Stephen Pinker, in his truly wonderful book The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature, makes a very persuasive argument that it is no longer tenable for today's intellectuals to deny the existence of human nature and claim that each of us is a blank slate upon which the environment inscribes our characters. For example, there are many reasons to believe that violence in humans is not the result of a broken home or some other environmentally "toxic" influence, but part of our inherent design; and "it is the belief that violence is an aberration that is dangerous, because it lulls us into forgetting how easily violence may erupt in quiescent places".
How very true. Something dark lurks within us all.
And for that reason, there is as much to be gained from studying the people who do not kill, as from studying those who do. The greater wonder is not that so many people do commit murder but, rather, that so many more people don't.
It may seem unpalatable, but we are all of us - but more especially men - naturally violent; and the best way of recognising and understanding this fact is, perhaps, to look at how we choose to entertain ourselves. Killing is the single most important recreational motif in television and cinema. But it's not television and cinema that make us violent; it is that television and cinema are violent because we like them that way.
The people who go to see a movie such as Gladiator are probably no better or worse than, and certainly no different from, the Romans who watched such contests for real. And Hannibal Lecter is a popular character in movies not because people find him frightening, but because people find him fascinating, even amusing.
In the cinema where I saw Red Dragon, his latest screen outing, people were laughing when he sat down to eat his first meal of human flesh. And I would go so far as to suggest that Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, is the acceptable face of our deepest atavistic desires. To recognise that, in part, we are defined by this kind of entertainment is, perhaps, one good way of admitting the evolutionary logic of our own innate violence. Schoolgirls are killed, and women are strangled because all men - not just a few weirdos - are as dangerous as adult chimpanzees.
In truth, Hopkins plays Lecter as more of a pantomime villain than anything like a true serial killer. He's too camp to be convincing; and not at all like Brian Cox, who was the first actor to play Thomas Harris's character in Michael Mann's brilliant 1986 film Manhunter, which was also based on the Red Dragon novel. Cox was altogether a more satisfying and persuasive Hannibal, being much more realistic (a function of Mann's script) and more malevolent; as was actor Tom Noonan who played the Tooth Fairy - yet another serial killer - here played by our own Ralph Fiennes.
Whereas Hopkins clearly enjoys himself in the same way that some actors might relish playing Captain Hook, Fiennes never really looks comfortable in his role, not least because there's so little for him to work with. Playing Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth in Spielberg's Schindler's List, Fiennes had something to get his teeth into. But here he seems to find himself in inexplicable contact with a plane of existence not his own, something having length and breadth but no depth, and he more or less gives up. The poor boy reminded me most - especially in his scenes with Emily Watson, who plays a blind woman with unblinking conviction - not of a pitiless killer, but rather of the dysphoric monster in Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein.
The only really shocking thing in this flashy, meretricious movie, which endeavours shamelessly to cash in on the enormous success of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, is that, 42 years after Hitchcock's Psycho, supposedly intelligent film-makers are still trotting out the same claptrap about how a domineering mother can turn any sensitive boy into a homicidal maniac with an acute multiple personality disorder. All writers should give thanks to people like Stephen Pinker that they need no longer rely on the kind of shrink-wrapped, "toxic environment" cliches for explaining extreme human behaviour that are present here.
Common sense, as opposed to political correctness, has at last prevailed. And the denial of who and what we are may now be overcome. As Pinker reminds us: "Human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution."
Red Dragon (18) is on general release