Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Thomas Harris, monster-maker

(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.


  1. I'm glad to know someone (and what a Someone!) shares my feelings about Thomas Harris. And to think for so long I laboured under the impression that it wasn't done to talk about him in polite society. Now I have no compunction in admitting that Red Dragon, read at age 17, gave me the most vivid nightmares I've had in my life. I can still recall them in all their chillingness.

    But I was terribly disappointed with Hannibal. Couldn't finish it, as far as I can remember.

  2. I didn't know martin amis was a fan!

    I read one of his reviews collected in the war against cliche in which he called Harris, "a serial murderer of English sentence" and the book, "a necropolis of prose". and these two were the kinder things he said :)

    perhaps he liked the earlier books!

  3. Just incidentally, King has written at least one sequence of books (1-5 of the Gunslinger set of 7), which deserve to be taken quite seriously on their own terms.

  4. Alok: that was the review of Hannibal, which Amis ripped apart. But did you read the full piece? Check out what he says about Harris's earlier work in the same review. Also, Amis being Amis, and pretty much free to write about whatever he wants, it says a lot that he wrote such an indepth piece about Harris in the first place.

    DD: second time this week I've been accused of condescending to the King! To atone, I shall read books 1-5 of the Gunslinger set several times each.

  5. Aarggh!! DD beat me to it. Oh, well, third time lucky and all that.

    I'm not a big King fan in general - but I do think he deserves better than being classed with Grisham.

    Interesting review otherwise - think my trouble with Harris is that I started by reading Hannibal and that put me off him forever. Shall now duly add Black Sunday / Red Dragon to my list.

    As for plumbing the depths of the soul - I always have this vision of a character with overalls and a monkey wrench telling me about pipe bursts...

  6. Ohh sorry. Yes I didn't remember the whole review. Just those random phrases have stuck to mind.

    btw, was it for the same book that he said, "on every page you can see herd of cliches roaming around" :)

    Very funny critic!!

  7. There's a book by Stephen King, 'The Art of Writing'. A wonderfully written book. Actually, the book came about when he once asked Amy Tan (they play together in some band or the other) what questions do people not ask her. And she replied that nobody really asks her about the 'craft' of writing. Stephen King answers that question in this book.

    Actually, my comment doesn't have anything to do with Thomas Harris..but you mentioned that genre writers are not held to be in high esteem. That is correct. In fact, I'm guilty of that myself. But I changed my opinion after reading this book.

  8. OT: dude, got my email? bhaiting phor reply.

  9. Your posts bring delectable combinations always. Harris, Gunslingers, AND Amis' critiques!

    I have held Red Dragon as the scariest book I have ever read, fascinated!

    I have just about been enthused by Martin Amis(pretty late in the day, I agree) reading Experience at the moment (I picked up The Rachel Papers from a pavement long long back, when I had no idea who Amis was, thinking of it to be some cheap sex book. I loved it immensely! ).

    Have been trying to find that review by Amis about Hannibal. Unsuccessfully!

    Can anybody point out a link?

  10. Bagchi: arre, don't give up on Hannibal so easily - give it another try. The carnivorous pigs are finger-lickin' good...

  11. Prakriti: I think you'll have to buy The War Against Cliche. The book is well worth it anyhow, so consider it.

  12. when you said Red Dragon was Harris' best book, i couldnt agree more. had bought a lovely hardbound of both red dragon and silence in the strand book sale for piddly Rs.200. that was in '99 i think. one of my prized acquisitions till it got lost in the maze of friends borrowing it.

    i would say Hannibal is the nadir of the series, both the book and the movie. and yeah it was very sad to see what micheal mann did to red dragon. and my first disappointment with ed norton as i remember it.

    nice post, if only it found some place in a publication which sells a little more...

  13. Help. It takes Harris 7 years to continue with Hannibal. I am 73 years old. I can't wait 7 years to see what has happened to Clarice. Somebody tell him to hurry up. Thanks PP in NC