The Roots of Hannibal from Martha De Laurentiis

Before “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” there was “Red Dragon,” the 1981 novel in which Thomas Harris introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world. When we first read it, Dino and I immediately knew we wanted to make the Red Dragon movie. Reviews reinforced our instincts. It was hailed as “the scariest book of the season” and “an unforgettable thriller with equal parts of horror and suspense.” 

Since then, we’ve enjoyed nearly three decades of being involved in the world of the feature franchise, and we’ve been privileged to call Thomas Harris not just a creative collaborator, but a dear friend. Still, more than anything, we’re fundamentally fans who love spending time in the universe of the books, reread them frequently, and eagerly awaited each next book. For years, we talked of the “what if” of making the books into a television series, but continued to hold out hope that Thomas would continue the saga. As time passed, and Thomas’ resolve that he was done writing about those characters remained unwavering, we started to think more earnestly about a television series.

Several summers ago, I visited Thomas Harris and his partner Pace Barnes at their summer cottage in Sag Harbor, hoping to sound them out about the possibility. I suspected that audiences were as hungry as I was for more about Hannibal, but didn’t want to do anything that caused Thomas displeasure. Honestly, at that point, I still had a nagging doubt myself whether it was possible to put together a package worthy of the books and films, but I wanted him to understand that my paramount concern was being a good steward of his “baby.”

Thomas told the story about writing “Red Dragon” and how Hannibal Lecter came to him, in a solitary shotgun shack near the village of Rich, Mississippi, so many years ago. Before he was a successful novelist, Thomas was a journalist and he pulls a lot of compelling, uniquely observant details from hands-on research and immersing himself in the setting. I felt like I was there. It was mesmerizing…

But suddenly Thomas interrupted himself and came right out with it. Who could possibly write this in Hollywood? He didn’t want anyone (including me!) to “*uck it up!”

GULP. Oh, how we drank scotch on the rocks well into that night.

I came back to my office here on the NBCUniversal lot, the very room where Alfred Hitchcock conceived of some of the masterpieces of cinema, still undecided. When looking for solutions to tough story problems, my husband Dino would often go back to the beginning, painstakingly rereading all the source material and old scripts, refreshing his memory of what he loved in the first place and reminding himself of how and why the development journey has evolved. So, I pulled out the first edition of “Red Dragon” Thomas had given us. The title page was inscribed: “For Dino and Martha, with great affection and every good wish in the world… Thomas Harris”

As I turned the page, out fell a torn sheet of small yellow paper. Another note from Thomas: “Dear Martha, The Red Dragon is for you and Dino. If it’s a banquet and auction, wait until they’re drunk before opening the bidding. Love, Tom”

The phone and a series of meetings interrupted, and it wasn’t until that night, at home, that I got back to rereading “Red Dragon.” The edition I have at home is the book’s rerelease from 2000, the first year in which Hannibal Lecter beat out Darth Vader as the world’s number one best-loved villain. The 2000 edition has an expanded foreword, describing the same story Thomas had told me in Sag Harbor, three and a half pages entitled “Foreword to a Fatal Interview.” Here was a beautifully evocative description of the starting place of it all, in which the perspectives of Thomas Harris the author and Will Graham the investigator bleed together:

"I could see the investigator Will Graham in the home of the victim family, in the house where they all died, watching the dead family’s home movies… Graham needed some help, and he knew it… So it was with some trepidation that I accompanied him to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane…"

I pored through the forward and right there, in those three and a half pages recounting how it sprang to life, I saw afresh why Thomas’ tales of FBI agents and serial killers still have so much more power than other explorations of the subject. Yes, they’re great characters and brilliant plots, but what jumped out was the writing voice, the precise yet seductive descriptions of simple, true, lived experiences. Thomas roots the most larger-than-life characters and situations in relatable, and incredibly cinematic, sensations:  standing in a dark field surrounded by howling stray dogs; the light in the distance that promises shelter, or danger; the jarring crash of a closing prison door.   

But who could I find who could do justice to that voice…

Still sensing that “Red Dragon” held the key to unlocking a story arc, I partnered with a new television company, Gaumont International Television (a subsidiary of one of the oldest film companies in the world, GAUMONT) and found a match in enthusiasm with its CEO, Katie O’Connell.

But what really completed the match followed shortly after we teamed up. Katie was traveling to New York and, on the plane, met an old friend, Bryan Fuller. Happy to see each other and sharing each other’s news and plans, she told Bryan about the “Hannibal” project. As soon as the plane landed, Bryan met back up with her and, in a few short minutes, pitched a vision for the television series.

Funny thing. He had gone back to the beginning. The foundation of “Red Dragon.” And he had unlocked it. 

On our first meeting, I liked Bryan tremendously. What impressed me most at that time was that he was one of the biggest fans of Thomas Harris’s writing I had ever met and had an encyclopedic recall of the books. He wanted to make something that he would want to see, and he didn’t want to “*uck it up.” And he pitched me the timeframe, the characters, and the story arc… for the entire first seven years. Fascinating in the approach. Faithful to the canon of the books, and hopeful to capture the spirit of Thomas Harris’s voice. Delicious in the way he’d introduce us to Will Graham, his boss, Jack Crawford, and their ultimate need to draw in… Hannibal Lecter.

I was confident we had found the right creative voice, and eager to see the show come to life. Of course, the journey was just beginning…

Read more hand-written letters from Hannibal to Clarice.

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