(An extended version of something I wrote for my Writer's Block column last week in Business Standard)
"In the Green Machine there is no mercy. We make mercy, manufacture it in the parts that have overgrown our basic reptile brain." - Thomas Harris, Red Dragon
Genre writers aren't usually held up to very high literary standards: when was the last time you saw leading critics getting sullen about, say, Stephen King or John Grisham writing their latest novel (perhaps their second of the year) with one eye on a subsequent movie adaptation? Which is why it's noteworthy that so many critics and fans have protested the Hollywoodisation of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter books. [The Lecter franchise created by big studios to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins's performance in Silence of the Lambs reached its nadir with the bloated film version of Red Dragon, which diluted the powerful story by reworking the script to give Lecter a larger part. It wasn't a movie completely devoid of interest, but it felt like such a waste given that Michael Mann had made a solid film, Manhunter, out of that book 15 years earlier – with a great performance by William Petersen as the haunted Will Graham. Edward Norton seemed insipid by comparison.]
But then Thomas Harris tends to evoke strong reactions; he isn't seen as the archetypal popular writer. Oh, he operates within the broad format of genre fiction alright (the genre in his case being the dark psychological thriller) - you'll find all the staples of pacy bestseller writing, the accent on moving the story along, in his work. But he also takes the reader to places where the usual popular novel won't go. His attention to detail, the intensity of his narratives and his talent for plumbing the depths of the soul [editor's note: always wanted to use that phrase!] - these are things that skirt, dare we suggest it, Literary territory. Consequently, while his sales don't quite match those of the King/Grisham/Archer brigade, he has a cult following that runs deeper, and which includes even heavyweights like Martin Amis.
Harris was in his 30s when he began his writing career, after having worked as a crime reporter for a few years. Black Sunday (1975), his first novel, was a political thriller about a terrorist plot to bomb the heavily attended Super Bowl final - possibly killing 100,000 people at one go. Michael Lander, a deranged Vietnam veteran and dirigible expert, becomes the terrorists' instrument for "delivering death from the sky". Instrument is apt: Lander is more machine than man himself, past traumas having entirely cauterized his human feelings. He is also Thomas Harris's first monster, an amoral sociopath who would prepare the ground for more famous protagonists to come. Black Sunday feels a little dated today, but it has many of the concerns that would become associated with Harris's writing: notably the theme that nature is cruel and unsparing; that primitive, atavistic impulses are forever boiling just beneath our civilised exteriors, and that it takes very little for them to come to the surface.
Of course, these aren't particularly original ideas - Harris himself often references William Blake, among other writers, who have dealt with them before – but his treatment of them within the thriller format is startlingly effective, and never more so than in his second and best novel, Red Dragon (1981). This is the story of Will Graham, an investigative agent who reluctantly comes out of retirement to help trace a psychopath who has murdered two families. Graham has a talent for getting into a killer's mind, thinking the way he does, and thereby anticipating his moves. This is not, of course, an unequivocally enviable gift, and what gives the book its emotional drive is Graham’s private conundrum, one that was famously voiced by Nietzsche: "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster." This is set against the compelling parallel story of Francis Dolarhyde, the "Red Dragon".
For help in capturing Dolarhyde, Graham turns to another killer he caught years ago - and thus the Hannibal Lecter legend is born. Harris gave Hannibal the Cannibal a leading part in his next, most famous book, The Silence of the Lambs (1988), which became an equally popular film. And in the florid, over the top Hannibal (1999), Harris handed the stage almost entirely over to his gentleman monster.
Hannibal is overdone in parts, and disconcertingly different in tone from anything Harris wrote before it, but much of the criticism it received was misdirected. The ending, in which Clarice Starling - epitome of youthful idealism in Silence of the Lambs - becomes the Monster's Bride, was roundly vilified; Jodie Foster even refused to play Starling in the movie version of Hannibal because she felt this went against everything the character stood for. But in fact, Harris did a fine job of establishing the circumstances that bring about the change in Clarice's worldview between Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and the change itself is consistent with something that runs through his work: that people with the strongest commitment to idealism are also poised most precariously at the edge of insanity.
"We don't invent our natures, Will," Lecter says to Graham in Red Dragon, "they're issued to us along with our lungs, our pancreas and everything else." Monsters walk amidst us, says Harris, and there can be no explanation for why they are what they are. Much of his work is founded on this idea, and this was partly why his fans felt so let down by a flashback to Lecter's childhood in Hannibal, which seems to "explain" his actions. But a closer reading of the book shows that this isn't the case – Lecter is just as enigmatic, as unknowable, as ever.
But whether that will remain the case in the next book seems doubtful. Behind the Mask, about the young Lecter, is due out this year, and predictably a film version is simultaneously underway. Harris aficionados (I'm among them) will be hoping the author succeeds in maintaining at least some of his integrity. Hollywood's Green Machine can be merciless too.