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Red Dragon | The Silence of the Lambs

par Thomas Harris

Séries: Hannibal Lecter Series (Omnibus 1-2)

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In 'Red Dragon' the lethal components of sexual hunger, demonic violence and sinister logic are driving a psychopath in the grip of an unimaginable delusion. In 'The Silence of the Lambs' a killer is on the loose who knows that beauty is only skin deep and a trainee investigator who's trying to save her own hide.… (plus d'informations)
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Thomas Harris

Red Dragon
The Silence of the Lambs

Peerage Books, Hardback, 1992.

8vo. 533 pp.

Red Dragon first published, 1981.
The Silence of the Lambs first published, 1988.
This edition first published, 1991.
Reprinted, 1992.

================================================

The movies brought me here. Red Dragon has been filmed twice, first in 1986 as a pretentious “cult classic” courtesy of Michael Mann, and then in 2002 as a much better movie with stellar cast including Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton and, of course, Anthony Hopkins.

I was surprised, and a little disappointed, to find out there are very few differences. The 2002 remake follows the novel very closely. The plot and the characters are virtually identical. Even the scene with Reba and the tiger was lifted from the book. Indeed, the novel even contains the immortal like “I am the Dragon and you call me insane?” (original emphasis). One difference is the opening scene in the movie between Lecter and Graham. This is original. One of the novel’s chief drawbacks, duly copied in the first film, is that Lecter is such a minor character. Couple of scenes, couple of letters, and that’s all. The 2002 movie made a decent attempt to change that.

Speaking of style, Thomas Harris is brusque, to say the least. He seems almost angry with his readers. They should know better than wasting his time with scary stories. Few paragraphs in this novel contain more than two sentences. Many have only one. When there are three, a rare case of excess on the author’s part, they are very short and feel like slaps in your face. But it’s an effective method for this kind of book. Check out two random examples (complete paragraphs, if I may remind you):

Finally she looked. They shut the door when she screamed. Then they gave her a shot.

When he turned around Dolarhyde shot him in the throat and twice in the chest. Three putts from the silenced pistol. A scooter is louder.


As you can guess, this kind of style has its own pros and cons. On the one hand, it makes for an action-packed and very readable narrative. And I rather like a writer who doesn’t bother with “fine writing” and doesn’t pretend to be a “wit” or a “wordsmith”. More often than not, this is the kind of writer who has something really interesting to say.

On the other hand, however, this is the kind of style that does put somewhat stringent limits to the emotional involvement with the characters. Some of the minor ones show much promise. Lecter is the most obvious example, of course. I don’t know how Harris decided to make Hannibal the Cannibal a major character in his next novel, but it was a brilliant idea. Freddy Lounds, the obnoxious and mercenary reporter from the National Tattler with some “polyps of honesty” (a rare case of original phrase), and Reba McClane, the blind lady from the dark room who somehow probes the last vestiges of humanity in the Dragon, are two minor characters I would have liked to see developed more fully. Then again, maybe they are better off this way.

Will Graham is a fascinating sketch of somebody with the uncomfortable gift of “projection” (i.e. assuming your or my point of view, “and maybe some other points of view that scare and sicken him”), a troubled and lonely human being. But he is developed sporadically and not very successfully. Mr Harris seems more curious in the subtleties of the investigation than in the mind of his presumably most important character. Graham’s only interest outside work is Molly, the young widow of a baseball player, and her 11-year-old son. This comes perilously close to conventional melodrama, but it never becomes even that. When Mr Harris deigns to spend some time in Will Graham’s head, he produces some extremely long and rather tantalising paragraphs, such as this one:

Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved. His associations came at the speed of light. His value judgments were at the pace of a responsive reading. They could never keep and direct his thinking.

But such passages are very rare. The title is correct. Francis Dolarhyde, aka “Red Dragon” after his “Becoming”, is the most prominent character. He is also the most interesting one. You will get a lot more – almost too much, in fact – background about him than in the movie. I can’t say I found overwhelmingly convincing Dolarhyde’s Blake-inspired transformation and his frantic conversations with the “Dragon”. But his long history of child abuse in the Deep South of the 1930s and 1940s was almost engrossing. So was that strange, and strangely touching, romance with Reba. Thomas Harris deserves some credit for not making his villain entirely irredeemable. It takes courage to do that.

On the whole, Red Dragon was a fascinating read, but not a compelling one. It should have been thrilling and chilling. But it felt humdrum and slipshod, more like a sketch for a novel that was never fleshed out. The clipped writing detracted more from the characters than it added to the suspense.

The Silence of the Lambs cannot possibly avoid comparisons with the legendary 1991 movie. For one thing, it is simply impossible to imagine anybody else as Hannibal Lecter but Anthony Hopkins. It’s only fair that he should dominate both the dust jacket and the pictorial hardcover.

Coming here from the movie, I found Lecter rather talky and Clarice rather jumpy. But they are recognisably the same characters, and so is their bizarre romance. “People will say we’re in love”, Lecter quips, only half joking or not at all. The movie copied that exactly, but it should have improved on it with “people will say we’re lovers”. That’s exactly what Lecter and Clarice, in a way, are. If there is such thing as a couple of psychological lovers, here it is.

They make a strange couple, a highly intelligent serial killer who can get into anybody’s head and a tough Southern girl who can teach FBI a thing or two. There is no word to describe what Lecter is, but I think “jester” suits him best, certainly better than intellectually pusillanimous words like “monster” and “psychopath”. I guess this is a fine definition of pure madness: constantly having fun regardless of the consequences. It’s what we all would like to do if we had the guts and the brains. Clarice is less complicated, but she is certainly more than just “a winter sunset of a girl”. This is Dr Chilton at his most poetic and most superficial. Clarice is more like a summer storm, nothing like Vivaldi’s mighty tempest, but hiding potential just as great under the quiet surface.

Few cuts aside, the script follows the novel very closely. If you have seen the masterpiece directed by the late great Jonathan Demme, you already know that Lecter loves the senator’s suit and Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Buffalo Bill is a sewing virtuoso and a fake transsexual, and Officer Pembry comes to a rather unpleasant end. Screenwriter Ted Tally knew a cinematic novel when he saw one (he also adapted and improved Red Dragon). The famous last line “I’m having an old friend for dinner” is one of Mr Tally’s finest original contributions. The novel has a piece of humour too, but it’s rather grimmer:

Next, he dropped a note to Dr Frederick Chilton in federal protective custody, suggesting that he would be paying Dr Chilton a visit in the near future. After this visit, he wrote, it would make sense for the hospital to tattoo feeding instructions on Chilton’s forehead to save paperwork.

As you can see, the style is again terse almost to the point of being an extended form of shorthand. Even when you know every twist quite well from the movie, Mr Harris more often than not manages to surprise you with a slap in the face and a condescending smile accompanied by something like “You didn’t see that one coming, did you?” But the style is also more relaxed and more expansive; more character-driven too; still suffering from an overdose of detail here and there, but on the whole a miracle of fast-paced brevity. And it can be funny in a lighter, more innocent, Lecter-less vein. Here’s Jack Crawford speaking:

You think nuts don’t apply to the FBI? We get ‘em all the time. A man in a Moe hairpiece applied in St Louis last week. He had a bazooka, two rockets, and a bearskin shako in his golf bag.

Personally, I think the movie is an improvement, more concise and more dramatic, more Gothic if you like, than the original. But I did appreciate the additional background in the book. We learn more, for instance, about Catherine Martin and her senatorial mother. There are powerful scenes of Clarice confronting Ruth Martin and Paul Krendler that have no analogue in the movie. The novel also contains more moths and more detail about the link between Raspail and Buffalo Bill, thus making Lecter less omniscient and more believable; there is even a nice twist in the end here. The trick behind Lecter’s masterful escape is likewise explained with lucidity the screen cannot afford without looking contrived.

Crawford’s family angle is the only part I found too sketchy and rather irrelevant. But his role as a forensic mentor is expanded to a great effect. It develops into a cautious friendship, but never, I’m happy to say, into a father-daughter melodrama or (heaven forbid!) a romance. He has his moments as a teacher, as does Clarice as an uncommonly bright student:

‘Couple of things, Starling. I look for first-rate forensics from you, but I need more than that. You don’t say much, and that’s okay, neither do I. But don’t ever feel you’ve got to have a new fact to tell me before you can bring something up. There aren’t any silly questions. You’ll see things that I won’t, and I want to know what they are. Maybe you’ve got a knack for this. All of a sudden we’ve got this chance to see if you do.’
[...]
‘You think about him enough, you see where he’s been, you get a feel for him,’ Crawford continued. ‘You don’t even dislike him all the time, hard as that is to believe. Then, if you’re lucky, out of the stuff you know, part of it plucks at you, tries to get your attention. Always tell me when something plucks, Starling.’

‘This is the hardest time, Starling. Use this time and it’ll temper you. Now’s the hardest test – not letting rage and frustration keep you from thinking. It’s the core of whether you can command or not. Waste and stupidity get you the worst. Chilton’s a God damned fool and he may have cost Catherine Martin her life. But maybe not. We’re her chance. Starling, how cold is liquid nitrogen in the lab?’
[...]
Starling felt lighter, better. Crawford really was very good. She knew that this little nitrogen question was a nod to her forensic background, meant to please her and to trigger ingrained habits of disciplined thinking. She wondered if men actually regard that kind of manipulation as subtle. Curious how things can work on you even when you recognize them. Curious how the gift of leadership is often a coarse gift.

While The Silence of the Lambs is better on the screen than on the page, it is nevertheless a much better novel than Red Dragon. The plot is more carefully crafted and more brilliantly executed. The second half achieves an effect of breathless, feverish, page-turning excitement that far surpasses the earlier book. The novels are completely independent works, by the way. They share the names of Crawford, Chilton and Lecter, but not really the characters. All of them are much more vivid here. Will Graham is mentioned a few times very briefly as a drunk loafing around in Florida (the thing with Molly apparently didn’t work out), but you needn’t be familiar with his dragon-like adventures. Clarice blows him away anyway. She is cooler, smarter, and altogether a more riveting character; quite cute and at the same time a little disturbing, a most unusual combination.

“Life’s too slippery for books”, Lecter wisely says at one place. Quite true, of course. But often enough life is far too dull without books. When you feel like that, pick up The Silence of the Lambs. It will cure you, if not for good, at least for the time being. Let’s see how Lecter will turn out as a protagonist.

PS. Note on the edition. Like most omnibuses, this one is handsomely bound and surprisingly light and easy to handle for its size. Unlike many omnibuses, this one is printed in an eye-friendly way (normal font size, not too close). The dust jacket and the pictorial hardcover are very nice. On the downside, the amount of typos is unacceptably high. ( )
  Waldstein | Jul 6, 2020 |
Two gripping thrillers in one volume. I was familiar with 'The Silence of the Lambs' from the classic Hopkins film, but had not seen the prequel 'Red Dragon', also starring Hopkins. Both books are very faithfully retold in their film adaptations, so if you have seen the films and want to read the books, do not expect much new material in book form. Harris's plot lines and twists are well-developed, and the way in which he describes the search and testing of evidence is compelling from beginning to end. The books are far more focused on the psychology of the characters than on the blood and gore that accompany most horror thrillers. The killer in 'Red Dragon' has a particularly cruel and horrid upbringing, which (surprisingly) brought out a tear or two – understanding his past hurt and pain makes you long for him to be helped rather than merely punished. Highly recommended reading before watching the films. ( )
  m-andrews | Aug 1, 2016 |
The two best trillers I have read. The scenes with Lector are e-lectric. ( )
  Lukerik | Oct 8, 2015 |
This is my second Thomas Harris book(although I have watched the movies) and I plan to read his others. Very addictive. Keeps you quite at the edge of your reading sofa. Harris has eloquent writing style that entices you and pulls you into the world of his story. ( )
  Chellsway | Dec 16, 2010 |
I've finished the Red Dragon part of this collection. The plot was immediately engaging, and Thomas Harris uses a variety of types of writing to achieve the desired response from the reader. It's cleverly written, and most major characters are enticingly intriguing. Even while Graham tries to profile the "Tooth Fairy/Dragon" the reader tries to profile him, as so many of the characters surrounding him do. The book offers a frank insight into the mind of a sociopathic killer, and yet doesn't hand the plot to you on a plate. The sporadic changes of tense and the wonderings of the final chapter still leave you thinking hard. The film was almost entirely true to the book, although I must admit, I feel the film did it better nearer the end and with the characters of Graham and his family - it felt like he had more to lose, and the sequence of events seemed cleaner and easier to understand. More psychological in the film ending, and maybe more optimistic too. A good read. I'm looking forward to reading the Silence of the Lambs part next.Silence of the Lambs sees more of the tense changing, detailed and realistically twisted writing of Thomas Harris. The increased involvement of Dr Lecter in this book is especially welcome as the suspense, intelligence and danger that he carries with him are intensely intriguing. Possibly too much so, in the sense that Dr Lecter's genius seems to overshadow the threat of Buffalo Bill, and so I cared more about Dr Lecter's input in the case than the actual case. Buffalo Bill didn't seem quite so interesting as Dr Lecter, and in the same way as Red Dragon - Francis Dolarhyde's 'Becoming' and Buffalo Bill's reason for skinning - the intention of the killer AFTER achieving his ends was never made clear, which may not be a flaw in the writings but instead a flaw of the characters as they are sociopaths and therefore beyond acceptable rational thought. The small insight into Crawford's life is heartwarming and interesting, with his wife's condition and his reaction to it being rather emotive. I do have an issue with the author's opinion of a "big girl" though, considering, despite the book mentioning Catherine as the smallest victim, she was able to wear a size 12. The book makes several comments about her 'larger size' and so I must reassure myself with the thought that perhaps an American size 12 is not the same as a British one. The plot is engaging, and extremely well thought-out (I wonder how he thinks it up) if not a tad too coincidental - it seems Dr Lecter knows everyone. Who knew the USA was such a small world? I can't wait to get a copy of Hannibal and read more about the intriguing character - his antics being both humourous (the origami chicken) and depraved (the face "transplant"). Again, the film was extremely loyal to the book. I hope the same can be said for Hannibal as that film was especially interesting, possibly my favourite of them all despite my dislike of gore. ( )
  Dissidence | Feb 5, 2010 |
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In 'Red Dragon' the lethal components of sexual hunger, demonic violence and sinister logic are driving a psychopath in the grip of an unimaginable delusion. In 'The Silence of the Lambs' a killer is on the loose who knows that beauty is only skin deep and a trainee investigator who's trying to save her own hide.

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