Hannibal prequel may hit screens before book stores- Author Thomas Harris rushes to finish both versions of ''Behind the Mask''

So many unpolished screenplays are rushed before cameras that Thomas Harris should get a few points for taking his time with Behind the Mask, the Hannibal Lecter prequel that starts filming Oct. 10. The only problem for Lecter fans, though, is that the author’s debut screenwriting experience seems to have prevented him from finishing the novel — creating the odd situation of a would-be blockbuster book being turned into a movie before it’s completed.

Last October, Delacorte Press proudly announced that Harris had been working on the fourth Lecter novel for release this fall. Simultaneously, plans were announced for the film version. Director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) then signed on, followed by stars Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) and Gong Li.

”It’s been about three years now that he’s been working on both the screenplay and the novel,” says the film’s producer Martha De Laurentiis, who approached Harris with the idea of writing a backstory for the cannibalistic psychiatrist. Harris completed the script several months ago (except for the usual revisions). Next up is finishing the book. De Laurentiis insists it won’t be a mere novelization of the film, which is set for either a fall ’06 or a spring ’07 release. ”There’s a lot more in the novel than in the movie,” she says.

As for the book, Delacorte hopes to publish it in the spring and expects strong sales. And what happens if the movie’s release beats the book’s? ”There’s an enormous audience waiting for both versions,” says spokesperson Barb Burg. ”They’ll line up at movie theaters and bookstores, no matter which one comes first.”