NEW YORK — Producer Dino De Laurentiis is near a deal to purchase screen rights to the Thomas Harris novel “Hannibal” for a sum north of $9 million, the most ever paid for a bigscreen adaptation.

None of the parties involved with the negotiations would comment, but the finalization of a deal over the next few days will set in motion a chain of events that will land the property at Universal.

The studio might then enter into a co-production arrangement with MGM for what is among the hottest movie packages in years. The film, a sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), which swept the Oscars and made superstars of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, will re-team the principals.

The novel’s exact purchase price remains unconfirmed, but it will almost certainly eclipse the $8 million paid by Disney for Michael Crichton’s “Airframe” or by Warner Bros. for John Grisham’s “The Runaway Jury.”

Lion legal wrangling

MGM’s emergence as an involved partner could not be confirmed but would alleviate a potential legal skirmish. The pending agreement is likely part of the recent horse trading done between the studios to extricate MGM No. 2 Chris McGurk from his Universal contract.

Apparently MGM won’t press legal claims it might have over rights to the sequel. Clarice Starling, a central figure in “Hannibal,” was first seen in “Silence of the Lambs,” and MGM now controls those rights as part of its acquisition of Orion, which made “Silence” shortly before it went out of business.

Harris’ literary agent Mort Janklow of Janklow-Nesbit and CAA agent Robert Bookman were hoping to make a deal with De Laurentiis and Universal since Harris unexpectedly turned in his novel after a decade of writing it (Daily Variety, March 31).

Dino’s got dibs

De Laurentiis was entitled to first shot at the new book because of the contract he held on “Manhunter,” the Michael Mann-directed adaptation of Harris’ 1981 novel “Red Dragon.” Hannibal Lecter first appeared in that novel, and De Laurentiis nabbed rights to first negotiation and last refusal on author-written sequels. In that film, Lecter was a supporting role played by Brian Cox.

De Laurentiis lent the character on a one-time basis to Orion for “Silence of the Lambs,” which the producer passed on as a movie, but held pole position on any negotiations for its sequel.

With several studios lining up, De Laurentiis was expected to pony up what would be a risk-free investment, since Universal would step right in, especially with Foster, Hopkins and “Silence” helmer Jonathan Demme all poised to take part in a sequel.

Happy couple

All were sent galley copies of “Hannibal” days after Harris finished it. The new novel once more pairs FBI agent Starling with Lecter, a cannibalistic and cunning doctor who helped her catch a serial killer in “Silence.”

The plot of the new novel has been kept under wraps, but word is that Harris’ plot again allies the unusual duo.

Lecter’s first victim survived the doc’s attack, but as a grotesque shell of his former self. The wealthy man becomes obsessed with subjecting Lecter to a grisly demise involving specially bred carnivorous hogs. Starling tracks down Lecter to warn him. Discredited by the bureau, Starling winds up in an alliance with Lecter that involves a shockingly surreal scene rivaling any of the plot twists Harris hatched in “Silence of the Lambs.”

De Laurentiis should quickly bring the project to Universal because the studio obtained rights as part of a deal made by ex-studio head Tom Pollock in a pact with De Laurentiis for the rights to the Sam Raimi film “Army of Darkness.”

Harris’ lit agent, Mort Janklow, declined comment.