Star Wars Episode 1 and Hannibal

STAR WARS EPISODE 1 -THE PHANTOM MENACE
By Terry Brooks
HANNIBAL
By Thomas Harris

When, in a reviewer’s tour-de-force, Gore Vidal reviewed all ten books on the New York Times best-seller list, he felt it necessary to begin by talking at some length about the film industry. This was because he felt the books in question had no real connection to literature or other books. They rather were, like their authors, children of the movies.

That was in January, 1973. Since then our fiction has come to accept its role as Hollywood’s poorer cousin. The main reason for this is economic. A talented creative writer is going to make far more money writing for the movies – either directly or by keeping one eye on selling the screen rights – then he or she could by simply writing a book.

But money is only half the story.

The more troubling question is one of influence. In the early days of film, movies had to draw on a literary tradition simply because they had none of their own. Now the tables have turned. In a very real sense, the majority of novels today are book-movie hybrids, with no mistaking the dominant partner in the relationship. Consciously or not, most authors today draw on the story-telling techniques they were raised on – those found on television and the silver screen.

Which brings us to two of the best-selling books in Canada today: one a novelization of a film script, the other a sequel sure to be coming soon to a theatre near you.

Our matinee this weekend is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a title that is both trademarked and registered). Published with a series of different collector’s edition dustjackets and available for purchase at your local supermarket checkout, it is not so much a book as an action toy – another unit in the awesome Star Wars marketing juggernaut.

Reviewing is made easy. Since Terry Brooks is only adapting George Lucas’s screenplay, what point is there in criticizing the given? I was, for example, greatly disappointed to find that The Force is genetically determined (I thought all you had to have was a pure heart), but who can I blame for that? Not the author.

Like all book-movie hybrids, The Phantom Menace is characterized by its use of stereotypes, dramatic highlights that emphasize visuals, banal dialogue, and the hammer blows of the predictable three-part structure with median climax. The writing is competent, but the action scenes inevitably read like the play-by-play for a video game. The whole thing leaves you with an odd feeling. You finish the book without really having the sense that you read it.

Moving right along, our second feature is Hannibal, Thomas Harris’s sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. (The film rights have already been sold for a tidy $9 million.) Our hero is an FBI agent named Clarice Starling. After seven years, she is back on the trail of Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist turned serial killer/cannibal who also lectures on Dante and plays the Goldberg Variations without sheet music (“not perfectly, but exceedingly well”).

Either betraying or playing on his southern roots, Harris’s story features a number of vile freaks. Chief among these is the vengeful Mason Verger. As a result of an earlier encounter with Hannibal, Mason has no skin left on his face and is confined to a bed and respirator. Since he has no eyelids, he views the world through a goggle device that regularly spritzes lubricant on his one remaining eyeball. He amuses himself by playing mind games with the children at a day-care center he runs, and then drinking martinis made from their tears. His plan is to kidnap Lecter and then feed him alive to a pack of hogs – a style of execution that is “sounder ecologically” than the guillotine, but “not as quick.”

It all sounds pretty grim, but fears about the pornography of violence can be laid to rest. The nastiness in Hannibal is too cartoonish and self-aware to threaten or disturb. In fact, while it is not a satire (at least not in the sense that Ellis’s American Psycho is), Hannibal is a kind of moralistic comedy. The main target is consumerism, with a sort of running joke on Hannibal’s being a man of “taste.” In contrast, Starling’s jerk of a boss is a low-brow who goes out jogging in so much Nike gear he seems to disappear among the trademarks.

So, is Hannibal just another book-movie hybrid? Pretty much. It doesn’t take long before credibility starts going out the window in order to create the made-for-motion-picture moments. An early scene has Jodie Foster (that is, Starling) going down into Hannibal’s old cell in a long-abandoned mental institution for no reason that I can see other than to re-introduce us to what was, in the movie, a tremendously atmospheric set. And while there is some interesting experimentation at the end, it takes us too close to Hannibal and Starling. These are, after all, movie characters – designed to be intriguing without possessing depth.

As the curtain falls on the evening show, I find myself wondering why book reviewers can’t get away with giving scores of 2 stars out of 5, or thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Perhaps in time.

Is there any use griping about the reversal of polarity that has seen the book’s debasement from source to by-product, and made every other English professor into an instant authority on “film”? Maybe not, but it is still worth observing. We live in an image-dominated culture that has whittled our attention span down to seconds while making us less responsive to the kinds of things that a print culture does (or used to do) so well. The effect this is having on the books we read has yet to be fully measured.

The truly sad thing, I find, is that so much literary aspiration is now directed toward a medium that quite frankly despises the written word. Thirty years ago the argument could still be made that the screenplay was the most important part of any film. Few people with any knowledge of the industry would suggest that still holds true.

In movies today, writing is simply irrelevant. As Variety editor Peter Bart nonchalantly points out in his recent book The Gross, “The overriding reality of the movie business is that . . . the screenwriter really doesn’t matter.”

The fact that so many writers now draw their inspiration from a business that considers comic books our most valuable form of literary expression does not bode well for anyone over the age of 24 with the remains of an imagination. Like it or not, some kind of interactive digital entertainment is the new reality of art. Books have become our magic shadows.

Notes:
Review first published July 3, 1999.

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