My disappointment with Thomas Harris’ latest novel, Hannibal Rising, stems not from high expectations – I had a bad hunch about this book from the moment I heard it would be about Hannibal Lecter’s formative years (Lecter’s background and Nazis-ate-my-sister childhood trauma were the least effective parts of 1999’s Hannibal). Expectations sank lower when I learned that the movie of Hannibal Rising will follow a mere two months after the book’s publication, which puts it in February, where bad movies go to die.
I’m disappointed because Harris can write a much better book than Hannibal Rising. But for whatever reason, he hasn’t. Hannibal was at least an interesting failure, with its grotesque violence, over-the-top villains, and mind-boggling ending. But the Hannibal Rising prequel is what a book about a super-intelligent, cultured cannibal shouldn’t be: dull.
Hannibal Rising was probably doomed to failure by virtue of being a prequel. Anyone who has read the previous book already knows what happened to Hannibal Lecter as a child. The same territory is covered in Hannibal Rising, albeit in a bit more detail, but detail can’t give the proceedings any suspense.
Things don’t improve when we get into fresh territory. Orphaned by the war and rendered mute by his trauma, Hannibal spends time in an orphanage and then is adopted by his uncle and aunt, and moves to Paris. His uncle dies soon after, and Hannibal’s greatest influence during this time is his aunt, a Japanese expatriate named Lady Murasaki. Unfortunately – and conveniently – most of the renegades who massacred Hannibal’s family are alive and well and living close by in Paris. Hijinks ensue.
Hannibal Rising isn’t a complete disaster – although there are some giggle-inducing lines like “Flog no one else with meat” and Harris’ trademark shifts in tense. But it falls short of the mark in every way. Harris generates zero suspense: we already know what happened to Hannibal’s family, we know he won’t get caught for the murders he commits, and the reader has no reason to dread Hannibal because he only is violent towards bullies and evildoers.
The villains in the book are so unmemorable that at one point Harris has to list their names so the reader will remember them. Even so, it’s difficult to keep track of what happens when Hannibal seeks his revenge, and even more difficult to care about it.
The supporting characters don’t fare well either, being limited to Lady Murasaki, who exists to be beautiful and to quote some poetry, and to Inspector Popil, who has a good idea of what Hannibal is up to but never does much about it. Worse still, nearly every character speaks in exactly the same way, with peculiarly stilted dialogue.
Those who were annoyed by the “Look! I’ve been to Florence!” descriptions in Hannibal will not be pleased by Hannibal Rising’s “Look! I’ve been to Paris!” chapters. In fact, they’ll be more displeased, because the Paris descriptions in Hannibal Rising don’t help create any imagery – they’re just exercises in name-dropping.
Any writer who does a sequel or prequel faces the problem of consistency. Minor inconsistencies between books can be forgiven, but wholesale alteration of character traits and arc cannot. The Lecter in Hannibal Rising is not the same Lecter who appeared in the other books. The fearsomely clever villain who was willing to put Will Graham’s family in danger and who made no move to help Jame Gumb’s victims is now turned into a champion of bullied children. Lecter has been defanged.
The book isn’t a complete loss: there’s the occasional striking image or gruesome murder to liven things up. Occasionally the old, familiar Lecter makes an appearance: “This was a holiday and killing Grentz was preferable to skiing.” But for the most part the book feels like a pale imitation of Harris’ better work, or like decently written fanfiction. This saddens me, but then I remember that we’ll always have Silence of the Lambs to re-read.