An Ode to Hannibal Lecter

“They don’t have a name for what he is.”

Special Agent Clarice Starling about Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter

There are so many movies where we end up rooting for the “bad guy.” Whether it’s The Joker, Loki or Michael Myers, you just can’t help it.

Almost every list of best movie villains ranks Hannibal Lecter in the top five.

The American Film Institute ranked him as the number one movie villain of all time. Better than Dracula, Darth Vader, Voldemort or the Wicked Witch of the West. That’s high praise.

He’s charming, super-intelligent, a good cook and most of the people he ends up killing (and eating) were rude people. He famously says that whenever possible it’s best to eat the rude. “Free range rude,” is what he calls it.

I’m a big fan of Hannibal Lecter as a character. I’ve watched all five movies featuring this character at least once and I’ve seen the three with Anthony Hopkins multiple times each. I’ve read all of the novels by Thomas Harris featuring this character and I’ve watched the Bryan Fuller TV series “Hannibal,” which premiered in 2013 and aired for three seasons.

You can binge watch this show now on Netflix and “The Silence of the Lambs” can be streamed for free if you have either Netflix or Amazon Prime.

With a STARZ subscription you can watch 2001 film “Hannibal” or the 2002 movie “Red Dragon.” You’d have to pay to rent 1986 movie “Manhunter” or the 2007 movie “Hannibal Rising.”

So after reading all of the books and watching all of the movies and the TV show episodes, which on-screen version is the best?

I’ve got my ranking here for you. Who do you think is the best Hannibal Lecter?

The Worst:

6. Hannibal Rising (2007 movie)

“Rudeness is an epidemic.”

Following the box office success of “Hannibal” ($351,692,268 worldwide) and “Red Dragon” ($209,196,298), film producer Dino De Laurentiis (who owned the cinematic rights to the Lecter character) told author Thomas Harris that he was making another Lecter movie with or without the author’s involvement. The story was to be about Lecter’s childhood and development into a serial killer because in the early to mid-2000s, it was all the rage to do prequels and origin stories. In 2004, movie theaters saw “Exorcist: The Beginning,” another prequel to an Oscar-nominated horror film. Of course, De Laurentiis should have heeded the warning of that Exorcist prequel bomb. “Hannibal Rising” imploded at the box office, earning only $82 million worldwide and $27 million in the United States, the lowest earning movie in the franchise.

Harris agreed to write the movie’s screenplay and while he was at it he threw together a novel as well. It feels like he’s mailing it in. Maybe that’s because De Laurentiis already told him what the story was going to be, basing the idea for a sequel on passages from the novel “Hannibal,” in which Lecter flashes back to his past and his sister Mischa.

Growing up in Lithuania, the movie details how Lecter’s parents are killed by Nazis in 1933 and later his younger sister is killed and then eaten by Nazi sympathizers who have deserted their military post and are running low on supplies. Hannibal grows up with vengeance on his mind and he eventually hunts down and kills the men responsible for his sister’s death, but he grows a taste for murder and human flesh himself.

It’s a terrible concept for prequel. Not only is the end result boring, but it goes against what has been known about the character in “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Lecter tells Clarice Starling that he mocks murderers with sob stories and child abuse in their background. “Nothing made me happen. I happened,” he said. Harris tried to add this backstory to make the cannibalistic killer more likable or sympathetic, but he was already likable. We didn’t need the explanation. The mystery was great.

I think it’s more interesting to say that Lecter’s super intelligence and high tastes led his curiosity to take him to cannibalism. To add this not-very-subtle origin about his sister being cannibalized takes away from the mystique about the character. I understand that there was a desire for more movies, but I think there were two better options: do a prequel that instead focused on Lecter in the Baltimore social scene, going to the opera, killing victims and throwing dinner parties (basically what Fuller did in the TV series) or instead do a sequel. The movie and novel “Hannibal” left it open for another entry. In 2002, Hopkins said there was a screenplay written for a sequel where Starling would eventually kill Lecter.

French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who was very good in “A Very Long Engagement” opposite Audrey Tautou, gives an admirable performance in “Hannibal Rising” but lacks any charisma. He feels like a foreign version of a young “Dexter” rather than a younger version of Anthony Hopkins.

Flawed but promising

5. Manhunter (1986 movie)

“Did you really feel depressed after you shot Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbes to death? l think you probably did. But it wasn’t the act that got to you. Didn’t you feel so bad, because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn’t it feel good? lt must feel good to God. He does it all the time. God’s terrific! He dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshippers in Texas last Wednesday night, just as they were groveling through a hymn to his majesty. Don’t you think that felt good?”

When Michael Mann (who later would achieve fame with movies like “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Ali,” and “Collateral.”) released this 1986 adaptation, the movie critics and box office were lukewarm. If there was never another Hannibal Lecter movie, then this stylized 80s detective flick would have faded from everyone’s memory.

Critics didn’t hate this movie and some gave it good reviews but producer Dino De Laurentiis was broke at the time and actually couldn’t afford to produce enough prints to get the movie shown in many places.

It’s not a terrible movie. It has a lot of unfulfilled potential. Most of the lines in the script are lifted directly from the novel “Red Dragon,” which might be Harris’s strongest book. William Peterson, who would later become known for the TV show “CSI,” gives a decent portrayal of Special Agent Will Graham. The movie briefly mentions Will’s ability to think like a killer and how that gift became a curse and ended up with him in a psychiatric hospital.

Brian Cox gives an above average performance as Lecter. You might know this actor from such movies as “Troy,” “Braveheart,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Rob Roy” and “Super Troopers.” He’s currently on the HBO show “Succession,” and my two favorite film roles of him are playing the villain in the second X-Men movie and his brief speech in “Adaptation.” Interestingly enough, when Cox played Lecter in “Manhunter” (misspelled in the screenplay and closed captioning as Lektor), Anthony Hopkins was playing King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. When Hopkins took over the role, Cox was playing King Lear himself.

Cox does an admirable job but he plays the character as an evil genius but not a suave, seductive, charismatic one. His character doesn’t make eye contact and seems lost in his own brain as he talks. He’s very vain. Cox said he based that vanity off of rich kids at private schools, which is an odd inspiration. He’s given only a few scenes, which is true to the first two novels, but steals every scene. Hopkins would get more screen time than Cox in the next movie but still has the record for Best Actor winner with the least amount of time on screen (Hopkins only had a little over 16 minutes on screen but still was considered a lead role.)

Some consider “Manhunter” to be the second-best Lecter movie behind “The Silence of the Lambs.” I can see that.

It certainly has developed a cult following but Peterson just isn’t as good at playing Will Graham as Edward Norton (only serviceable) and Hugh Dancy (amazing). The 1980s music really dates the movie and some acting in this film is certainly better than others. The Francis Dolarhyde story is a bit rushed too and they leave out some of the best aspects of that character from the novel. In the end, it feels like it could have been an amazing movie if Michael Mann had a little more experience/clout, which he would later gain.

One interesting thing is TV shows like “CSI” really owe their origin to movies like “Manhunter” and the novel it’s based on. Harris was really one of the first authors to give an accurate portrayal of the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI, which now has been detailed in the Netflix original series “Mindhunter.” These real life FBI agents actually pioneered the science of “thinking like a killer” and coming up with a profile, even interviewing the world’s most famous murderers for research purposes. The characters of Will Graham and Jack Crawford (the latter criminally underdeveloped in the movies but finally given his due in the TV show) are supposed to be based on the agents featured in “Mindhunter.”

Fun if you keep your expectations low.

4. Hannibal (2001 film)

“As your mother tells you, and my mother certainly told me, it is important always to try new things.”

The sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” was a big deal at the time and there was huge anticipation. Before the novel was finished there was motion on the movie production and everyone was wondering: Who would come back? Could you make a sequel without Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins or director Jonathan Demme (all Oscar winners for the previous movie)?

Turn out, they only got one of the three. Hopkins came back, but Julianne Moore fills in as Clarice Starling and she does a pretty good job (she’d win her own Oscar for “Still Alice” in 2014). Instead of Demme they got Ridley Scott, who’s directed some of the best movies of the past 30-plus years (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Martian.”) He had just directed the Best Picture winner “Gladiator” the year prior to “Hannibal” coming out (Scott still has never won an Oscar of his own and he wasn’t a producer on “Gladiator.”).

“Hannibal” the movie differs from the book in many ways, but neither one is perfect. The movie cuts down the storyline that describes the relationship between Mason Verger and his sister and Verger himself isn’t as developed in the film. Barney, the orderly who befriends Lecter, is given a larger role in the book. There are also some passages in the book that I enjoyed that are left out of the movie understandably. The book describes how Starling hunts for Lecter by tracking high-end purchases around the globe because they know he loves fine wine, good food, fast cars and beautiful art. His taste is his weakness in the book. There are also extensive passages about Lecter’s mind and how he can create whole worlds inside his mind. He can create rooms inside his mind where he stores memories to be accessed like a library.

The novel and the movie attempt to make Lecter the hero instead of the villain by making him hunted by a truly gruesome and unlikable character in Mason Verger, a deformed, wealthy pedophile who is obsessed with vengeance.

By making Lecter the prey instead of the predator, they’ve removed much of what we liked about the character.

We also miss out on the interactions between Starling and Lecter. Those conversations at the mental institute were the highlight of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Two great actors going head-to-head like Federer taking on Nadal. It’s thrilling to watch.

And my biggest complaint is that we’ve taken too much of the mystery out of Lecter as a character. He actually had a greater effect in smaller doses.

Brian Cox explained it best by saying, “I blame Thomas Harris for this. Harris fell in love with Hannibal Lecter, and undid him, in a way. He undid his dramatic power, because that comes from what you don’t know about him. If you give away all his secrets, there’s nothing to discover about the character, and you know too much about his potential danger. I felt that was Harris and Ridley Scott as well, later on. Basically, it was the script – it became slightly ludicrous. It was all within the bounds of reality, and it was scary because of that, and I think that was a shame.”

In the end, Lecter almost becomes a Universal Monster like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Wolfman.

That’s not to say that “Hannibal” is a terrible movie. All of the acting is top notch. The directing is great. There are some memorable scenes such as the visual of Ray Liotta’s brain being scooped out or the sounds of pigs squealing as Lecter dangles above his doom.

But it feels more like fan service than an actual worthy successor.

3. Red Dragon (2002 film)

“You stink of fear under that cheap lotion. You stink of fear Will, but you’re not a coward. You fear me, but still you came here. You fear this shy boy, yet still you seek him out. Don’t you understand, Will? You caught me because we’re very much alike. Without our imaginations, we’d be like all those other poor… dullards. Fear… is the price of our instrument. But I can help you bear it.”

Brett Ratner is not my favorite director. He’s been accused of rape by many actresses. Others claim creepy behavior. There’s enough there that people accept that it’s probably true. Beyond his personality, his movies just aren’t very good. His best film is probably “Rush Hour,” a fun buddy copy movie without any visual style.

With “Red Dragon,” he was tasked with directing the third Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter movie. This is similar to when he was tasked with directing the third X-Men movie when director Bryan Singer (another creep) dropped out. In both cases, he’s a “director for hire” and critics weren’t too kind to him.

Fortunately, the style in “Red Dragon” was already established by the previous Anthony Hopkins entries and Ratner just needed to follow the formula. Not much he can mess up. To use a cooking analogy (which Lecter himself would appreciate), you have the ingredients, so just follow the recipe.

Ralph Fiennes gives a fantastic supporting performance as killer Francis Dolarhyde and breathes life and sympathy into this multifaceted character.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a brief but near-perfect appearance as unethical tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds.

There are a more than a few memorable scenes in “Red Dragon.” I still recall Fiennes saying “Can you see?!” as he shows slides to Hoffman tied to a chair.

Honestly, this movie doesn’t get its due.

The Dollarhyde case is well done. “Red Dragon” also recaptures some magic from ‘The Silence of the Lambs” with the back and forth between Lecter and his investigator, something missing from the previous 2001 film.

The biggest downsides: Edward Norton, who admittedly is a great actor as seen in “American History X,” “Fight Club,” “Primal Fear” and “Birdman,” doesn’t seem to capture Graham. He plays him straight forward as a man who is protective of his family and can “think like Lecter” an other killers, but doesn’t really “feel their emotions.” They don’t explore that side of him enough.

The movie is also packed with so much plot and case details that it moves really quickly. There’s no time to live in the moments at all.

And my biggest gripe with both “Manhunter” and “Red Dragon” is that Lecter really isn’t that helpful when it comes to catching the killer and he actually works against their efforts. There was no good reason that Graham needed to consult with Lecter, unlike in “The Silence of the Lambs,” where Lecter had an evidential connection to the case (and Starling didn’t know this but he had met the killer before).

“Red Dragon” adds extra scenes featuring Lecter that are not in the book or are just mentioned briefly, like how Graham caught Lecter. Hopkins’s face is the entirety of the movie poster but the book and the movie aren’t really about him.

Probably the most distracting part of this movie is that it’s supposed to be a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” but Hopkins has aged quite a bit in about 10 years time between movies. I understand that today’s CGI de-aging wasn’t around yet (as seen in “The Irishman”) but they could have used makeup or something to make Hopkins look younger. At least give him a full head of black hair.

The Best Versions

2. Hannibal TV series

“Before we begin, I must warn you… nothing here is vegetarian.”

When Bryan Fuller, creator of TV series like “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies,” said he wanted to create a new adaptation based on the Harris novels, some had hesitation. Who could capture the character of Hannibal Lecter like Anthony Hopkins? Shouldn’t this show be on HBO or Showtime since it’ll be so violent? (It aired on NBC).

Mads Mikkelson, a Danish actor best known at the time for his roles in “Casino Royale” and “The Hunt,” signed on to play the lead but he didn’t want to imitate Hopkins or Cox. Instead, he imagined the character almost like Lucifer, a demon who manipulates human beings into doing what he wants. Something not of this world who observes humans and is fascinated by them. Someone pulling the strings.

Fuller varies considerably from the novels but it was never meant to be a straight adaptation. Plot and characters are changed considerably but in a way he gets to the heart of the story better than almost any other versions. It’s all about psychological manipulation and the co-dependence between Lecter and the FBI agents who consult with him. Fuller focuses on the best part of “The Silence of Lambs”: the idea that you don’t really know who is the interviewer and who is the subject. Is this an FBI interview or a psychological examination?

Mikkelson might be the best Hannibal Lecter and that’s saying something when compared to an Oscar winner like Hopkins.

There are a few flaws with Hopkins’ performance. The accent is all wrong. Lecter is from Lithuania and Hopkins has a weird accent that is hard to place, almost as if Lecter has tried to hide his native accent and adopt a generic New England rich socialite way of speaking. While Lecter is a chameleon who does hide much about himself, why would he feel shame in his accent? He mocks Agent Starling for being a country rube and makes fun of her voice but hides his accent? Also, physically Mikkelson resembles the Lecter from the novel more than Hopkins does. Lecter is young, tall, slender and strong. Mikkelson was actually a gymnast and a dancer before he became an actor. He has the right build. Of course, neither looks exactly like Harris described Lecter. In the novels, he is said to have a widow’s peak, maroon eyes and an extra finger on one his hands. When Lecter is a fugitive in “Hannibal” he gets surgery on one of his hands to hide his identity and the medical records are used to catch him.

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham as a brilliant man who can imagine himself as the killer – something described in the novel and briefly mentioned in the movies – but Fuller shoots these scenes in a beautiful way. You see inside Graham’s mind as he is now in place of the killer, re-enacting the crimes.

Graham starts to have vivid dreams of each killing and the line between reality and his mind starts to get blurred. The dreamlike nature of this TV show actually becomes confusing for viewers at times and I admit it’s a great TV show to put on if you’re trying to sleep, not because it’s boring but because of the relaxing music and dreamlike imagery. Yes, falling asleep to Hannibal Lecter. I kid you not.

The relationship between Lecter and Graham is engrossing in the show. Lecter becomes obsessed with Graham and is fascinated with his mind. Lecter tries to manipulate Graham into turning him into a killer and their relationship almost has sexual tension, similar to Starling/Lecter. Graham even asks if Lecter is in love with him, but it’s not explored in those literal terms.

The best part of Fuller’s adaptation is they finally develop Jack Crawford into an interesting character. He’s a throwaway in the movies but actor Laurence Fishburne gives one of his best career performances in this role.

“Hannibal” isn’t an easy show to watch. The plot gets confusing and sometimes goes in directions that don’t always make sense. It gets a little pretentious and full of itself at times. But the performances of Mikkelson, Dancy and Fishburne make it a show not only worth watching but rewatching.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

“I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

This is one of three movies to have one the “big five” awards at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. The other two winners are “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “It Happened One Night.”

It’s a fantastic movie and what I think makes it so great is this constant tension and sense of dread/suspense that lingers over the entire movie. The music, tone and pace are perfect.

When it comes to thrillers, it ranks among the all-time classics.

Here’s the interesting thing: You know how I kept going on about how producer Dino De Laurentiis kept ruining the character of Hannibal Lecter by demanding more movies? Well, he wasn’t involved with “The Silence of Lambs” and did not get an Oscar or any movie.

Yes, he was so disappointed with the box office of “Manhunter” that he let Orion Pictures use the character of Hannibal Lecter for free for “The Silence of the Lambs” and did not buy the rights to the book. When it was a huge hit, he, of course, paid $10 million for the film rights to the book “Hannibal.”

Gene Hackman actually owned the film rights to the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” and was going to play Jack Crawford but he backed out when he thought it was too violent.

Names like Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern were considered for Starling before Foster got he role. Names such as Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day Lewis were considered for Lecter.

Ted Tally wrote a great script and it’s the best screenplay for a Lecter movie. It’s full of amazing quotes.

Demme created an iconic film that’s smart, scary and psychological. It is so rewatchable and like a good wine that Lecter might enjoy it gets better over time.

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