How a Failed Hannibal Adaptation Created a Silence of the Lambs Rights Nightmare


As attention turns to the Oscars around this time every year, it’s easy to get caught up remembering some of the big winners. One of the most notable champs was The Silence of the Lambs, which took home the “Big Five” awards in 1992: Best Picture, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally), as well as Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing to round it out. 

And despite owning the film rights to works of author Thomas Harris, super-producer Dino De Laurentiis saw none of that windfall, be it Oscar gold or box office riches. How could a savvy Hollywood player, responsible for making some of the most important movies of all time, make such a wild mistake?

It’s all Michael Mann’s fault.

Hannibal and the Italian

In 1981, author Thomas Harris published Red Dragon, a pulpy tale of FBI profiler Will Graham’s pursuit of a serial killer called the Tooth Fairy. Although not the first novel about a serial killer, Red Dragon devoted a surprising amount of attention to the psychological make-up of both the  Tooth Fairy, real name Francis Dolarhyde, and Graham. In fact, it was that attention to psychology that drove Graham to consult a criminal he caught on a prior case, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. 

Although Lecter plays a role in Red Dragon, the real focus is on Graham and the difficult choice before him. Does he walk away from the Dolarhyde case and spend time with his wife Maggie and their son, continuing nursing the wounds to his psyche he sustained while chasing Lecter? Or does he give into his former boss Jack Crawford’s urgings and get into the mind of Dolarhyde, even if it costs him his sanity? 

Thanks to its bestselling success, Red Dragon drew attention from the movie business and got snatched up by Italian-born producer Dino De Laurentiis. The legendary De Laurentiis got his start working in his native country, producing everything from art films from the masters (La Strada from Federico Fellini) to cloying Bible films (The Bible: In the Beginning, directed by John Huston), to cheesy comic book films Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik

He continued that approach when he moved to North Carolina in the 1980s, setting up shop in the coastal town of Wilmington. There he produced several big hits and important films, such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the Robert Redford thriller Three Days of the Condor, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Conan the Barbarian

The Rise and Fall of the Great Red Dragon

With the rights to Red Dragon in hand, De Laurentiis looked for a director. He initially pitched the idea to Lynch but, according to the book The Complete Lynch by David Hughes, the Twin Peaks director rejected the idea, calling Harris’ novel “violent and completely degenerate.”

Eventually, De Laurentiis landed on the perfect filmmaker to adapt the novel: director Michael Mann. As seen in Thief, and later in Heat and Collateral, Mann loves to make movies about guys who have to make a hard decision, guys like Will Graham. Mann cast William Petersen as Graham and Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, crafting a tense psychedelic masterpiece that would come to theaters as Manhunter. For the part of Lecter, renamed “Lecktor” for some reason, Mann cast Brian Cox

Befitting the small role that Lector plays in his debut novel, Lecktor only appears in a couple of scenes in Manhunter. Cox has none of the elegance and allure that later actors would bring to Hannibal. Instead his Lecktor is a petulant bully, someone who can’t believe that Will Graham caught a person of his intelligence, and who resents the jail that he’s in. 

Manhunter may differ from later Harris adaptations, but it has an appeal all its own. Mann contrasts the workaday job of the FBI agents, under the control of Dennis Farina’s Crawford, with surreal scenes that match Harris’ sometimes delirious prose. The scene in which Noonan’s towering Dolarhyde reveals his Red Dragon persona, set to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly, stands up to any scene in any Harris adaptation that followed. 

And yet, Manhunter flopped. The movie earned back just half of its budget and critics dismissed it as style over substance, Mann’s Miami Vice aesthetic taken to the extreme. No one was more disappointed than De Laurentiis. “Manhunter was not Red Dragon,” De Laurentiis told The Guardian in 2001. “Manhunter was no good.” So when studio Orion Pictures came calling, De Laurentiis relinquished the rights for free. 

Okay, it’s not quite that simple. Before Orion got involved, actor Gene Hackman made a play. Hackman had loved The Silence of the Lambs novel and spoke to Harris about bringing the project to the big screen. As Empire Magazine reported, Hackman had hoped to direct and star in the picture, playing the role of Crawford and casting John Hurt as Lecter and Michelle Pfeiffer as Clarice Starling. However, after 1988’s Mississippi Burning, Hackman decided against doing another dark and disturbing picture. 

In the meantime, Orion Pictures took an interest in the project, and chose Jonathan Demme to direct. The duo had Harris’ blessing but still faced a problem: De Laurentiis. According to The Guardian, neither De Laurentiis nor his wife and partner Martha had even bothered to read The Silence of the Lambs when it released in 1988. So when Orion and Demme approached De Laurentiis about securing the rights, the producer and his partner let them go, free of charge. 

Well, that’s not entirely accurate, either. The better word is “lent” the rights to Orion. Because when The Silence of the Lambs proved to be everything that De Laurentiis hoped Manhunter would be, his interest in the character returned immediately. Studios began to contact De Laurentiis about a sequel to Silence, eventually based on Harris’ bizarre follow-up novel, Hannibal. Knowing he had a position of power, De Laurentiis used his leverage to get his way with Universal, the studio that eventually made the Ridley Scott-directed Hannibal, in a move that affected Sam Raimi’s third Evil Dead movie (but that’s another story for another time). 

The Ongoing Silence

The tangled rights to The Silence of the Lambs have made things messy post-Manhunter. Still wanting to capitalize on the wave of popularity around Anthony Hopkins’ interpretation of Lecter, De Laurentiis took another crack at Red Dragon. In one of the most serious downgrades of all time, De Laurentiis picked Brett Ratner to direct this second adaptation. 

Despite a strong cast, which included Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde, Red Dragon disappointed in every regard. Only the scene in which rag journalist Freddy Lounds (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets tortured by Dolarhyde sticks in the memory—well that, and the absurdity of Hopkins’ phoned-in performance as a supposedly much younger Lector. However, it’s not as absurd as the dour prequel Hannibal Rising, in which the late Gaspard Ulliel painted a portrait of the cannibal as a moody teen. 

One of the more interesting side-effects of De Laurentiis’ treatment of the Silence rights involves the second great (and, some might argue, better) adaptation of Harris’ work, the TV series Hannibal. For three seasons, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller and his team pulled off the impossible, making a show as psychologically rich and absurdly psychedelic and extremely gory as Harris’ books, all on American network television. 

Fuller and company achieved this feat by pulling from all of Harris’ Lecter books and remixing them into a grand love story between Will Graham (a tragically vulnerable Hugh Dancy) and the debonair Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen). Along the way, Fuller reimagined scenes that one would never imagine fitting in a narrative network show, from the ongoing saga of Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), daughter of one of Graham’s early nabs to Hannibal’s former victim/patient Mason Verger (first portrayed by Michael Pitt, then by Joe Anderson) slashing off his own face. Hannibal even remakes Red Dragon in its third season, featuring Richard Armitage as Dolarhyde.

And yet, there’s one story that never makes its way into Hannibal the series: The Silence of the Lambs. Because while Hannibal comes from the De Laurentiis Company, it does not have involvement from Orion, which meant the most famous Harris story was off-limits for the show. Fuller did wink at Silence throughout the series, most notably in an arc involving Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky), an FBI trainee sent by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne in the show) on a disastrous mission. But Clarice and Jame Gumb didn’t appear on television until the disappointing show Clarice, which lacked any reference to Lecter. 

When De Laurentiis passed in 2010 at the age of 91, he left behind a legacy of great, odd, and terrible films. And yet, his greatest legacy might be the missed opportunity with The Silence of the Lambs, and the effect it continues to have on adapting Harris’ novels.

The post How a Failed Hannibal Adaptation Created a Silence of the Lambs Rights Nightmare appeared first on Den of Geek.

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