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I just finished reading HANNIBAL, Thomas Harris’ sequel to his novel THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Actors Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally and director Jonathan Demme had made SILENCE into a movie and expected to do the same with HANNIBAL. They received the book’s first printed copies. And then the wheels fell off the wagon.

Tally and Demme found HANNIBAL too disturbing to adapt, and they dropped out of the project. So did Foster, who said that she had a schedule conflict, but she may have objected to HANNIBAL as much as her creative partners.

Only Hopkins stayed. He filmed HANNIBAL with Julianne Moore in for Foster, Ridley Scott for Demme, and Steve Zaillian and David Mamet for Tally.

I can see why Foster, Demme, and Tally dropped out. Here come some SPOILERS.

In SILENCE, both movie and book, cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter can shred your psyche with a few words. His mere touch is disturbing. He mutilates and murders innocent victims, including good-guy cops who treat him with fairness and compassion. Of all the characters in SILENCE, which includes a man who kills women and skins them, Lecter is the most evil.

But in HANNIBAL, Lecter has mostly left murder behind to study music, art and medieval manuscripts. (Not that he regrets or repents his crimes; he has no remorse at all.) When he does kill, his acts are almost understandable; he’s usually trying to save himself from being kidnapped and tortured, or to avenge himself on the kidnappers and torturers.

He’s not even the story’s most detestable character. That badge goes to Mason Verger, Lecter’s cruelest antagonist — and a scheming child molester. Lecter’s bad, but he doesn’t destroy children, even when they provoke him. Speaking of kids, HANNIBAL gives Lecter a soft spot for the childhood memory of his beloved little sister.

So HANNIBAL sets up this sadistic cannibal murderer as almost sympathetic.

As if that’s not bad enough, Lecter corrupts the books’ most likable character, the brave and moral Clarice Starling, into joining him as a fugitive from justice into a life of wealth, beauty and pleasure. In SILENCE, Lecter got away with his crimes (all the way to South America) — but that seemed acceptable, because Starling was still alive, still strong and true, still determined to bring him to justice.

But to replace her heroic soul with something as slimy as Lecter’s, and to make her happy about it: That’s too much. What’s more, Lecter does it fast (in the last 48 pages of a 484-page book), as if Starling’s deepest convictions were just surface mannerisms.

To transmute the sympathetic moral center of two books into the cheerful thrall of the monster — it’s as unthinkable as making Captain America an agent of Hydra.

And that couldn’t ever happen.

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