Since man was capable of thought, he wanted answers to the essential questions: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Who created the universe, God or Professor Stephen Hawking? Why was that man crying red tears from his chest when I threw a sharpened screwdriver at him? But more importantly, which film is superior, Manhunter (1986) or Red Dragon (2002)?
Whilst I consider Manhunter to be the best psychological thriller ever made, I would argue that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the best ‘Hannibal Lecter film’ – but that’s only because Manhunter isn’t really about Lecter; it’s about Will Graham. If you want, it’s a ‘Will Graham’ film. So just to reiterate, this will not be about the brilliant The Silence of the Lambs, the hilarious Hannibal (2001) or the unnecessary Hannibal Rising (2006).
Let’s begin with my favourite Thomas Harris character: Will Graham. For those of you who haven’t read the novels, and because I’m very considerate, I’ll give you a brief background: Will Graham is an FBI manhunter/profiler who has the troubling gift of being able to empathise with murderers, meaning he can realise their motives and how they choose their victims, and use that insight to track them down. Before the events of the Red Dragon story, Graham has caught two serial killers. The first one was Garrett Jacob Hobbs aka ‘The Minnesota Shrike’, a Ted Bundy type sexual sadist who murdered college girls. In a messy confrontation in which Hobbs stabbed his own wife and was trying to cut his daughter’s throat, Graham shot him to death. This caused Graham to have a complete mental breakdown and severe depression, resulting in him being admitted to a psychiatric ward. The second psychopath he caught was Dr Hannibal Lecter aka ‘The Chesapeake Ripper’, a psychiatrist and cannibal who, whenever feasible, likes to ‘eat the rude’. Graham realised Lecter was the Ripper on his second visit to Lecter’s office when he saw some old medical books on a shelf. Although the reason wasn’t clear to him at the time, he knew it was him. He went to a payphone down the hall and called the police when Lecter crept up behind him, slashed Graham’s abdomen with a linoleum knife and nearly disembowelled him. The police arrived and arrested Lecter. Graham recovered after several months and retired from the FBI.
Mind over murder: FBI manhunter Will Graham
This brings us to the events of Red Dragon, three years later, in which Will Graham comes out of retirement to help the FBI catch ‘The Tooth Fairy’, a serial killer who has murdered two whole families, both during a full moon. However, to recover the mind-set, he must visit the doctor who almost killed him. Michael Mann, who directed and wrote the screenplay for Manhunter, clearly understood the character of Will Graham. He knew he was a man dangerously on the edge, who’s only one step away from turning into the men he’s hunting. He’s both unnerved by his ability and sickened by it. This definitely comes across in William Peterson’s performance of Graham. He’s depicted as a haunted man who’s spent too much time looking into the void which gives him an air of tension. Just look at the scene where Graham slowly realises how Dollarhyde is choosing his victims. The slow build-up of the music and Graham rewinding the tape and playing it over and over again until he is suddenly in tune with the sick mind he’s chasing. By the time he standing by the window with his hand on the glass, he’s now looking at the darkened city though the eyes of the killer. The fact that we, the audience, are ahead of Graham and know who the killer is, and yet the scene is still exhilarating and kind of scary, just shows the power of the film. Incidentally the same scene in Red Dragon is completely thrown away in about thirty seconds of exposition.
Graham ‘in-tune’ with the killer
So, compare this to Edward Norton’s portrayal, in which they turn the character into a dull Hollywood detective. He hardly comes across as a veteran FBI agent who’s close to having a mental relapse. He just looks bored. This isn’t helped by the film’s opening scene, in which we discover that Lecter is a forensic psychiatrist who has been working with Graham for a long time and is a kind of mentor to him. This pisses me off because it undermines the character of Graham. It basically shows Graham doesn’t really have a gift, that he can only catch people with the help of Lecter. We even find out later that Lecter gave him help in finding Hobbs. Graham wasn’t even supposed to know Lecter by that point. As I mentioned earlier, he only met Lecter twice before intuiting who he was. So not only does Red Dragon take away the mystery and tension of Graham, he’s also played quite poorly by Norton. I doubt this is his fault because he’s a talented actor and considering the rest of the performances are pretty bad in this film, it’s probably down to the direction and screenplay. But I’ll get to that later.
William Petersen and Edward Norton as FBI Profiler Will Graham
Let’s move on to the good doctor, who for some reason has had his name changed to ‘Lecktor’ in Manhunter. Whilst I consider Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter in Silence to be the scariest portrayal of the character (considering he escapes by wearing the severed face of Sgt Pembrey) I find Brian Cox’s Lecktor more disturbing. This may be due to Cox’s understated performance that he based on real life Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel. It may also be because he’s used so sparingly in the film. Like the novel, Lecktor is only a peripheral character in this story. A perfect example of less is more. This phrase was clearly not in Red Dragon’s vocabulary as screenwriter Ted Tally shoehorned in as many Lecter scenes as possible. This isn’t aided by the fact that Hopkins delivers his worst performance as the character. He overacts wildly, taking the theatrically from Silence and turning it into camp, self-parody. In Hannibal, he may not have been scary but he was at least funny with his dry delivery of the dialogue – but in Red Dragon he’s quite awful. Also, since the story is meant to be set several years before Silence, he’s just too old and flabby for the part.
Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecktor and Anthony Hopkins impersonating Lecter from two films ago
Consider the scene where Graham goes to see Lecktor at the asylum in Manhunter. Set in a sterile white room, with Mann’s mirror-like composition of shots, it feels disorientating. The tension is electric in this scene, and not just because of the 80s score! Graham clearly feels sick just being there and he can’t wait to leave. They both play it perfectly, culminating in Lecktor’s menacing line: “You want the scent? Smell yourself!” Compare this to the same scene in Red Dragon where they do away with the tension, in favour of dull melodrama. Ratner even includes an awful generic shot where Graham turns away from Lecter in the direction of the camera with Lecter out of focus, hamming it up in the background whilst Norton tries his hardest not to look bored in the foreground. It just makes me cringe.
“I feel sick just being here… I should never have taken the money”
This brings us to the second psychopath of the film (or third if you include Graham), Francis Dollarhyde aka ‘The Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon’. Defenders of Red Dragon will go, “ah, but Ralph Fiennes’ Dollarhyde is closer to the novel than Tom Noonan’s”. It’s true, the Red Dragon film does include more Dollarhyde scenes straight from the book and feels lacking as a result of it. This is because certain ideas that are effective in literary form don’t necessarily translate well to a film. An example being the scene where Francis goes to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and consumes William Blake’s Red Dragon painting. In the novel this sequence is tense and exciting. In the film, the sight of Fiennes chewing the painting just looks silly. I don’t mind the changes Mann made to the character. I like the way he kept certain elements but also added characteristics inspired by real life murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace who Mann was in correspondence with at the time. Particularly Wallace’s fixation with radio and television signals, hence the large satellite dish outside Dollarhyde’s house and the TV that constantly shows static in his living room. As Dollarhyde would say: “Do you see?” It’s not just style over substance (something Mann is often accused of), the style has meaning. This also applies to the use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida” which plays over the film’s climax, a song Wallace was obsessed with.
Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes as serial killer Francis Dollarhyde
Whilst I’m on the subject of music, the score and soundtrack of Manhunter, whilst very much a product of its time, is entirely fitting for Mann’s adaptation. As ever, Mann shows his talent for fusing images with music. Some of the tracks like “This Big Hush” and “Strong As I Am” lend themselves perfectly to the film’s creepy 80s atmosphere of neon-angst. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Red Dragon. Danny Elfman’s over-the-top, generic Hollywood thriller score perfectly reflects that film’s lack of subtlety. Even if you’re someone who hates Manhunter’s synthesizer score, you can’t deny that Howard Shore’s brilliantly understated score for Silence of the Lambs is superior to Red Dragon, in that it avoids being generically horror or thriller sounding and instead goes for an emotionally dramatic sense of impending doom. But if Red Dragon fails on its music and characterisations, there is something far more disturbing lurking within…
In the same way that FBI Investigator Will Graham adopts the mind-set of a psychopath to understand why they commit crimes against humanity, I listened to the DVD commentary for Red Dragon to better understand why Brett Ratner committed crimes against cinema. It was a dark place to be, this creative vacuum of a mind. Spending too much time there, I was worried I would go mad and decide to make an unwarranted shite-fest of a prequel to a franchise I loved. In my darker moments, I considered making an origin story to Back To The Future. It would have the Doc building the time machine into the DeLorean and showing him stealing the plutonium from the Libyans. It could work, dammit! At the same time, I knew these thoughts were sick, the product of an ill mind – but then the credits rolled and I came to my senses. I realised ‘Back to the Future Part IV – The Beginning’ was a terrible idea. I had escaped with my sanity. I was lucky…this time.
Hannibal the cannibal and Brett Ratner – the cold, dead eyes of a psychopath, and Hannibal
What I gleaned from this two hour ordeal, other than Brett Ratner making tedious references to his Rush Hour films or repeating “I love that shot, I love this shot” (he loves a lot of his own shots) was that they felt they were making a more faithful adaptation of the book. When I stopped laughing I realised they were being serious. Besides, even if you do consider Red Dragon a more faithful adaptation, despite its attempts to make Lecter the main character and ruin Will Graham, it’s irrelevant. To slavishly recreate everything from a book does not necessarily make a good film. I think the best film adaptations take the source material and make it their own, turning it into something that works as a film and not simply a visualised novel. American Psycho and Wild at Heart are good examples of adaptations that work well on their own merit but at the same time keep essential ideas from the book.
Sure, Mann changes the ending of the book, but so does Ted Tally. The novel’s ending is far bleaker. Graham gets stabbed deep in the face by Dollarhyde on the beach whist his wife and step-son have to fend for themselves. It ends with Graham in intensive care having a dream about the time he visited Shiloh after he’d shot Hobbs to death, and realising that Shiloh wasn’t haunted as he’d previously thought; that men are haunted. Neither film captures that bleakness, but at least Manhunter doesn’t end with the atrocious scene that Ted Tally wrote in which Dr Chilton tells Lecter a young woman came by to see him. This really was the final straw with Red Dragon, to have the nerve to suggest that Clarice Starling turns up at the end of the film is just staggeringly awful. Especially considering the events of Silence take place several years after this story. It’s hard to believe Tally was the screenwriter for Silence of the Lambs. Did he forget he made that film eleven years before? It would have been just as subtle to have a caption flashing on the screen saying: ‘BY THE WAY, THIS IS A PREQUEL TO THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Y’KNOW, THE DECENT ONE’.
I suppose the tagline; ‘the fourth and worst film of the trilogy’ wouldn’t have sold the film
It’s clear all throughout Red Dragon that despite Ratner’s bland workmanlike direction, he’s desperate to mimic the style of Silence, bringing nothing original to the table. Except maybe the ridiculous opening in which Tally and Ratner insist on turning Graham into a conventional hero by having him shoot Lecter five times like it was a fucking Rush Hour film. At least when Graham fires six rounds into Dollarhyde in Manhunter, the man actually dies.
However, to place all of the blame for Red Dragon at Brett Ratner’s feet, although satisfying, would be short-sighted. I don’t so much blame him; he’s just an idiot. I blame whoever thought he would be an acceptable choice for this kind of film. Whoever it was chose him purely because he’s an accountant and he makes bankable films. They knew he wouldn’t cause them any problems or let creativity get in the way of him delivering a lovely spread-sheet of a film. In the commentary Ratner says “I think a dark director or a dark writer would’ve gone too far with this movie and made something that was maybe hard for an audience to bear.” No Brett, that would have made for an interesting film. The fact that Red Dragon is the only 15 rated film of the series (in the UK at least) tells you all you need to know. Essentially, Red Dragon feels like one of those pointless Michael Bay-produced remakes of classic horror and slasher films from the 70s and 80s.
“It’s just you and me now, sport…”
It’s a real testament to Manhunter that I saw the film before reading the novel and having read it, I now respect the film even more. The novel is simply one of the best pieces of 20th century crime fiction and I was surprised to see that the iconic line from the film “It’s just you and me now sport…” comes from the book. However Mann does add the cheesy 80s line “…and I’m gonna find you Goddammit!” Although, admittedly, I may be more forgiving of 80s cheese, considering I’ve seen all 115 episodes of Miami Vice (1984-1989) – including the bizarre episode ‘Missing Hours’ in which Trudy has a vision of the singer James Brown on a houseboat and becomes obsessed with aliens and jars of peanut butter – but that’s a story for another time.
Miami Vice – in many ways, more disturbing than the Hannibal Lecter films
I’ll end by saying that there’s only one line of dialogue I like from Red Dragon that’s neither in the novel nor Manhunter. It’s when Dr Lecter says to Graham, “Without our imaginations, we’d be like all those other poor dullards.”
No, Dr Lecter. Without your imagination, you’d make a film as generic, bland, pointless, tedious and stultifying vacuous as Red Dragon.
Point. Match. Leonard.
That’s it folks. Thanks for bearing with me on this overlong, self-indulgent rant. It was certainly therapeutic and I feel at peace. Maybe it’s time to let Brett out of the well in the basement of my mind.
Ta ta, L.