During my Stephen King-reading streak, which spanned more than a few years, if it had the author’s name on it, even in reference, it got my attention. Whatever it was. Hey, I was once an official Book-of-the-Month club member and knew no bounds. Evidently, publishers had become eager to namedrop Maine’s prominent literary talent to hook potential readers in another marketing ploy. By the early 80s I came across one of these recommendations concerning a book King thought pretty ferocious. Really, I thought?
Turned out it was a former reporter and editor for the Associated Press who wrote it. The eerily titled Red Dragon. On later print runs, publishers would begin advertising the novel with this quote by the famed writer of horror across its cover:
“The Best Popular Novel to be Published in America Since The Godfather”
As Vincent Vega would put it, “That’s a bold statement.”
Its author, the reclusive Thomas Harris, I recognized as the one who wrote the 70s terrorist thriller Black Sunday. I’d seen John Frankenheimer’s 1977 film adaptation back in the day and had subsequently read the book it was based upon. A taunt work well-worth the time. Hmm…maybe if it piqued the horror-meister’s awareness, maybe this 1981 book merited a gander, I innocently presumed. Boy howdy! I’ve no doubt someone else wrote about serial killers prior to this, and perhaps an odd story or two about criminal profiling surfaced somewhere in print earlier, too. Crime-fiction writing so well-worn a path for it not.
However, no one ever put them together before into a novel like this work by Thomas Harris. Cloaked in the garb of a procedural, with a captivating character-driven plot, and crafted with horrifying believability. Of this I’m pretty damn sure. The novelist skillfully wove behavioral science, detailed butchery, with a technological edge, into an unsparing story. Chasing down, and interacting with, human monsters. Uncommon creative writing at the time that was realistically frightening. The stuff of nightmares, and it gathered admirers from both the crime thriller and horror realms.
Back then, readers and publishers knew Red Dragon was the one that set a new mark.
“Fear comes with imagination, it’s a penalty, it’s the price of imagination.”
The story traced a serial killer nicknamed “The Tooth Fairy” who stalks and kills seemingly random families during sequential full moons. Two days after the killer’s most recent set of murders, FBI Agent-in-Charge of the Behavioral Science Unit Jack Crawford enlists his troubled, scarred, and former protégé for the case. Will Graham was a brilliant profiler who initially captured the most famed serial killer around three years earlier. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. For his effort, he retired after Lecter almost killed him. The gist of the story was how Graham goes about finding his quarry, using the dark gifts Lecter knows only too well to do so.
In my opinion, there was what came before Red Dragon, and those that copied Harris’ unique amalgam from that point afterward.
“What he has in addition is pure empathy and projection,” Dr. Bloom said. “He can assume your point of view, or mine – and maybe some other points of view that scare and sicken him. It’s an uncomfortable gift, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.”
Thirty-three plus years later, the field has now been plowed many times over. Yet, I listed the book here as a forgotten precisely for that very fact. Of sorts, it created its own subgenre. A minor but darkly beguiling character — or hellish creation, take your pick — in this novel, Hannibal Lecter would eventually become the primary anti-hero protagonist in subsequent books. Dominating the author’s work, his chronicles intrigued many, including imitators. Over the years, Lecter had almost become a target for parody because he has been re-done and re-imagined (even in female form) so often.
The trend has only grown for novelists, TV writers, and motion picture screenwriters in the days since. To the point they seemingly can only attempt to out-eviscerate Mr. Harris’ signature rogue in gore and depravity. With diminishing returns, sadly. It’s a cliche to come up with a scenario about a charismatic or sinister serial killer in the publishing world or whatever sized screen you write for these days. That’s why this novel deserves its due. Truly, Red Dragon was the forerunner. Owning to the fact this story and villain, at least for a time, was intensely original.
Still, imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, along with the primary business model for publishers and movie studios.
As mentioned, the book’s influence expanded beyond the literary. What was the novel’s best film adaptation, you ask? Since it was done twice for the big screen, easily it’s Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, I’d say. Although, its 80s pedigree is manifested somewhat in its art direction and depiction, this film clearly did not waste its fine cast as it told its potent story using director Mann’s well established and creative approach. Contrast that with what
hack director Brett Ratner tried to do with his 2002 remake.
Of late, the best and most novel approach with the material has come from television, of all places.
NBC’s Hannibal series, with the intriguing Mads Mikkelsen carrying the demented torch as the signature character, and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, has created a startling reinterpretation of the author’s characters. A program that’s gathered old hands of Thomas Harris’ work along with new followers who’ve only been exposed to his mimics. Quite a feat. So far, it’s a wonderfully written, acted and directed series that’s transcended the inevitable comparisons, yet still serves up an admiration to the source material.
A remarkably bloody one for television audiences.
“Lecter is so lucid, so perceptive; he’s trained in psychiatry… and he’s a mass murderer.”
Red Dragon remains an exceptional headspring that hasn’t received the accolades it’s long deserved. It may be that its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, overshadowed it by bringing Lecter further forward on text and later film1. Pairing him with a more divergent and fascinating foil, the young Clarice Starling. I should note for those drawn to the character, wanting to go deeper into the topic that is Hannibal Lecter to explore his legacy and impact upon popular culture, check out author John Kenneth Muir’s insightful retrospective post on the subject. It’s an engrossing read.
Lastly, as good a film as Manhunter was, I’m afraid no film adaptation was ever as gripping or harrowing as the book that intrigued Stephen King. To be certain, no film ever dared put Red Dragon‘s shattering climax from the page onto any of the two screen adaptations. Admittedly, the bloody calling card for the new TV series is one that it isn’t afraid to do just that or similar. Time will tell. It’s the reason I’m listing all this together with Thomas Harris extraordinary second novel, here — the author only wrote five in all before falling off the publishing map. Why the book is worth reading and remembering, I guess.
As long as you can handle the nightmares, that is.
- Two incredible actors, Brian Cox and later Anthony Hopkins, breathed formidable life into the Hannibal Lector character for the big screen. Whoever you prefer, they’re both great in the role. To the point that last year’s RED 2 sequel had fans aflutter when the two movie Lecters shared a scene together. ↩