So this is how Hannibal Lecter meets his end. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. Not even with a nice glass of poisoned Chianti. But rather as a harmless joke, critically reviled, and soundly beaten at the box office by Eddie Murphy in a fat suit.
It’s been a tough few months for Lecter and the people who turned him into the most recognizable — and marketable — villain this side of Dracula. The fourth book in the Lecter cycle, Hannibal Rising, debuted at No. 6 back in December. But according to Nielsen BookScan, which surveys over 7,000 outlets nationwide, it had sold only 270,000 copies as of Feb. 12, out of an initial print run of 1.5 million. And even if that figure doubles when untracked mega-retailers like Wal-Mart are factored in, that could still leave truckloads of hardcovers in the bargain bin?or the pulping machine.
As for the movie, the first to be written for the screen by author Thomas Harris? The starless Hannibal Rising took in just $13 million when it was released Feb. 9 — more than $20 million behind front-runner Norbit. That’s a pretty pitiful sum compared to Hannibal, which opened at $58 million in 2001, and Red Dragon at $36.5 million in 2002.
”It was disappointing,” says legendary Hannibal Rising producer Dino De Laurentiis. ”We haven’t talked about another movie. We have to wait [for international box office results] before I know the future of the franchise.”
Like we said, sad. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember the frisson that went through the culture when Harris rose to national prominence in the 1980s. Lecter may have since evolved into a clichéd bogeyman — fava beans and a nice Chianti and all that — but the books that introduced him were groundbreaking. ”When a good book comes out and people love to read it, that’s one thing,” says Maggie Griffin, co-owner of Manhattan’s Partners & Crime bookstore. ”But when they’re still talking about it like it was the quintessential serial-killer book, that’s really something.”
So what happened? There are two people primarily responsible for the state of things today: De Laurentiis and Harris. The first was possessed of the remarkable vision to see Hannibal Lecter as a franchise-able property — and the will to milk that sucker until it was dry. De Laurentiis’ relationship with Harris dates back to 1986’s Manhunter — Michael Mann’s brilliant and puzzlingly overlooked thriller based on Harris’ first Lecter novel, 1981’s Red Dragon. The only Lecter movie that De Laurentiis didn’t produce, The Silence of the Lambs, followed in 1991; it grossed $131 million and won five Oscars. Then, starting in 1999, fans were hit with the disappointing (but undeniably lucrative) one-two-three punch of Hannibal the book, Hannibal: The Overlong, Overripe Movie Adaptation Not Starring Jodie Foster, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, an utterly egregious remake of Manhunter.
But after churning out back-to-back Lecter flicks, De Laurentiis had a problem: He was out of books to adapt. ”I own the [movie rights to the] character Hannibal Lecter,” De Laurentiis told EW on the set of the $74 million Hannibal Rising back in February 2006. ”I say to Thomas, ‘If you don’t do [the prequel], I will do it with someone else…I don’t want to lose this franchise. And the audience wants it…’ He said, ‘No. I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘I will do it with somebody else.’ And then he said, ‘Let me think about it. I will come up with an idea.”’
Now, whether this juicy tale of friendly blackmail is true or not, we’ll never know, because the 66-year-old Harris isn’t talking. The notoriously reclusive writer doesn’t give proper interviews, so his motives are largely a mystery. Despite the obvious wealth Lecter has brought the author — the last book was part of a reported eight-figure deal he signed with Delacorte in 2004 — this may be the end for the good doctor. While Harris (himself a former journalist) wouldn’t speak for this story, his agent Mort Janklow told EW via e-mail: ”I have no idea what Tom’s next book will be. It may not involve the Hannibal character at all. His deal does not require that. He is an important American novelist and writes what he chooses, when he chooses.”
Amen! We couldn’t agree more. Harris has already contributed more than enough to American crime fiction to retire forever. De Laurentiis told EW that if Hannibal Rising is profitable enough he plans to make another prequel — but Harris is the one driving this train. It’s hard to imagine any serious fan seeing a Lecter movie that wasn’t based on a Harris book. It’s even harder to imagine a serious fan who wouldn’t love to read a new literary creation from the author. It’s time, in short, to let Dr. Lecter die. May we be so bold as to suggest that it happen at the hands of some ravenous boars? (Additional reporting by Gregory Kirschling, Benjamin Svetkey, and Hannah Tucker)