Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Great Red Dragon

Sometimes I get a wild hair to reread something I’ve read before.  Generally I take myself up on this proposition.  A few nights ago, as I was going to bed, I had a sudden desire to reread Hannibal.  Dunno why; something about the way Harris describes the inner workings of Lecter’s brain is just cool.

But of course if I want to reread Hannibal, first I need to reread Silence of the Lambs.  And, if I want to reread Silence of the Lambs, I need to reread Red Dragon.

I never read Red Dragon until after I’d read Silence of the Lambs, and I never read Silence of the Lambs until after I’d watched Jonathan Demme’s excellent adaptation of it.  Typically, I find movie versions of full-length novels to be inadequate (unless the novel is crap, in which case the movie can be superior), but both movie and book in this case are top notch.  The acting in the movies is one of the high points: the ever-dependable Sir Anthony Hopkins is the quintessential Lecter, of course, and I don’t even mind the change in casting for Starling.  I just think of Jodie Foster as the young, hopeful Clarice, and Julianne Moore as the older, jaded Clarice.  Works out well.

Of course, Red Dragon is a bit lesser known (both the book and the movie), but there’s a lot to be said for both.  On the cinematic side, Ed Norton is certainly always dependable, and Harvey Keitel makes a smidge better Crawford than Scott Glenn.  But honestly, it’s the supporting cast that makes the movie for me: I can’t read about Freddy Lounds without seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in my head, and Reba will always be Emily Watson to me.  (Interestingly, there is a much earlier take on Red Dragon called Manhunter, but it doesn’t work nearly as well, despite the fun of watching a pre-CSI William Petersen as Will Graham.  I mean, I like Brian Cox, but Hannibal Lecter, he ain’t.)

On the literary side, Will Graham is an interesting character.  He’s perhaps not as enduring as Clarice Starling, which is probably why he was replaced in the later books, but there’s a fascinating aspect to figuring out how his brain works.  There’s less Lecter, and more Crawford, than we would see later, but I’m okay with that.  Introducing Lecter as almost a background character just whets the appetite for Silence (where he’s still not the primary killer), and finally Hannibal, which is the ultimate goal.  And Crawford is an interesting character is his own right who’s fun to read; this is required background to understanding him in Silence, I’d say.  The plot is strong, the starring killer is both terrifying and strangely sympathetic, and the tension is worked up very well, which Harris would only perfect in his later works.

So I’m rereading Red Dragon.  I’m almost done with it, in fact (all Harris’ novels are quick reads).  You know what’s striking me most particularly this time around?  How really utterly old the book is.  Makes me feel old.  But mainly what I’m getting is a contrast with how much the genre has evolved since then, quite possibly because of Harris’ early efforts.

Simple example: nowhere is the phrase “serial killer” used in the book.  When Harris needs something to call Lecter, he uses “mass murderer.”  Today, we’d only use that for someone who kills multiple people at one time, or one after another on a spree.  Although the phrase was supposedly invented in the 70s, apparently it wasn’t common parlance when Red Dragon was written in 1981.

Another indication is the way in which Graham is treated.  Remember: Graham is not a psychiatrist or psychologist ... he has no formal training at all, because there are no profilers, no concept of profiling as a way to approach criminals.  The only time “profiling” is mentioned in the book, in fact, is in reference to profiling the victims.1  The type of behavior we’re used to seeing on shows like Criminal Minds was still something strange and fascinating: the way people look at Graham, the way they stare at him, or fidget uncomfortably in his presence, reveals that what Graham is doing is completely outside their experience.  Even Crawford seems in awe of him, and perhaps a little unnerved by him.

It’s also interesting to me that this is the earliest book I can think of where we find out who the killer is very early.  Most crime novels that I’m familiar with from the 70s and before are classic whodunits— the point is to figure out who committed the crime.  But Red Dragon follows what is now almost more commonplace these days: we know who the killer is from the beginning (or very early on at least), and the tension in the novel comes from flashing back and forth between killer and detective, as they circle ever closer to each other.  I suppose this would be what Wikipedia calls an “inverted detective story”, and it claims numerous instances before 1981, but it seems to me these were the exceptions: Agatha Christie’s novels were all whodunits, and even going back to Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Dupin, the audience didn’t know the killer before the end.  And some of the examples that Wikipedia cites (such as Dial M for Murder) are vastly different from the style of Harris’ novels.  Can we credit (or blame) Red Dragon (and, ultimately, Silence of the Lambs) for the invention of the profiler-vs-serial-killer story that we’ve now seen again and again: Copycat and Se7en and The Bone Collector, Criminal Minds and Touching Evil and Dexter, Kiss the Girls and The Blue Nowhere and The Alienist.  And those are just the ones I actually liked ... according to Serial Murderers and their Victims, films depicting serial killers jumped from 23 in the 80s to over 150 in the 90s, and over 270 in the 00s.  And that’s not even considering what I’m sure is a similar rise in books and TV series.  Was Red Dragon an early model for this new subgenre?

There are some other fun anachronisms that I don’t remember standing out so starkly the last time I read it.  There’s a reference to attendence being up at drive-ins.2  A character refers to Hispanics as “chicanos.”3  Firemen wear asbestos suits.4  And I can only assume that the term “guest star” wasn’t in as common use as it is today, because Dolarhyde’s reference to guest stars reads as rather disorienting now.5  But that’s going to be tough to avoid with any contemporary setting.  The march of technology inevitably makes many plot devices irrelevant (see, e.g., TV Tropes’ discussion on cell phones).  But these are pretty minor; overall, Red Dragon holds up remarkably well for being written in the cusp between 70s and 80s.

This has been an enjoyable reread, and I’m looking forward to moving on to the next two books in Harris’ trilogy.6  The curious feeling of dislocation I get when reading it reminds me that there was a time when serial killers were fresh and interesting subjects for novelization, unlike nowadays when it’s old hat.  Of course, as I mentioned above, I actually like all those particular serial killers books and movies, despite the plot device being hackneyed at this point.  I think we owe Harris a debt for opening up a new sandbox for authors and filmmakers to play in.  I look forward to seeing what new fictional serial killers will be spawned from Hannibal Lecter’s fascinating mold.

[Update: I just finished the book this morning.  I noted there was a significant difference in the endings between the book and movie that I hadn’t remembered.  Obviously I can’t discuss this without revealing spoilers, but I would encourage anyone both reading (or rereading) and watching (or rewatching) to think carefully about those differences and what they respectively mean for the character of Graham.  I think the differences in impact are pretty big.]


1 Chapter 34.

2 Chapter 32.

3 Chapter 31.

4 Chapter 50.

5 Chapter 20.

6 The prequel, Hannibal Rising, is also good, but I probably won’t reread that one this time around.

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