When I was about eight and my brother was about six, we asked our mother what her favourite films were. “Silence of the Lambs”, she said, “And Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
Cut to three weeks later, when my parents were at the neighbours’ and we were bored, so they allowed us to go home to watch TV. We browsed the TV guide and discovered my mother’s favourite film was on TV. We figured we’d watch it. My brother made it until the part where Benjamin Raspail’s head turns up in a jar in storage, and he said: “I think I’m going to bed now.” The film ended just when my parents got home, and my mother said: “You weren’t really supposed to watch that.”
But there is a lot an eight year old will miss in Silence of the Lambs, or Red Dragon for that matter, both in films and in writing. There is so much subtlety and innuendo that I, precocious though I might have been, did not pick up on back then, or even when I read Silence, Red Dragon and Hannibal later, when I was in my mid-teens (though, admittedly, there isn’t anything subtle about Hannibal).
Hannibal Rising is a prequel to all those books. In it, we meet young Hannibal, a preteen during World War Two, prodigy of a long line of Lithuanian nobility. He is taken captive by a band of starving mercenaries who eat his sister Misha and keep Hannibal, as it were, for later, before he escapes and ends up in an orphanage. Later, he is adopted by his wealthy uncle Robert and his Japanese wife, ethereal Lady Murasaki. He spends his teens in Paris, goes to medical school, and decides to take revenge on those who wronged him. There’s nothing spoiler-ish about this; we knew all of this from earlier novels, where hints were dropped about the origins of Hannibal’s peculiar tastes.
I did not like Hannibal Rising. Some details are tantalising (Hannibal’s lineage traces back to a Lithuanian warlord named Hannibal the Grim) but most of the book is entirely unoriginal. The characters, for instance, are all paper-thin. The villains are grubby and opportunistic; the policeman is righteous, lady Murakami is the exotic-erotic other permeated with elegance and bottomless wisdom. Even Hannibal himself isn’t very convincing; aside from a deft distraction manoeuvre (“He lent me a hand”) there’s little by way of the devilish charm we’ve all come to like.
The plot, likewise, is predictable: boy is hurt, boy turns into psychopath, boy avenges his beloved sister. I found the actual climax of the novel cringeworthy, and so completely out of character that I began to wonder whether Harris wrote the novel himself or just cashed in the check – because that’s what the novel reads like, a cash-grab. I didn’t need to read Hannibal’s back story; it – and he – was much more interesting when we didn’t know why he became what he became, particularly because war-torn orphan is such a trite fictional archetype. It does a great disservice to the suave, hyperintelligent Cannibal we’ve all come to know and love.
I’m a huge fan of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series and the main reason I read Hannibal Rising is so I can see how Fuller will incorporate the story into the third season (only one more month, Fannibals!). In that sense, I got what I came for. But in comparison with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, this book is a featherweight and sorely lacking.