It is not often that the cinema gives us, within a twenty-year period, two starkly different adaptations of the same contemporary pulp book. The reason that Thomas Harris' Red Dragon has come around again for big screen treatment is brutally mercenary.
When the first version, Michael Mann's Manhunter, appeared in 1986, it scarcely lasted a week in local cinemas. But now that producer Dino De Laurentiis has the rights to Harris back in his eager hands, he is anxious to make any possible sequel, or prequel, to The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
This Red Dragon may be more faithful to the details of Harris' book than Manhunter, but it is in every way an inferior retelling of the basic tale.
FBI investigator Will Graham (Edward Norton) is reluctantly lured out of retirement to work on a gruesome case that seems modelled on the method of the now imprisoned fiend, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
As in the other Harris adaptations, there is no mystery surrounding the identity of the killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes). The intrigue of the story is based on its gradual unfolding of the complex madness of its twin villains, and the labyrinthine path taken by the law enforcers to put all the pieces together.
Hannibal (2001) was widely mocked, but Ridley Scott's baroque excesses are far preferable to the dogged, prosaic approach adopted by Red Dragon director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour , The Family Man ). Incredibly, the same cinematographer who did such dazzling work on Manhunter, Dante Spinotti, has been hired to re-lens proceedings, but this time without any of the thrilling, expressionistic effects for which he is famous.
The narrative of Red Dragon is captivating no matter who is in charge of its telling. Ratner and talented screenwriter Ted Tally (who scripted The Silence of the Lambs) do decent, mechanical work, but the poetry and terror of Mann's version is completely absent. We are left gazing at the often self-conscious tics of the cast: Hopkins' deliberate suppression of his facial muscles, Norton's fussy way of signalling mental contortions, Fiennes' barely contained tension and Emily Watson's touching vulnerability in the role of the blind Reba.
© Adrian Martin October 2002