I posted a little while ago about my feelings watching the latest movie version of MacBeth. It was pretty good but I was not blown away. As I was thinking about it, I started thinking about the movie version of a much lesser Shakespearean play, Coriolanus.
It was pretty freaking awesome. It kind of blows my mind that words from 300 years ago can still seem relevant today.
Ralph Fiennes played an outstanding Coriolanus. I’d read the play before, but it makes such a difference to see it acted out, especially when acted well. Ralph played him as a uptight, vain, elitist, prideful man with a special disdain for the commoner.
Perhaps tightly controlled rage is his specialty. In addition to the obvious Schindler’s List and various Potter movies (of which I have to confess that I’ve seen a grand total of one, the last one; in hindsight only seeing the last of a long series of movies and never having read any of the books might have been a tactical mistake, film appreciation-wise), he played an outstanding very disturbed serial murderer in Red Dragon.
I had read Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, many years ago. It was quite possibly the scariest book that I’d ever read. I’m not sure why, but it just creeped me out on multiple levels. The protagonist, Will Graham, is a brilliant FBI profiler who was almost killed a couple of years previously and is now frightful and psychologically damaged, so seeing the world from his perspective was disturbing.
This novel also features the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter. He has a very small role. He’s hardly ever seen but sends secret messages to the Red Dragon (Francis Dolarhyde). The fact that he’s seen so rarely but his presence is felt throughout the book makes him a fascinating, albeit creepy character.
In Silence of the Lambs, and even worse, in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, his character is drawn out and explained in mind-numbing detail, ultimately making him far less interesting.
In Red Dragon, it’s the fact that he’s this unknowable force of evil that makes him so compelling. This is a case where less is more. The more that I learned about Hannibal, the less that I was interested.
A very similar thing also occurs with Scott Turow. He’s written a series of novels focused on a dark, corrupt, crime-ridden fictional area known as Kindle County (since he’s from Chicago, clearly patterned after Cook County).
In his first novel, Presumed Innocent, a prosecutor named Rusty Sabich is falsely accused of murder and is represented by Sandy Stern. Sandy is a complex, mysterious character whose motives are unclear. He refuses to divulge his strategy to Rusty as he plays a byzantine courtroom game. Even after Rusty is exonerated, Sandy refuses to divulge what his ultimate strategy was and how far he was willing to take it. I’ve read Presumed Innocent a couple of times now and the mysterious Sandy was always my favorite character.
Turow’s next book (The Burden of Proof) started with Sandy’s wife committing suicide. Trying to find meaning, Sandy attempts to find out more about his wife and why she might have committed this act. The book traces the changes that occur to Sandy as he goes through this process.
By the time that I’d finished, as with Hannibal Lecter, he seemed to be a much less interesting character. Once his sly mysterious ways are explained as just banal prosaic impulses, I just started caring less.
Interestingly enough, another of Turow’s book (written over 20 years after Presumed Innocent), Innocent, has Rusty once again arrested for murder and once again has Sandy representing him.
In this story, Sandy is fighting cancer and is pretty clearly getting weaker and is dying. However, the story pushes Rusty to the foreground and moves Sandy to the background. Once again, Sandy’s character, his battle with cancer, and how he is using his sickness to be an even more effective defense lawyer, is left primarily unspoken.
He is a relatively minor character here, and guess what, he’s more interesting again!
Perhaps there are some fictional characters that just belong in supporting roles. There are characters who the less said is about them, the more interesting they are. It’s a literary gap that should be left unfilled by the author and left better imagined by the reader.
And yes, I just went from Shakespeare to Turow. What of it?