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Peter Sagal – Getting Out of Hannibal Lecter’s Way

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The great essayist E.B. White wrote, “Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this one is mine.” I feel the same way, even though his book was Henry Thoreau’s Walden and mine is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. I must have read it for the first time around 1991, because my beat-up paperback copy is a movie-tie in edition. Since then I’ve re-read it from front to back a dozen times, reviewed passages at random a hundred times more. I have even argued that — “literary” qualities aside — it is the most perfect work of fiction I know. Each word propels each sentence, which propels each paragraph and on and on, making it as impossible to put down as if it were glued to your fingers. It is a finely tuned suspense machine.

So, as you can imagine, I went to see the movie with some trepidation. For one thing, there are some horrific scenes in that book that I didn’t particularly want to see enacted. For another, of course, I was afraid that director Jonathan Demme and company would screw it up. It’s happened before. But not this time, of course, and I agree with the judgment of history and the Academy that it was the Best Picture, and Demme was the Best Director and Jodie Foster was the Best Actress and and Anthony Hopkins the Best Actor… and…

And here’s where I came up short, at least back then. Ted Tally, a screenwriter and playwright I admire, won an Oscar for an adapted screenplay that seemed to me, on first viewing, like it was just a retyped manuscript of the book. Every brilliant, memorable moment in the movie is in the book — the famous “quid quo pro” exchanges of dialogue between Clarice and Lecter, Lecter’s diabolical method of escape, the great misdirection of the door knock at the climax, even the iconic image of Lecter in a straitjacket and mask — it’s all right there in Harris’ original. I can give you the page citations. So what the hell did Ted Tally get an Oscar for, except knowing to get out of the way?

But I watched the movie again a short while ago, and realized — with the wisdom of age, and the experience of attempting a few screenplay adaptations myself — that Tally deserved his Oscar as much as Jonathan Demme did his. Because “getting out of the way,” if you want to call it that, is as much a positive choice in writing for cinema as imposing your own vision. Tally was insightful enough to know what to keep from the book, and what to lose — the subplot involving Jack Crawford’s dying wife, the more baroque details of the serial killer’s back-story.

And further, Tally was able to deftly excise and then suture over plot elements in the book that had seemed essential there. For example, the book goes to great lengths to show how it came to be that Hannibal Lecter could ever have met or known about Jame Gumb, the serial killer Clarice is hunting… almost all of that is gone, and I would wager not a single viewer of the movie has ever noticed or cared.

In the book, and of course, in the movie too, Hannibal Lecter cites the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Wait, let me grab my copy from the shelf… here it is:

“The Emperor counsels simplicity. First principles. Of each particular thing, as: What is it in itself, in its own constitution?”

And that is what Tally did, and why he deserved that Oscar. He took a terrific book, filled with grand guignol horror and police procedurals and aberrant psychology and sly jokes and suspense, and he realized that its “constitution,” its essential nature, was that of a relationship story — not a love story, please God, but a story about a brave but human young woman and a brilliant but completely inhuman older man. In fact, among the lines of dialogue that appear in the movie but not in the book is the one perhaps most central to the movie:

Lecter: “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.”

Lecter helps Clarice, Clarice helps Lecter (though not in the way she intended) and in the hands of these remarkable actors, and director, and yes, writer that relationship is more honest and more moving than the most violin-swept Nicholas Sparks romance.

In its way, the movie is an analogue to the book — a perfect suspense machine, except, as it turns out, it needs fewer moving parts. So let’s give kudos to the man who realized which parts were necessary, and which weren’t; the man who re-arranged them perfectly, to create a movie as impossible to look away from as if it were glued to your eyeballs. Yecch.

Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! heard by three million listeners each week via 520 public radio stations and podcast, and the author of The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them. He is also a playwright and screenwriter, and once wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights without meaning to.

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