25 Years Ago, ‘Hannibal’ Marked the Rise of a New Kind of Blockbuster


In the spring of 1999, a veteran New York book editor got a surprise call from one of the world’s most elusive literary superstars: Thomas Harris.

“Are you busy?” he asked.

Carole Baron, the editor, had plenty of time for Harris. As president and publisher of Dell, she’d spent more than a decade waiting for a new book from the author of such dark thrillers as “Red Dragon” (1981) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1988), which introduced millions of readers to the murderous psychiatrist and gourmand Hannibal Lecter. After “Silence” landed on the best-seller list, Baron signed Harris to a $5.2 million contract for his next two books.

It was a headline-making deal. But it paid off a few years later when the 1991 film adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs” became a worldwide smash. Suddenly, Lecter was more than just a catty baddie. He was now a pop-culture antihero — the most celebrated (and satirized) villain since Darth Vader. And his fans were eager for a sequel.

“Everyone wanted to know when we would have the new Thomas Harris book,” Baron said in a recent video interview, “and I assured them that it was coming.”

But Harris, like Lecter, is a patient, precise thinker, one who operates largely out of view. And throughout the 1990s, there was little hint as to when either man would re-emerge.

During that time, Baron and Harris would sometimes meet during the summer at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, N.Y., where they’d share meals, debate the latest movies and discuss Lecter’s whereabouts. “Tom might talk about the book, or he would hand me pages,” Baron said. “I would stick ’em in my bag, and eagerly go home and read them and respond.”

Finally, on March 23, 1999, Harris called Baron and informed her that a 600-page manuscript was about to hit her desk. It had a brief title: “Hannibal.” And it would be ready for release by that summer.

When Baron broke the news of Harris’s return, “I practically got a standing ovation from our sales team,” she said. “And I got flowers from the buyer at Barnes & Noble.”

They weren’t alone in their excitement. When “Hannibal” was released 25 years ago this summer, it became one of the last blockbuster novels of the ’90s — as well as one of the first big releases of the hyper-speed, hyper opinionated internet era.

Its arrival kicked off a book-business frenzy: Fans cleared their calendars, retailers readied their shelves and critics sharpened their knives. After an 11-year disappearing act, Hannibal Lecter was finally back in all his gory glory.

From the earliest days of his career, it was clear Harris wasn’t a writer who could easily crank out one hit after another. He’d made his debut in 1975 with “Black Sunday,” a nervy terrorism thriller that sold well, leading to a 1977 film of the same name. Yet he struggled while working on a follow-up. “I thought that doing the next book would be easier,” Harris wrote in an inscribed copy of “Black Sunday” in 1975. “But I’m finding out different.”

Things wouldn’t get any simpler for Harris in the decades ahead. “He tormented himself about how hard it was to write,” recalled Bob Bookman, the motion picture literary agent who handled Harris’s film rights. “I once asked, ‘What did you do today?’ and he said, ‘I basically writhed around on the floor.’”

Harris’s friends and fans became accustomed to his slow approach. Yet the success of the film version of “The Silence of the Lambs,” led some to hope he might pick up the pace.

The film — directed by Jonathan Demme, and written by Ted Tally — starred Jodie Foster as the young F.B.I. student Clarice Starling, who forges an unlikely (and uncomfortable) bond with Lecter, played with unblinking ferocity by Anthony Hopkins. “Silence” would go on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

“I want to make a sequel so bad,” Demme said in 1992. All he needed was a new book from Harris.

Instead, for the rest of the decade, the author all but vanished — as though he’d mimicked Lecter’s final “Silence” scene, and simply waltzed into a crowd.

Harris’ few appearances during that time were fleeting, and somewhat baffling. In 1994, Harris was spotted in Italy, observing the trial of accused serial killer Pietro Pacciani, the “Monster of Florence.”

That appearance excited some of Harris’s fans, who by that point had begun gathering on the newly emerging internet to discuss possible plot points for Lecter’s next outing: Would Hannibal go to Italy?

Mostly, though, they lamented the seemingly never-ending wait.

“Three books in almost 20 years!” one fan said in a 1997 Usenet post. “Clarice will be a senior agent in the sequel. Or probably retired. ;-)”

Not long after receiving Harris’s manuscript in March 1999, Baron decided “Hannibal” would come out that June — a remarkably speedy turnaround in an industry that often takes years to edit and publish books.

“People said it wouldn’t work,” Baron recalled. “But for ‘Hannibal,’ they made it work.”

A cover story in Entertainment Weekly, under the headline “He’s Back!” detailed the publishing industry’s scramble to make way for Lecter. More than a million copies of “Hannibal” would be sent to stores, along with hundreds of thousands of paperbacks of “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs.”

Meanwhile, the Book-of-the-Month Club — which had secured rights to “Hannibal” 10 years earlier — rushed to make room for the book on its release schedule. One rival publisher even rejiggered its release calendar so one of its books wouldn’t get lost in the “Hannibal” hype.

Such efforts were undertaken on faith: Aside from Baron and a handful of others, few people had actually read “Hannibal.” Hopes for Harris’s novel were so high — and online speculation about its subject matter so rampant — that Baron decided to keep the manuscript under wraps. There’d be no early copies for reviewers, no excerpts and no prerelease interviews with Harris. “Everyone would read the book at the same time,” Baron said.

But a few days before the release of “Hannibal,” the showbiz journalist Nikki Finke divulged some of the book’s key plot points in an article for Salon, without any spoiler warnings — a major breach of web etiquette. The story summarized the book’s setup: Clarice Starling is now on the outs with the F.B.I., while Lecter is in the cross hairs of another killer. It also revealed Harris’s gruesome ending, in which Starling and Lecter dine out on the brains of a corrupt Department of Justice bureaucrat.

The Salon piece outraged readers, yet it didn’t slow the book’s momentum: “Hannibal” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller lists. It was greeted with a burst of early acclaim from critics, who delighted in the book’s gothic ambience, globe-trotting plot — Hannibal really does go to Italy! — and horrific supporting creatures (including a tongue-chomping moray eel and a team of specially bred man-eating pigs). Stephen King hailed “Hannibal” as “one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time,” putting it on par with William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist.”

Yet many Harris fans had a hard time digesting “Hannibal.” Negative reviews began appearing on Amazon.com, which in 1999 was emerging as a crucial feedback machine. Many readers were left aghast by the book’s final chapter, which depicts Lecter and Starling as happily oversexed lovebirds living in Buenos Aires.

“I still go back and reread parts of ‘Hannibal’ with pleasure,” noted the novelist and biographer Alec Nevala-Lee, a longtime admirer of Harris’s work (“Hannibal” was his first-ever Amazon purchase). “And I don’t even mind the audacity of the brain-eating stuff. But the ending is unforgivable — it just goes too far.”

Thanks in part to that plot twist, a “Hannibal” backlash began brewing over the summer — one epitomized by author Martin Amis’s bruising evisceration of the novel for Talk magazine. Decades later, Amis’s review is still cited as a standout takedown. “I got through the thing in the end,” Amis wrote, “with many a weary exhalation, with much dropping of the head and rolling of the eyes, and with considerable fanning of the armpits.”

“Martin loved books that were being billed as literary and cultural events, to sharpen his irony on,” the Talk founder Tina Brown wrote in an email, “and when I realized the release of ‘Hannibal’ was going to be the book of the month, I knew he would, forgive me, eat it up!”

By the summer of 2000, Harris’s novel was back on the top of the charts, this time in paperback. An $80 million movie adaptation was released in 2001 — minus “Silence” Oscar-winners Foster, Demme and Tally, all of whom declined to return (“Tom Harris, as unpredictable as ever, took Clarice and Dr. Lecter’s relationship in a direction that just didn’t compute for me,” Demme later said. “I just thought, ‘I can’t do this.’”).

In 2006, Harris released “Hannibal Rising,” which followed the young Lecter’s first forays into murder, and which was turned into a film in 2007. And the cult-hit NBC show “Hannibal,” which ran from 2013 to 2015, incorporated characters and story elements from Harris’s 1999 book — including those man-eating pigs.

Lecter himself still has a ravenous fan base, one that includes Donald Trump. Last month, at a campaign event in New Jersey, the former president praised the “late, great” fictitious killer — despite the fact that, at the end of Harris’ “Hannibal,” Lecter is still very much alive.

In fact, there’s always a chance that the good doctor could make one final appearance. In a rare interview, Harris didn’t rule out another Lecter book.

“The Hannibal character still occurs to me,” Harris said, “and I wonder sometimes what it’s up to.”



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