After initially being spooked by the horror of both its outsized budget and outlandish blood-and-guts, Universal Studios has decided to green light "Hannibal," the long-awaited big-screen sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." And, it's official: Ridley Scott of "Alien" fame will replace Jonathan Demme as director of the film version of Thomas Harris' ultragrisly summer bestseller. But it is still too early to say whether either Anthony Hopkins or Jodie Foster will reappear as serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter or FBI agent Clarice Starling.
As Salon reported in June, "Lambs II" was running aground on a number of Hollywood shoals, among them impresario Dino De Laurentiis' involvement in the project and the expected eight-figure paychecks to Foster and Hopkins. "Lambs" Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme was an early casualty. It appeared Universal might be as well.
Sources tell Salon Media that, given the movie's apparent prospect of a hefty price tag and the U.S. government's avowed scrutiny of media violence, the studio had to think long and hard whether to go ahead with the film. In Hollywood, after all, executives lose their jobs for passing on the wrong projects, like nixing "Star Wars" to make "Starman," as ex-mogul Frank Price did some years ago. Yet, in Wall Street's eyes, greenlighting a sequel to an Oscar winner seems like a no-brainer, and Universal wants to do everything within its power to get analysts bullish on its stagnant stock.
But Universal in the end was persuaded to make the deal with De Laurentiis because of the novel's huge success with the public and critics both in the United States and internationally. The fat tome was released June 8th and debuted in the No. 1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list and hasn't budged since. It's also been a massive bestseller in the U.K. and the rest of the English-speaking world. Random House says that over 1 million copies are now in print worldwide. And despite nearly universal recognition of its absurdly convoluted plot and high gore quotient, Harris' 10-years-in-the-making novel received some delicious reviews, notably from ghoul writer Stephen King in the New York Times. (Though Martin Amis does eviscerate the novel in the new Talk.)
As for De Laurentiis, who produced "Manhunter" (the 1986 film adaptation of Harris' first novel featuring Lecter, "Red Dragon") and as a consequence controlled the rights to both the "Hannibal" book and character, sources say he surprisingly scaled back his famously overaggressive persona and demands in his dealings with Universal. And on the budget front, Universal may be aided by foundering MGM whose new vice chairman, Chris McGurk, is a Universal alum desperate to have his new studio co-finance the project.
A-list director Ridley Scott's decision to helm the picture also eased many of Universal's concerns created by Demme's surprise withdrawal in May. Sources say that Scott, who hasn't had a hit in recent years, decided he couldn't turn down such a high-profile project. As for Hopkins and Foster, their futures with the movie won't be decided until at least a working draft of a screenplay is ready. Playwright David Mamet, among others, has expressed interest in penning the script in the months since "Lambs" scribe Ted Tally pulled out with Demme.
Still it's unclear exactly how Universal or Scott plan to solve the central problem presented by "Hannibal," namely its gruesome gore. Among other bloody touches, the book features a scene with Agent Starling feasting on human brains. But an enormous optimism is fueling the project right now, with everyone involved envisioning a potential blockbuster. The dramatic turnaround is not that unusual in Hollywood, where failure is an orphan but success has many fathers. Given the book's ubiquity on beaches this summer, executives who were initially grossed out by "Hannibal" in the wake of the Columbine massacre are now warmly embracing its content.
"Who knows what will happen by the time this movie comes out in the year 2001?" mused one senior executive involved. "Maybe it will seem tame."