In this edition of The Silver Lining, we’ll be covering Peter Webber’s 2007 entry in the Hannibal franchise, Hannibal Rising.
No character exemplifies our fascination with charismatic madmen like Thomas Harris’ most infamous creation, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. While the overall quality of the media he’s been featured in may vary, I’d argue that every single incarnation of this charming cannibal has been captivating for one reason or another. From Brian Cox’s cold-blooded grifter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter to Mads Mikkelsen’s nearly Luciferian performance in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, this iconic character is a gold-mine of storytelling possibilities.
That’s why it makes sense that we’d eventually see an origin story for one of the most celebrated killers in media. Back in 2006, Harris released the final addition to his Hannibal saga with Hannibal Rising, a prequel that detailed the titular character’s disturbing beginnings while also adding some controversial tragic elements to his backstory. A few months later, the Dino de Laurentis Company was already hard at work on a big-screen adaptation of the book, which was set to release the following year.
British filmmaker Peter Webber was soon hired to direct a script penned by Harris himself, with the up-and-coming French actor Gaspard Ulliel landing the coveted role of our liver-eating/chianti-guzzling protagonist. Like the novel, the film is a coming-of-age thriller that follows an orphaned Hannibal as he slowly discovers his passion for cannibalistic murder while seeking revenge against members of the Lithuanian militia that murdered his sister.
Fans of Harris’ true-crime inspired narratives were anxious to see what kind of murderous shenanigans led to Hannibal’s people-devouring habits, so when the first trailer dropped, folks were convinced that the flick was going to be a high-profile psychological thriller with a sinister edge.
SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
Grossing a little over $82 million dollars on a $50 million budget, Hannibal Rising wasn’t exactly the resounding success that the studio was hoping for. While the obvious lack of Anthony Hopkins’ star power is likely what kept the flick from reaching the same box office heights as its predecessors, the picture was also massacred by critics who accused it of cheapening Thomas Harris’ legacy. These days, the film sits at a disappointing 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Many complaints were directed towards Rising’s admittedly tacky approach to a previously complex and dignified character, with the film nearly turning Hannibal into a comic-book vigilante. The flick was even nominated for a couple of Golden Raspberry awards, though I wouldn’t put much faith in the institution that infamously criticized Shelley Duvall’s iconic performance in Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.
Of course, part of the problem with Rising’s negative reception is its source material. Harris was practically strong-armed into writing the novel after being pressured by producer Dino de Laurentis, who knew that a Lecter origin story was all but inevitable due to the character’s massive fanbase. Not wanting someone else to take over his beloved creation, Harris rushed out an unpolished yarn that pales in comparison to his previous work. Naturally, that lack of narrative finesse bled into his script.
Presenting audiences with paper-thin antagonists and several long stretches of movie where Hannibal deals with angst over the death of his sister, the film really isn’t as engaging as it should be. Vengeance is too simple of a motivation for a character as emotionally complex as Hannibal, so it’s hard to buy the protagonist’s Nazi-hunting adventures and clichéd moments of PTSD when we’ve already seen what kind of man he grows up to be. In all honesty, I think it would have been better to keep the iconic cannibal’s origins a mystery, as this anti-hero approach doesn’t add much to the franchise’s established mythology.
The choice to turn this chapter of the story into a prequel also sucks out much of the tension from what should have been incredibly thrilling scenes. We already know that the main character is going to survive to torment Will and Clarice as a ruthless villain in the future, so a lot of the story’s conflicts feel like characters are just going through the motions, with the experience often bordering on trope-heavy fanfiction.
THE SILVER LINING
This may be the weakest chapter in the Hannibal saga, but I’d argue that even Rising has its moments of brilliance. If you can get past the script’s shortcomings as a trope-heavy prequel with shallow psychological elements, you may find yourself enjoying a charming little revenge thriller with an underrated lead performance and some impressive production value.
While the film is impeccably shot and produced, with stunning European vistas and a nostalgic gleam that helps to set it apart from the gloom and doom of previous Harris adaptations, the real star of the show here is the late Gaspard Ulliel. No matter what you think about the rest of the flick, there’s no denying that the French thespian did this notorious character justice despite a less-than stellar script.
Ulliel is a joy to watch as this mild-mannered beast and I think it’s unfortunate that his unique take on the character was forced to live in the Hopkins’ shadow, especially when the actor made a visible effort not to simply imitate that iconic performance.
I’d also argue that Hannibal’s relationship with the Lady Murasaki makes for a genuinely human addition to his monstrous origin. The duo’s hesitant rapport becomes the true heart of the story and I wish that the idea could have been expanded further. A doomed love story between an honorable mentor and a deranged boy that’s destined to become a monster has a lot of potential for a compelling narrative, even if the film doesn’t quite nail the landing.
In fact, there are plenty of good ideas here (like the Samurai mask that foreshadows Hannibal’s iconic muzzle), but this tragic origin ultimately fumbled the execution. Fortunately, elements of the story were later salvaged by Fuller’s Hannibal series, which beautifully incorporated the titular character’s morally ambiguous motivations into the show sans the cheesy vigilante angle.
At the end of the day, Thomas Harris is a gifted writer and he still manages to deliver a compelling narrative even when rushing out a studio-mandated cash-grab. It likely won’t win over any new fans, but like its main character, Hannibal Rising has enough charm to be worth revisiting so long as you keep a safe distance.
Watching a bad movie doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad experience. Even the worst films can boast a good idea or two, and that’s why we’re trying to look on the bright side with The Silver Lining, where we shine a light on the best parts of traditionally maligned horror flicks.