Where's The Beef?

What was scarier in "The Silence of the Lambs": Anthony Hopkins strapped into his grotesque face mask--or without it, his teeth ready to tear into a succulent chunk of human flesh? Either way, for a decade moviegoers have been hungering for the return of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, with his brilliant mind and taste for fine wine and strange cuisine. Next month he'll finally be back, in the movie version of Thomas Harris's sequel to "Silence," the 1999 best seller "Hannibal."

But he will be a kinder, gentler cannibal. As readers of the latest Harris novel know, Lecter has been transformed into a strangely compassionate leading man, and a romantic at that--he falls hard for FBI agent Clarice Starling. And though the book dished up gut-wrenching action scenes--which sparked the record $10 million film-rights sale--it rambled and left some readers needing a swig of nice Chianti to swallow the idea of Lecter and Starling's ending up as lovers. As Hopkins, who returns as Lecter in the new film, puts it, " 'Silence of the Lambs' was more concentrated and focused."

Focusing the story was just one hurdle in the rough trip from book to screen. Faced with the challenge of revisiting an Oscar-winning thriller without all of the original cast--and with a ballooning budget--Universal Pictures came within hours of shelving "Hannibal" entirely. Only last-minute financial concessions by the producers--and a lucky break for a replacement for Jodie Foster, who starred as Clarice in "Silence"--kept the project alive. If the making of "Hannibal" proves anything about Hollywood, it's that there's one thing harder than making a guaranteed blockbuster, and that's making a sequel to a blockbuster.

When producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis first read Harris's 600-page "Hannibal" manuscript in May 1999, they realized right away that they had to flesh out the role of Starling, which had won Foster an Oscar. Next, they had to shop for a director and a writer: neither the original director, Jonathan Demme, nor the screenwriter, Ted Tally, cared for the book and would sign on. A host of other A-list screenwriters, including Scott Frank ("Out of Sight"), William Goldman ("All the President's Men") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List"), declined as well. Playwright David Mamet was even-tually hired for $1 million, but Universal decided that his draft of the script, a debate on violence in America, was virtually unusable. Then, when director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") was signed, Zaillian reconsidered, and now shares script credit with Mamet.

Hopkins--who says, "It's only a movie, after all"--was quick to agree to a reprise. But Foster wasn't, even after Hopkins personally visited her in Santa Barbara. Not that Universal could really afford the actress, who now makes $15 million a movie. The De Laurentiises had made deals that gave a chunk of the film's profits to themselves and Harris. Then Hopkins, director Scott and writer Zaillian each made similar deals. Universal was faced with an $80 million production on which the studio would collect only 70 percent of the revenues. And there was still no female star--and whoever she was going to be would have to satisfy Hannibal fans. "We needed to thread the needle perfectly," says Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider.

On the brink of abandoning the movie, the studio began to look for the right Clarice, and the Hollywood gossip machine went into high gear over who might take the role. Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow passed, but other actresses were eager. Universal owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. pushed for Angelina Jolie. Then Disney failed to seal a deal with Julianne Moore for a small role in "Unbreakable," and Universal grabbed her for a fraction of Foster's fee. "My concern was just doing the part justice," says Moore.

To help underwrite the movie--and share the financial risk--Universal joined with MGM, which already had some claim to the project. MGM had bought Orion Pictures, which produced "Silence of the Lambs." In addition, when Univer- sal executive Chris McGurk left the studio to become COO at MGM, he got a part of "Hannibal" in his contract settlement (in exchange, Universal got theme-park rights to MGM's Bond and Pink Panther characters).

The film's production--much of it was shot on location in Florence--turned out to be far less dramatic than the dealmaking. The filmmakers ditched the book's climac-tic Hannibal-Clarice love connection and steered the plot's evil focus onto Lecter's one surviving (and extremely disfigured) victim, the vengeful millionaire Mason Verger, played by an uncredited Gary Oldman. The novel's grisly last dinner scene, featuring a brain procedure not covered by any HMO, remains in the film. ("Hannibal" received an R rating the first time it was submitted to the ratings board, which surprised even the filmmak-ers.) The book's major dramat-ic blemish--that Lecter is both hero and villain--may trouble audiences, but MGM and Universal think otherwise. Ten years and tens of millions later, they're counting on "Lambs" fans to stampede the box office. Chianti, anyone?