Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710
Little has been published about Thomas Harris’s life, which he carefully keeps private. Even the month and day of his birth do not appear in any published accounts. However, he is no hermit. Those who know him—including his mother, with whom he is close—say that Harris is a southern gentleman, a good friend, and a gourmet cook.
Born to William Harris and Polly Harris, Thomas Harris is an only child, raised primarily in Rich, Mississippi, near his birthplace, Jackson, Tennessee. As an adolescent, Harris was bookish and probably unhappy; he read constantly. After attending Clarksdale High School and Cleveland High School, Harris left Mississippi for Baylor College in Waco, Texas.
While earning his bachelor’s degree in English from 1961 to 1964, Harris began writing professionally. He covered crime stories for the Waco Herald-Tribune and was eventually hired as a full-time reporter. One assignment took him to Mexico to investigate a child-prostitution ring. He also began having pieces published in the magazines True and Argosy. No sources have tracked down those pieces or even established whether they were short stories or true-crime reports. Given the histories of the magazines, the latter is likelier. At Baylor, Harris married a fellow student, Harriet; they had one daughter, Anne, and were divorced by 1964. After graduation, Harris traveled in Europe. He moved to New York City in 1968 to work for Associated Press as a reporter, covering crime, and then editor.
In 1973 Harris and coworkers Sam Maull and Dick Riley conceived the novel that would become Black Sunday (1975), inspired by acts of terrorism committed in 1972 at the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv by the Japanese Red Army, supported by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and at the Munich Olympics by the Black September Organization. All three researched and began writing; the advance was split three ways. However, Harris made financial arrangements with his cowriters and continued the project alone. The novel received mixed reviews but became a best seller. A film of the novel, directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Bruce Dern as a terrorist, appeared in 1977. Encouraged by the book’s reception, Harris left the Associated Press in 1974 to write novels full time.
When Harris’s father was dying in the mid-1980’s, Harris returned to Mississippi for eighteen months. He connects Red Dragon, dedicated to his father, to that time. When Putnam published the novel in 1981, Harris lived in Italy. This novel was filmed in 1986 as Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann and featuring William Petersen, later of the television show CSI (began in 2000), as Will Graham. The film was financially unsuccessful but garnered a loyal following for Harris.
Harris works slowly and carefully. His third novel, The Silence of the Lambs, sold well and garnered positive reviews from major periodicals; in 1989 it won the Anthony Award (from the World Mystery Convention), World Fantasy Award (World Fantasy Convention), and Stoker Award (Horror Writers’ Association of America) for the year’s best novel. The film adaptation fully established the reputation of an already popular writer: Released by Orion Pictures in 1991, it earned $272.7 million and saved the company from bankruptcy. Also, it was only the third film to win five major Academy Awards: best director (Jonathan Demme), best actress (Jodie Foster), best actor (Anthony Hopkins), best adapted screenplay ( Ted Tally), and best picture.
Harris reportedly did not want to write another book featuring Hannibal Lecter, but Delacorte published Hannibal in 1999. Despite mixed-to-negative reviews, it became a best seller and was nominated as best novel for the 2000 Bram Stoker Awards. In 2001 the film, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Anthony Hopkins, earned $351.7 million worldwide and set a record for opening receipts for an R-rated film. Harris allowed the screenplay to change the book’s ending; still, many critics found the result too gruesome and morally upsetting, and Jodie Foster declined the role of Clarice Starling, which went to Julianne Moore. Brett Ratner directed a new film based on Red Dragon, released in 2002 under that name, featuring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter.
In 2004, Harris signed a contract with Bantam to write two books for an eight-figure sum. The first, Hannibal Rising, was released in December, 2006, when production had already begun on the 2007 film, directed by Peter Webber and starring Gaspard Ulliel as young Hannibal.
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