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In one of his notebooks, William Blake once wrote: “I do not consider either the just, or the wicked, to be in a supreme state, but to be, every one of them, states of the sleep which the soul may fall into in its deadly dreams of good and evil, when it leaves Paradise following the serpent.” The characters in Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon are denizens of a deadly dream, where one man’s imagination confronts the unfathomable fantasy life of another. Serial killer Francis Dolarhyde a.k.a. the Red Dragon is “the child of a nightmare” according to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Alan Bloom. To FBI profiler Will Graham, Dolarhyde is “a shadow on suspended dust,” one he watches and waits to take shape in his mind, to make sense of the monster. Their dream is not to be peered at through a keyhole, to be watched like a voyeur — we exist there alongside them.
In a 1983 interview with Harlan Kennedy for Film Comment, Michael Mann described his film The Keep as a “dilation of space and time into a dream reality,” and a “penetration of psychological realities.” He could have been describing the film that followed The Keep, 1986’s Manhunter, his adaptation of Red Dragon. While Jonathan Demme set Harris’s universe in a dungeon, Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon is full of vivid color and blue shadows and bright white, like a crime scene bleached clean. Although Brett Ratner’s adaptation of Red Dragon stays true to the novel’s details — and the films share cinematographer Dante Spinotti — there’s something about the expressionism of Manhunter that feels closer to the atmosphere of Thomas Harris’s novel, to William Blake’s deadly dreams.
Mann and Harris both recognize that monsters don’t come from another planet — they’re made by us, created by abuse and neglect. Michael Mann’s Will Graham (William Petersen) has an uncomplicated view of Francis Dolarhyde (a terrifying Tom Noonan): “As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.” These essential lines are cut from most versions of Manhunter. And here’s where Manhunter diverges from its source: from the novel’s moral complexity, in its William Blake-inspired philosophy, and in its portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde, the man who believes he’s Becoming the Great Red Dragon.
In The Tyger, William Blake wondered, “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” He also once wrote, “Good & Evil are Qualities in Every Man, whether a Good or Evil Man.” Blake believed that God made both good and evil, the lamb and the tiger, that they exist together in all things, and Harris’s characters struggle with this tension. The abused Dolarhyde must reconcile himself with the Red Dragon, this new identity inspired by William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, a watercolor of the devil standing above a helpless woman. Like Dolarhyde, Graham also grapples with his duality. In a story appearing in the tabloid Tattler, a New Orleans officer who once served with Will Graham commented, “You can have him retired, but the feds like to know he’s around. It’s like having a king snake under the house. They may not see him much, but it’s nice to know he’s there to eat the moccasins.” Graham may “eat the moccasins,” but his colleagues consider him a snake as well, living in the shadows alongside the monsters he hunts. Hannibal Lecter is maybe Harris’ only character who’s completely at peace with his nature, the savagery and civility that coexist in him.
Michael Mann gives most of Manhunter’s screen time to William Petersen, but Harris dedicates maybe as many pages to Francis Dolarhyde as he does Will Graham. Dolarhyde murders families, violating their dream in every way imaginable, desperate to be a part of a loving family just as he’s desperate to destroy them, even splicing himself into their home videos. He’s a nocturnal animal who works in a darkroom, who kills at night according to the lunar cycle. He can only connect to others by killing them, by “absorbing” them. But the killer Dolarhyde became is as important to his character as the innocent he once was. Abandoned by his mother, Dolarhyde only found kindness as a child during his days with Queen Mother Bailey, the family cook. But he suffered his Grandmother’s cruelty at night, the woman who essentially created the Dragon, its voice, even its teeth. The Red Dragon was young Dolarhyde’s expression of love for his Grandmother when he felt too small and weak to protect her, when he was afraid: “He would fight his fear of the dark. If he really loved Grandmother, he should be the thing to be afraid of in the dark. The thing for the burglar to be afraid of.” He becomes a thing that hurts people as much as he’s been hurt. Manhunter provides almost none of this insight into Dolarhyde, except for Will Graham channeling the Dragon’s thoughts as he studies Mrs. Leeds, one of his victims: “I see myself accepted, and loved, in the silver mirrors of your eyes.”
The Red Dragon kills the family pet first, then watches the children find it. Will Graham rescues and collects dogs — or ugly, unwanted animals that are “probably dogs.” (In Manhunter, he protects baby turtles.) Will’s psychology is unusual, maybe improbable — of the Red Dragon adaptations, it’s only fully explored in Bryan Fuller’s TV series Hannibal. In Harris’s novel, Dr. Bloom tells FBI agent Jack Crawford that Will Graham is an eideteker — a man with photographic memory. He has pure empathy. Bloom suggests that Will “can assume your point of view, or mine—and maybe some other points of view that scare and sicken him. [ . . . ] Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.” The price of Will’s imagination is that fear is one of his strongest drives, and that his understanding of monsters makes other people perceive him as one of them, believing “it takes one to catch one.” But to protect innocence, you must become intimate with evil.
In Fuller’s Hannibal, the troubling things that Will Graham sees and feels sicken him, and they seduce him. Michael Mann depicts Graham as only sickened. Hannibal Lecter taunts Will from his cell: “the reason you caught me is that we’re just alike.” Mann still believes that Graham could never become a killer even though he can feel what they feel, and this haunts him. His interpretation of Will Graham is more hopeful than Harris’. In Red Dragon, Will’s stepson Willy is curious about his time in the psychiatric wing of a hospital after Will kills a murderer called the Minnesota Shrike. Willy asks: “Killing somebody, even if you have to do it, feels that bad?” Graham responds: “Willy, it’s one of the ugliest things in the world.” In Manhunter, Will has a biological son named Kevin, and he tells him that one of the ugliest things in the world is Hannibal Lecter’s thoughts, although he’s not even explicitly a cannibal in this adaptation. It’s Will’s proximity to a killer’s thoughts instead of killing someone that sends him to the hospital’s psychiatric wing. But Harris’ Will Graham is no stranger to dark thoughts.
Michael Mann envisions the end of Will Graham’s story as idyllic, redemptive, restoring Will to his postcard-perfect home and family, back to the ocean and soft sand and newborn turtles, safe inside the dream that Mann’s other characters often desire, a clearcut hero who has vanquished a clearcut villain. The real end of Red Dragon could not be more different. Thomas Harris leaves Will disfigured by the Dragon, alone in a hospital, trapped in the nightmare. Though Molly and Willy survived the Red Dragon’s attack, they’ve abandoned Will. In a way, his family is Dolarhyde’s final victims.
In his hospital bed between sleep and memory, Will remembers a trip to Shiloh, a would-be Paradise, except that he knows one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles happened there. He realizes the land itself isn’t haunted — “men are haunted.” Humankind manufactures mercy or murder, we create a moral universe; nature is indifferent. Will wonders if “the vicious urges we control in ourselves and the dark instinctive knowledge of those urges function like the crippled virus the body arms against.” Perhaps the awareness of our capacity to kill acts as a vaccine, a defense against killing. But it’s an if, a question posed by Thomas Harris about the hearts of humankind, where kindness and savagery share an uneasy existence.
Red Dragon’s last page quotes Ecclesiastes: “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is a vexation of spirit.” Harris does not include what follows, the tragedy of Will Graham: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) in Fuller’s Hannibal is the only character who absolves Will Graham of the belief that he is as monstrous as the killers he pursues: “One thing I learned from Hannibal is the alchemy of lies and truth. It’s how he convinced you you’re a killer…You’re not a killer. You are capable of righteous violence because you are compassionate.” Both mercy and cruelty have a human heart, according to William Blake. Will’s worst fear is that in touching darkness, he created darkness in himself, but Bedelia understands when faced with a choice between cruelty and mercy, Will Graham chooses mercy.