The William Blake Blog

Cannibalising Blake

Following on from my last post, William Blake and Film, now it is time to move from arthouse and indie cinema to the most resolutely populist presentation of Blake at the movies - the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (and, yes, I mean trilogy. Does anyone even remember Hannibal Rising?).

In the first of his novels to introduce the world's favourite gourmet-sociopath, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris interleaves the influence of Blake throughout the book. The title refers to the early nineteenth-century painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun created by Blake for Thomas Butts and now housed at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Another painting of the same title is now located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.)

This image, one of the most powerful ever created by Blake, embodies the diabolical creature that the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, wishes to become. While this striking motif is repeated throughout both film and book, notably in Dolarhyde's tattoo but also when he goes to Brooklyn to eat the painting, it is not the only reference to Blake: in Harris's novel Dolarhyde's "copperplate" handwriting is explicitly compared to Blake's, and he also takes the blind woman he starts dating, Reba McClane, to visit a tiger that is undergoing surgery for toothache at a zoo. As Dolarhyde's tabloid nickname is "The Tooth Fairy", it is clear that there is a connection between him, this creature, and Blake's Tyger.

Two film versions of Red Dragon have been released: Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986), starring William Petersen as the detective Will Graham and Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, with a cameo from Brian Cox as Lecter, is a serious and often low-key affair, one that has rightly attracted critical acclaim although I must admit that occasionally I find myself distracted by the 80s soundtrack. The film was remade by Brett Ratner in 2002 to take advantage of the success of subsequent Hannibal Lecter movies, a version that is closer to the book and restores Blake's centrality, for example in the marvellous scene where Dolarhyde devours the original painting of the Red Dragon. Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde provide fine performances, although Anthony Hopkins's performance as Lecter was starting to look a little tired.

The next book in Harris's series, the most famous of the films (and still the best), Silence of the Lambs, appears to be the one of the original trilogy in which Blake has no role to play, an appearance emphasised by Jonathan Demme's 1991 film version. However, as Michelle Gompf points out in an essay on "The Silence of the Lamb and the Tyger", Agent Clarice Starling's decision to try and save a lamb is an important contrast to the tiger/dragon becoming of Dolarhyde in Red Dragon.

The links to Blake are more explicit in the the third film of the trilogy, Hannibal. In Harris's book, this is made manifest by the fact that Mason Verger owns a copy of The Ancient of Days, an image that is emblematic of his own, Urizenic morality. Although this copy is not explicit in Ridley Scott's 2001 film, when Verger wishes to manufacture an apparent contact from Lecter to Starling his choice is the favourite of all psycopath's, a postcard of Blake's Ghost of a Flea. In the novel, Lecter's writing is compared (like Dolarhyde's), to a fine copperplate, but unlike Dolarhyde he is the contrary rather than the negation of Starling - so much so that they elope together in the novel.

Gompf points out that Harris uses Blake to provide a view of morality outside conventional laws of behaviour (as, indeed, do the films of his novels to a lesser extent), for the union of Lecter and Starling is a marriage of heaven and hell, innocence and experience (although not always in ways that the reader expects). For me, Harris's vision of Blake is occasionally somewhat trite, but I cannot deny the vicarious thrill of pleasure I experience whenever I witness this Blakean parade through pop culture.