Review of the film of Hannibal
As the story goes, Mamet was originally hired as part of a "super crew" for this film, along with director Scott and actor Anthony Hopkins. Mamet's first draft of the screenplay failed to impress the film’s producers, though, and the writer chose to work on his own film,"State and Main", rather than revise the "Hannibal script. The producers brought in Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List), who revised Mamet's script into the foundation of this year's most anticipated sequel.
Screenplay by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian.
Directed by Ridley Scott. 2001. MGM
A follower of David Mamet’s career to date may expect that, in the near future, the author will publish an essay in which his experience with Ridley Scott’s Hannibal is used as a starting point for further criticism of the film industry. As the story goes, Mamet was originally hired as part of a “super crew” for this film, along with director Scott and actor Anthony Hopkins. Mamet’s first draft of the screenplay failed to impress the film’s producers, though, and the writer chose to work on his own film, State and Main , rather than revise the Hannibal script. The producers brought in Steven Zaillian ( Schindler’s List ), who revised Mamet’s script into the foundation of this year’s most anticipated sequel.
The hype surrounding the release of Hannibal in February almost guaranteed that the film would not live up to its billing, and, sadly, that is the case. While its precursor, The Silence of the Lambs , was a tightly focused psychological thriller that seduced its audience into playing the voyeur, Hannibal is much more diffuse and substitutes shock for subtlety. Earlier reports of the film’s gruesome violence perhaps overstated their case while failing to note both the humorous and structural functions met by such events; a moviegoer leaving this film, however, will likely remember little else about Hannibal than the hanging and evisceration of one character and the “brain-eating” sequence towards the movie’s end. Story and character development play second fiddle to special effects and an overabundance of clever one-liners about cannibalism.
While disappointing, Hannibal is not completely without merit, and still rises above the mindlessness of most Hollywood fare. Part of the problem lies with its source, Thomas Harris’s novel of the same name. Roger Ebert noted in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times that early critics had branded the novel unfilmable. While this is a bit of an overstatement, Harris’s story is wide-ranging and draws together seemingly disparate stories into a page-turning dark comedy. In shifting to the medium of film, though, writers and producers had to pare down the elements of the novel that made it so interesting. On the page, Harris can afford detailed side trips into the minds of both Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, and can take the time to tie storylines set in both Washington and Florence to one another. The details surrounding Starling’s painstaking investigation or Lecter’s gourmand indulgences contribute to a complex rendering of each of these characters. On the screen, though, elements like these can only be suggested: the film’s characters lose some of their complexity, and, by extension, the nuances that made them so interesting in the novel. The end result is, according to the San Francisco Examiner’s glowing review, a plot that “plays like back-to-back episodes of a TV series spin-off.”
Actors Hopkins as Lecter and Julianne Moore as Starling make the most of their material, though, and both turn in, at the very least, respectable performances. Hopkins’s Lecter, now free from prison, is a freewheeling Renaissance man. He enjoys the finest of material goods, and, under the pseudonym Dr. Fell, impressively demonstrates his expertise of medieval art to a group of Italian scholars. Lecter’s cannibalistic appetite has not quelled, though, and Hopkins aptly displays the sprezzatura with which Lecter moves from a leisurely scholar to a cold-blooded killer. Moore comes to her role, almost inevitably, in the shadow of Jodie Foster’s highly praised rendering of the young Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs . The Starling of the sequel, though, is jaded and world-weary; after leading a drug bust gone tragically wrong, she is confined to working on Lecter’s case from a desk. Moore displays both Starling’s adult frustration and her childlike fascination with Lecter with equal skill; any flaws in her performance stem from somewhat obvious attempts to mimic Foster’s interpretation of the character. Other cast members include Gary Oldman, who turns in an appropriately creepy rendering of Mason Verger, the multi-millionaire child molester who was grossly disfigured by a run-in with Lecter. Giancarlo Giannini plays an Italian detective who attempts to betray Lecter to Verger for a large reward and ends up hanging from a Renaissance era building with his intestines spilled onto the ground. Ray Liotta plays politically ambitious Justice Department attorney Paul Krendler; his reward for scheming against Starling is a helping of his own brains, lightly sautéed, and served up by the ever-so-genteel Lecter.
A spectator even passingly familiar with Mamet’s work for both stage and screen may well wonder why he chose to participate in a project characterized by some of Hollywood’s worst excesses of shameless promotion and overwrought shock. Though it’s difficult to say how much of Mamet’s original script was kept for the final product, a perceptive audience member will notice several lines that resonate with content so typical of the writer’s work. For instance, Verger, whose henchmen remain hot on Lecter’s trail for much of the film, makes the observation that the mad psychiatrist’s victims are almost always people who accepted him in the role of a mentor. Similarly, the concept of justice appears routinely as director Scott continuously reintroduces the fact that Lecter only murders those who have indulged in crimes themselves. Mamet must certainly have been intrigued with the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer as an avenging angel. Perhaps more importantly, though, Lecter is a performer; though his psychosis is never in doubt, he moves effortlessly among the educated and wealthy with charm, manners, intelligence, and wit. If a spectator thinks of other Mamet characters, he or she could easily surmise that Hannibal Lecter is the ultimate confidence artist, a character whom American Buffalo’ s Teach or The Spanish Prisoner’ s Jimmy Dell might revere.
One can only wonder what kind of film Hannibal may have been had Mamet’s script remained the blueprint for this potentially interesting, but ultimately disappointing, film. We can only hope that in the near future, Mamet will publish his screenplay.