You don’t have to get very far into Hannibal, the novel in which Thomas Harris finally brings back literature’s most distinguished cannibal, to be reminded of Star Wars. You don’t have to wait for Harris’s made-for-the-movies action sequences, like the abortive opening drug bust that puts FBI agent Clarice Starling on the hot seat, or the grisly set pieces that will keep the special effects people working nights, like the climactic sequence in which the tenth through fourteenth victims die impossibly cinematic deaths. You don’t even have to know about the novel’s $10 million movie sale to Dino de Laurentiis. No, all you have to recognize is Hannibal’s position as the literary world’s answer to Star Wars, the summer’s other pre-sold property, the one title that had bookstores across America opening at midnight so that they could feed customer frenzy the moment it was officially published on June 8.
Of course, Hannibal isn’t in the same galaxy as Star Wars when it comes to publicity. Probably suspecting that they weren’t going to crack even $50 million in sales during the opening weekend, Delacorte released the novel without any bookstore posters or any interviews by the famously reclusive Harris or any advance review copies, except presumably to Stephen King, who aptly noted that his 21-gun salute in the NYTBR could have been boiled down to three words: “HERE IT IS.”
But these differences mask a deeper similarity, which emerges from every review: the status of monstrous Dr. Hannibal Lecter as a brand name as reliable as the Jedi Knights, capable of moving mountains of product while silencing all critical questions but one: Does this installment measure up to the earlier ones? It would be easy to conclude simply that it doesn’t – that the serial-killer genre Harris revitalized has evidently left its audience so jaded that Harris feels he can’t compete without literalizing the psychological horrors of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs at every step, though his baroque new approach to the genre is always provocative, and his audacious epilogue casts his hero, and the whole Lecter saga, in a challenging new light. But it might be worth a moment to ask why the one question everybody’s asking of his new work is whether it delivers the old Lecter recipe we know and love. That’s a fair question to ask about an outer-space fairy tale like Star Wars, but you have to wonder about audiences who found Hannibal Lecter’s earlier appearances so harrowing that they want to be harrowed again by the same character in exactly the same way. Now that’s brand loyalty.