Sunday 14 June 2020

Red Dragon (the script) by Ted Tally and Thomas Harris

As you may well know, I am an ardent admirer of novelist Thomas Harris, most recently the author of Cari Mora, but still probably best known for Silence of the Lambs.

Harris has fared surprisingly well with screen adaptations of his books, not least because he had the good fortune to have two of his films scripted by the American playwright Ted Tally.

Seldom has such a stupendously talented novelist been adapted by a comparably talented screenwriter.

One reason Ted Tally's movies are so good is that his first instinct is to stick as closely as possible to the source material — an unusual attitude in the world of movies.

When he wrote his adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, Tally even included scenes from the book that I thought could never work on the screen — they were so rooted in the magic of Thomas Harris's prose...

But they did work, and so brilliantly that Silence of the Lambs was a massive hit as a film, and Ted Tally won the Oscar that year for best adapated screenplay.

Unfortunately, no one saw fit to publish this award winning script in book form. (Maybe they'd like to rectify that error now...)

But Tally's script for another Thomas Harris adaptation — Red Dragon — has indeed been published, and if you're interested in the art of screenwriting you should immediately get hold of a copy.

Movie scripts are often a dull, demanding read, requiring your full attention to keep track of characters, locations, and generally what the hell is going on...

Not Ted Tally's Red Dragon. It reads like a dream. I genuinely couldn't put it down. I found it as a dark, scary and profoundly compelling as Thomas Harris's original novel.

Once more Tally has remained impressively true to the book, but he has a made a couple of canny changes.

The story of Red Dragon takes place before Silence of the Lambs, but the film came out ten years after Silence, with Hannibal Lecter already firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

Therefore Tally provides a brief prologue giving us a taste of the cannibal psychiatrist's schtick...

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has a dud flute soloist, so Hannibal thoughtfully helps them out by killing him and serving him up at a dinner party for members of the symphony board...

And the film ends differently from the book, with a coda of Hannibal in his cell being told that the unseen agent Starling is waiting to see him.

In between, Tally gives us an exquisitely riveting plot, told in clear, concise, dramatic scenes with first rate dialogue.

As I say, a lot of this is drawn directly from Harris's novel. But the choice of what to include and what to leave out (and a lot has to be left out) is Tally's.

And he also adds his own beautiful touches... At the bad guy's gothic mansion of a house, there's a veranda where "ancient rocking chairs stir in the breeze, ridden by ghosts."

Later, when that house is torched and becomes an inferno Tally describes, "The rocking chairs on the porch, moving eerily as flames take them. One last ride for the ghosts."

I recently included Thomas Harris's Red Dragon in a list of my top ten favourite crime novels

What a pleasure to report that this screenplay based on it is a masterpiece in its own right.

(Image credits: The front and back cover of the script book are scans by me of my own copy. The other images are from IMDB, where most of the photos are by Glen Wilson and copyright either Glen Wilson or Universal Studios.)

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