That hideous Hannibal

I took a little vacation time this afternoon. I spent this narrow slice of heaven sitting around the house, waiting for a technician to come and do the periodic inspection on my furnace. As it turned out, he arrived after the four-hour window had closed. I nearly could have worked my usual time and met him when I got back.

Michael Medved was on the radio as I waited, and this was one of those rare Medved shows where the arguing level was low enough so that I could listen in relative comfort.

Medved panned the new movie, “Hannibal Rising,” the prequel telling about Dr. Lector’s early years. After all, aren’t we all yearning to get a good close look at the dynamics that combine to produce cannibalistic psychopaths, especially when we can make it a Valentine’s date?

I used to be a big fan of Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lector. His books were harrowing, but he treated his characters with compassion and understanding. The villain in Red Dragon, for instance (not Hannibal; he was a secondary character in that one) was horrible and despicable, and you wanted him dead, but you also pitied him. This was (in my opinion) as it should be.

But then came the movie of The Silence of the Lambs, and Anthony Hopkins’ disturbing performance, and suddenly Hannibal became the star.

Then I read the book Harris called Hannibal, and suddenly everything was wrong.

Harris had (it seemed to me) succumbed to the magnetism of Hannibal as incarnated in Hopkins. He may not even realize it, but Harris seems to have started rooting for the cannibal.

So I gave up on him.

Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t yet.

The best portrayal of evil I’ve ever seen in fiction remains (for me) C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. It’s certainly one of Lewis’ least popular works, and I have no doubt that many readers have plunged into it, intoxicated with Perelandra, only to find themselves bogged down in the tedium of Edgestow and the Orwellian bureaucracy of N.I.C.E.

But it’s my view that if you slog through those parts, you’ll not only be rewarded, but you’ll finally understand (as in real life) that the hard parts were useful lessons.

Lewis took on the challenge of presenting evil characters without romanticizing them—and any author will tell you that’s one of the great challenges. Villains tend to grow in the telling, and to become lots of fun. Heroes have a way of getting dull and predictable. I think that’s because most of us know a lot more about evil than we do about good, and we tend to equate virtue with passivity.

But Lewis’ villains in T.H.S. are like scoundrels in the real world. They’re not brilliant and charming. They’re not lively and funny. They’re self-absorbed, humorless and devoid of empathy. The reader who works his way through the tough parts of the book will (or at least may) realize that he has spent time in an annex of Hell, and it’s no party down there.

But the community at St. Anne’s—ah, that’s another matter. There we find Lewis’ vision of a Christian fellowship operating as God intended. There we find relationships and laughter and compassion. There we have a glimpse of Heaven, bright as Narnia.

I consider it a tremendous artistic achievement. One that’s never been properly recognized.

10 thoughts on “That hideous Hannibal”

  1. Yeah well. I love it. And I know of another book which I compare favorably to it….but I won’t say it here. ;-p

    I almost (okay this is probably bad) like THS better than Perelandra. It’s more of a rollicking read.

  2. Ohhh, man. THS. That one’s a toughie for sure. Definetely had a satisfying ending and some very memorable characters. I do think it would’ve worked better as a book where you kinda go ‘Hey, it’s Ransom!’ rather than the end of the trilogy. You expect a bit more of the character in the end of his trilogy, for one thing, and the style and structure were so different…

  3. I read somewhere recently that there now is some gov. entity in england with the very initials n.i.c.e. (I can’t remember what it referred to.)

  4. We might try guessing what the gov. department is. How about the National institute of civil etiquette?

    Speaking of Lewis I came across a quote from him today that I like. ‘As C.S.Lewis defined it, faith is “the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” – The wider case for god – Peter S. Williams

    (This is something I try hard to do.)

  5. I didn’t like That Hideous Strength as well as Perelandra. To me it felt like everything went crazy at the end with Merlin showing up. Of course, I trust your judgment and that suggests a re-read is in order. I’m actually re-reading Out of the Silent Planet right now and am enjoying it immensely.

  6. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, I think, for just the reasons you mention.

    A number of years ago I saw a man on television who had just been elected to head a “mainstream” denomination. I had not heard 10 weords out of his mouth before I found myself exclaiming “They’ve gone and elected Julius Withers!”

    Watching what heppened to that denomination afterwards, I had no reason to revise my intuition.

    Lewis had it cold.

  7. Wither is one of the scariest and most effective villains in popular fiction, IMO. Alot of my baddies are pompous bloviators, and although part of that is because it makes a good excuse to have them monologue, I think Wither is also to blame.

  8. Yes, I did enjoy That Hideous Strength. When I read Frank Perreti’s first work (that I can’t recall the name of), the first thing I thought was that Mr. Perreti had nicked in from THS!

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