter’s capture. They’ve made efforts to modernise the story that are needed and valuable, while at the same time as being somewhat corny and obvious (swapping around genders
and race of certain characters), but in the end, they work. Sometimes the real world is corny, just as it is sometimes troubling, sometimes shocking. Furthermore, the visual storytelling continues Demme’s legacy, bringing me right back to the awe I felt at 17, watching Silence. The establishing shots are as rich and beautiful as Demme’s were cold and foreboding, and there’s a lot of camera time dedicated just to characters’ faces. It’s also loyal to Harris’s legacy, in that it’s created a dangerous world in which if you’re not a stitched-up aspergic, or carrying around a psychology degree, you’re the next suspect. You must be insane. But the truth is that that for every correctly accused suspect that follows all these rules, there is probably one who doesn’t. And the truth is, while we may see patterns, there are no rules.