One of the most evil of screen psychiatrists must surely be Hannibal Lecter as played by in Silence of the Lambs (1991) . Lecter is the serial killing cannibal in a mask, stored in a maximum security mental institution. In a way this is a play on the 'madder than the patients' theme.
Lecter first surfaced in Manhunter (1986), played by Brian Cox. The film enjoyed moderate success, and Cox's portrayal of Lecter is more than adequate. Some critics rate this film as the best of the three made to date. In two films which followed Hannibal the Cannibal was definitively played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. A remake of Manhunter is planned with Hopkins in the lead.
It matters because the Hannibal series of novels and films depict something at once simple and archetypal, but at the same time quite complex in terms of internal reaction. And it is society's acceptance of Hannibal as a character and, furthermore, as a hero that is of particular interest.
The broadest stroke of the films speaks volumes about the demonic and fearful nature of mental illness within our collective mind. Aliens (as they used to be called) and their alienists are grouped together as beyond reality and on the whole nightmarish characters.
My judgement is partial, of course, since I am a psychiatrist. I was asked by the Headline publishing house to comment on the second novel in the sequence, The Silence of the Lambs. Plans were then in discussion to publish a sequence of novels by yours truly featuring a realistic and recognisable psychiatrist as hero. The sequence was never published, but the novels still exist, slowly mustering dust and unread somewhere. My bone of contention with the second novel's Lecter character was his psychopathy and lack of remorse and yet his finely attuned, almost prescient sensitivity to the psyche of others. This, I argued was an unlikely combination of personality traits in a doctor. I also had some problems with minor technical points such as Lecter's ignorance of DSM diagnostic terms, but this was merely hair splitting stuff. I just thought that a serial murderer doctor was bizarre and incredibly unlikely. This opinion, of course, was proved wrong. As I was opining to Headline, Dr Shipman was working singlehandedly down the road from where I live dispatching far more people than ever written about in the gothic pages of Thomas Harris. The hoary adage that truth is stranger than fiction was sadly proved right again.
So, why do we at the same time like Dr Lecter and also feel repelled by him? We somehow will to him to survive and continue, but we abhor his atrocities, even if they are executed with murderous skill and an eye to the artistic.
The uncomfortable truth is that Lecter is our Shadow - this true of and uncomfortable for all of us, but especially for psychiatrists who might identify with him even more closely. The Shadow lies within us, [our dark side as portrayed in the Star Wars series - which George Lucas based on the archetypal books and research of , itself based on the writings of Carl Gustav Jung - an example of how psychiatry has sometimes had a reciprocal role with cinema] and we must integrate our own dark impulses with our 'ideal self'.
Perhaps the identification process with Hannibal is akin to a form of Stockholm syndrome in which the victim, after prolonged exposure to the aggressor, eventually identifies with him.
Or is there something very dark and murderous within each of us? Is this what is truly disquieting about the heady archetypal brew that is the Hannibal series?
One of Ridley Scott's most brilliant aspects as a director is his use of lighting and shadow in his films. His previous films include Alien (1979) and Bladerunner (1982). Hannibal makes great use of the light and dark in the key scenes set in Florence. Sunny scenes of Hannibal living the life of a bon viveur and gastronome alternate with dark rainy streets scenes where he murders a gypsy and the policeman Pazzi. When he first attacks Pazzi it is in the art museum/library where Hannibal is hiding out as a curator. Lecter has just delivered a seminal lecture, he projects a slide showing the execution of one of Pazzi's ancestor's, and as he does so he advances on Pazzi. His shadow towers above Pazzi on the screen as Lecter moves forward in the projector's light to drug him.
Pazzi is murdered because he has sold Lecter for a considerable reward. Lecter reminds Pazzi before his death that an ancestor was killed for a similar betrayal. In this way Lecter justifies his murderous actions. Pazzi is stained with the sins of his ancestors, with Original Sin? The parallel of course as far as Pazzi is concerned is with Judas, but is Lecter in anyway a Christ-like figure?
The novel is more complex than the film, and in a way this is understandable, some of the concepts put forward in the book would be difficult to translate for the screen. For instance, Lecter takes refuge in his Mind Palace, an exquisite architectural edifice that exists in his mind alone, and in which he place imaginary objects to fortify himself 'spiritually' and also to help him arrange his memory.
Differences between the novel and the film include minor details such as Lecter's preferences in terms of musical instruments and major factors such as whole sections devoted to the psychodynamic aspects of Lecter and the detective Starling's childhood, and the romance between the female Starling and the male Lecter (an echo of Beauty and the Beast).
In the novel Lecter plays the harpsichord and the theremin (an early kind of electronic instrument from the mid twentieth century where the movement of the hands in space produces an unearthly wailing sound - you will have heard music including a theremin, but perhaps not realised it) and in the film he plays the more accessible pianoforte.
In the novel there is considerable space devoted to Lecter's early childhood relationship with his sister. She dies in a wartime atrocity, and the seeds for Lecter's negation and his transference to Starling are sown. The film excludes these psychodynamic explanations (inserted late in the day in the Hannibal series of books). The scenes in which Lecter tries to help Starling psychologically by unearthing literally (not figuratively in psychotherapy) the bones of her late father have also been omitted in the film.
In the novel, the relationship between Starling and Lecter develops (at times ambiguously) into a romance. Readers did protest at this development, pointing out that Starling would not blur boundaries in this way, and the film portrays her as a sterling, straight officer of the law, albeit with a grudging respect or even affection for Lecter. In the film, although she is drugged, it seems clear that she has formed and close affective bond with Lecter who take her to the opera and so on, with her turning her back effectively on the FBI and her past. The novel implies that her role in the police is a defence mechanism linked in to the complex about her father. In undoing this Lecter frees her and the way is open for her to leave the neurotic attachment to the police and begin romance with Lecter. Would Jung approve of this 'coniunctio' between the anima and animus? Something doesn't feel quite right, and the movie perhaps because of this emotional dissonance rejects this subplot.
Gone too is some of Harris' atheistic polemic. He denies God several times in the book and this post-Millennial fare implies that mankind has gone beyond good and evil in a Nietzchian way.
Lecter is some cannibalistic monster who devours his victims, absorbing their thoughts, souls and bodies like some black hole absorbing surrounding stars. It is a dreadful Universe.
If any body is in charge instead of God in Harris' Universe it is some dreadful Sethian demiurge who allows atrocities to happen and recur (the death of Lecter's sister is repeated figuratively in his murders or tableaux). It is a bleak and frightening universe offered by Harris. A weltanschaung that is even more frightening that Lecter, who is surprisingly a hero. His murders do ahev some logic or ethical basis. His asylum nurse Barney points out (in book and film) that Lecter only murders 'the rude', the inconsiderates, and the devious Judas like figures represented by Pazzi. The sentence of death for rudeness seems rather disproportionate however, and in the end I am personally repelled by this warped and profoundly pessimistic philosophy. It is a world without God. The Shadow remains however. This is a very grim fairytale where good is conspicuously absent and evil plays freely.
In the wake of the fictitious Hannibal and the reality of Shipman we are left bereft - where have the heroes gone?