To me, the key to a truly great “remake” of a pre-existing horror film is simple. Would the new update make a good double feature with the original movie? When it comes to programming a double bill, the goal is to find two movies with a similar theme that would complement each other. And there’s no better test to see if a remake works than by watching it back to back with its inspiration and seeing if it respects its source material and tells a similar enough story, yet does its own thing. Each week, we’re going to pair up two horror films – its original and its remake as a double feature and see if it makes for a great double bill. Welcome to Double Take!
This one’s a bit different than usual. While technically RED DRAGON isn’t a direct remake of MANHUNTER, but instead yet another adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel, it still… well, it still feels like a remake of MANHUNTER. HANNIBAL Season 3 wrapped earlier this year and I just got to see MANHUNTER on the big screen paired up with another one of Michael Mann’s films, THIEF. So I’ve had Will Graham, Francis Dollarhyde and Hannibal Lecter on the brain lately and wanted to see if these two versions of this same story would work as a double feature. The verdict? Not really.
I already spoke about MANHUNTER last week for my Killer POV pick of the week, but to refresh, it’s the first screen adaptation of the 1981 bestselling novel, and Mann’s second theatrical feature after THIEF. It arrived in theaters in 1986 and while it did OK, I don’t think audiences at that time were quite prepared for this type of serial killer thriller, and in fact, Mann might have been a bit ahead of the curve with MANHUNTER. Also, Hannibal Lecter wasn’t the cultural horror icon that we know and love today. Played in a very straight forward, yet chilling manner by Brian Cox, his screen time is very limited and he only confronts Will Graham (William Petersen) face to face once.
For the unfamiliar, Will Graham is a FBI profiler with a knack for capturing serial killers. By embracing his own, inner dark side, he’s able to get into the head of the killers, think like them and hence figure out who they are and how to stop them. He barely survived his encounter with Hannibal Lecter and has opted for early retirement, living in the Keys with his wife and son. But when the FBI are baffled by a killer the media have dubbed “the Tooth Fairy,” who is systematically targeting and murdering full families during the lunar cycle, Jack Crawford begs Will to come back. Will knows he’s going to help, but at first he has trouble getting back his mind set. And so he visits Hannibal to get the old scent back.
Hannibal, still angry, begins manipulating things from behind bars as he communicates with The Tooth Fairy and encourages him to go after Will’s family. As far of thrillers go, it’s a great, taut one and the cast across the board is pretty excellent. And while I still like the movie quite a bit, it is very, very dated.
Fast forward, the sequel THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS went on to win Oscars and turned “Hannibal the Cannibal” into a household name, courtesy of Anthony Hopkins’ amazing performance. It was followed up by yet another sequel simply titled HANNIBAL and helmed by Ridley Scott. At that point, there was nowhere left to go with the franchise but back. And hence, the studios took another crack at RED DRAGON, this time utilizing Anthony Hopkins version of Hannibal as the driving force and putting Brett Ratner in the director’s chair.
Now, here’s the thing about RED DRAGON. It should work. It’s based on a truly terrific novel. You’ve got Anthony Hopkins returning to one of his most well regarded roles. The rest of the cast is made up of top notch performers such as Ed Norton, Harvey Keitel, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson & Mary-Louis Parker. And yet, it feels so bland, so empty and so lifeless. I thought maybe it was the fact that I had already seen this story adapted once before, but as the series HANNIBAL proved, it’s definitely not that.
For starters, one of the most distracting aspects of the film is that despite being a prequel, Anthony Hopkins is very noticeable older and bigger than we last saw him in the second sequel. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was 1991, this was 2002. So that’s quite a jump in time to suspend disbelief when his appearance has changed so drastically. I recall a quote from director Ratner at the time saying that he had flirted with the idea of using CGI to de-age Hopkins, but opted against it because “if you’re worrying about his wrinkles, then I didn’t do my job as a director.” Wellllll….. he said it, not us. Plus, I find this statement kind of ironic considering a mere 4 years later, he used CGI to de-age both Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for the opening scene of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND.
Also, I don’t know if Ed Norton or even screenwriter Ted Tally (who also did a brilliant adaptation of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS screenplay) fully “get” Will Graham. The way this version is structured, Will doesn’t really do anything to drive the story forward. He’s kind of passively moving through the movie. It’s not even his idea to go see Hannibal Lecter. And while there’s only one face to face with Lecter in the original, there are a few scenes now with him and Will together, if anything to milk Hopkins final screen appearance as the good ol’ doctor.
Yes, the ending is far more faithful to the novel than the Michael Mann version which truncates the entire third act of the book and ends it more abruptly with a showdown between Will and Francis, but it doesn’t make this version feel any less unnecessary. And when you watch these both back to back, that’s how it feels. Unnecessary.
Quite frankly, the latest TV interpretation, while different in a lot of ways, also happens to feel the most faithful in tone and intent to the original Thomas Harris novel. In fact, you should check out this great, really thorough breakdown of the differences between every version of RED DRAGON by Christopher Shultz on Litreactor.com.
What do you guys think? Do you like MANHUNTER better? Or RED DRAGON? What’s your favorite version of this novel?