Monstrous: (Re)Writing, (Re)Watching, and (Re)Reading Hannibal Lecter

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But I believe that Hannibal Lecter is as close as you can come to the devil, to Satan. He’s the fallen angel. His motives are not banal reasons, like childhood abuse or junkie parents. It’s in his genes. He finds life is most beautiful on the threshold to death, and that is something that is much closer to the fallen angel than it is to a psychopath. He’s much more than a psychopath, and there is a fascination for us. We can’t understand it, but we want to understand it.–Mads Mikkelson on the character or Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal Lecter is very likely the most prolific cinematic villain of the end of the twentieth century. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” and the misquote “hello, Clarice” (the line is actually “good evening, Clarice) have escaped their film and made their way into the cultural lexicon. This is, in large part, due to the iconic way Anthony Hopkins portrayed the character of Hannibal on film–first in The Silence of the Lambs (19991)–a role that he won an Oscar for, while Jodie Foster won the Oscar for her portrayal of Clarice Starling and the film won Best picture–and later in Hannibal (2001) and  Red Dragon (2002), films that did not garner as much critical attention but were blockbusters nonetheless.

Yet Hannibal has been played by other actors–most recently in NBC’s prequel to Red Dragon–whose performances have added to the mythos of Hannibal Lecter. But why on earth do we like this character? He kills people—and he eats parts of them. Sometimes he feeds parts of them to themselves, as when he opens the head of an FBI agent who has insulted Claire and feeds the agent’s brains to Claire and the agent for dinner. He’s not a nice man.

The Hannibal films are based on several books penned by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter was first introduced in Red Dragon in 1981, a book set after Hannibal’s capture, in which former-FBI profiler (who caught Hannibal) Will Graham must use Hannibal to find a new serial killer, the Tooth Fairy. The Silence of the Lambs was released next, in 1988, and it told another story, this time of Hannibal’s relationship with the Bureau’s trainee, Clarice Starling, as she questions him about a former patient and a series of grisly murderers. In Hannibal, published in 1999, Hannibal is living abroad but is obliged to return to the U.S., and Starling rushes to find Hannibal before Martin Verger, an old patient and surviving victim who wants nothing more than to feed Hannibal to man-eating-pigs. And in Hannibal Rising, published in 2006, readers are given a prequel to all these stories, and we see the beginnings of Hannibal’s crimes as he  grows up to pursue revenge on the men responsible for his sister Mischa’s death.

Mischa’s death is a pivotal point for Hannibal and for us. It is something we don’t know about in some of the films, but once we do, there is no denying its impact–on us or on Hannibal. In Lithuania during WWII, Hannibal and his sister Mischa live with their parents—an aristocratic family who moves, in 1941, to a safer place in the countryside of Lithuania. In 1944, Hannibal and Mischa were the only survivors after a German bomber and Soviet tank battle outside of the cottage. In the ensuing chaos, the home was taken over by a band of looters, and the children were captured. Hannibal escaped after the men killed and cannibalized Mischa. Hannibal was 11; Mischa was 5.

In most instances, the film adaptations of Harris’s books have been rather faithful. Hannibal’s first on-screen appearance was in the 1986 film Manhunter, and Brian Cox played the role of “Dr. Lecktor.” The film stays pretty faithful to the novel Red Dragon, as does its reboot. In fact, they are so close to the book, and so close to each other, that some of the same dialogue is used; the later movie, though which stars Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins, utilizes flashbacks and dramatic tension in a way that the first does not–particularly with the introduction of its main villain, Frances Dolarhyde, the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon. And the difference between Brian Cox’s Hannibal and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal is pretty big. Whereas the later version of the film amped-up Hannibal’s time on-screen and his relationship with Will Graham (not a surprise, considering the success of Silence of the Lambs), Cox’s Hannibal is pragmatic, cold, and so understated as to almost be a non-presence (something that works in a mostly understated film, especially such a procedural).

Silence of the Lambs was an almost straight-from-the-novel adaptation, and it worked well for the public’s introduction to the Anthony Hopkins portrayal of Dr. Lecter. The en medias res introduction of Dr. Lecter, and the way we get to see him behind bars before seeing any of his atrocious acts, garner sympathy that might not otherwise be there. For instance, we’ve seen, before we get to Dr. Lecter, the ways that psychiatrist-in-charge Dr. Chilton treats Clarice–asking if he can show her around, on a date, and fumbling terribly at conversation. And then Dr. Lecter and Clarice speak, and Dr. Lecter is polite, is interested in what Clarice has to say–so interested as to require her to speak and answer questions before he will give her any information. Dr. Lecter makes up for the disgusting moment with Miggs, who throws semen onto Agent Starling on her way out, both by giving Clarice information and by managing to convince Miggs to commit suicide. And so we become entranced with Dr. Lecter’s unique sense of morality, the way he focuses on rudeness and politeness, and with his sheer ability (who on earth can convince someone to kill himself–and how?).

And when Hannibal escapes, we’re kind-of happy about it. We know he won’t go after Clarice–and she says, he would consider that rude. And we know, at this point, that he chooses his victims by their rudeness or revenge for something they’ve done. In other words, he doesn’t kill just everyone. He’s no Dolarhyde, killing families. But he is a killer. He is dangerous, and he’s darkly funny.

Our fascination with this polite side of Hannibal is perhaps one reason that the end of the film Hannibal differs so greatly from book to film. We are, in fact, often fascinated by bad guys, and I think part of this is due to an American fascination with the outlaw figure, going back to the myth of the West, the gunslinger, and the outlaw with a heart of gold. In the film, Hannibal cuts off his own hand so that he can escape from Clarice without hurting her; in the book, Hannibal drugs Clarice and tries to recondition her to become a new Mischa, and while that doesn’t totally work, Claire and Hannibal become lovers and run away together. After all his promises to leave her alone, that the world is more interesting with her in it, an ending that pushes the two together and has Hannibal usurping Claire’s free will falls flat, and it especially would in a visual sense, when everything seems more visceral.

And then, speaking of visceral, there are the two latest incarnations of Hannibal Lecter, the highly acclaimed NBC series and the less-well received 2007 prequel film Hannibal Rising. In Hannibal Rising, Gaspard Ulliel plays a young Hannibal Lecter; we see the death of Mischa, Hannibal’s years in an orphanage as a mute boy who was kind to the young and weak but sought revenge on bullies, and Hannibal’s move to his uncle’s home, where he becomes quasi-involved with his uncle’s wife, a beautiful Japanese woman. Hannibal’s first kill (and first willful act of cannibalism) is a butcher who insults his aunt, and he then embarks upon a revenge-quest, killing and eating all the men involved in Mischa’s death. We re-imagine the character as we learn more about him, something that is an important part of re-tellings and prequels. And in the new series Hannibal, we are treated to another previously unknown part of Hannibal’s history: the time between his success as a psychiatrist and his capture by Will Graham. In short, we keep building his story, wanting to fill in the gaps. We keep watching Hannibal, reading him—and that means that we keep writing him, too.

At some point in every version of this story, Hannibal has been called a monster. But what is a monster? The word “monster” comes from the base “monere,” which means “to warn” and there are varied uses of it, from the literal ideas of disfigurement and evil deeds to the fantastic ideas of made-up beasts and urban legends. And Hannibal is a prime example of a human monster, meant to warn us. He warns us of the facade of politeness, money, and refinement–because he is all of those things, yet he eats people, a huge cultural taboo. He warns us of the high cost of war. He reminds us of our cultural ambivalence toward children and childhood and of our ultimate taboos. That is why he is compelling, and that is why we immerse ourselves in his story over and over–he is the most appealing sort of monster…

We want to have dinner with Dr. Lecter, but we’re terrified of what might be on the menu.

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33 Comments

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  1. I share that same fascination with psychopaths, they make the best villains. I agree that one of the most fascinating things about Hannibal is how from the outside he looks so good: he’s intelligent, polite, cultured, rich… and now (with NBC) he’s also attractive and can cook like a professional chef; but then there’s this immense, frightening, but alluring darkness to him, and we can’t resist that. I never really dwelled on it, but I’m sure there are plenty of studies on it, which would be a very interesting read!

    Out of all the cinematic adaptations Silence of the Lambs / Hopkins is my favourite too. But the Hannibal series is really, really good, and I’ve come to like Mikkelsen’s performance more than Hopkins’s… Though they are different, and it is not an entirely fair comparison since with the series we get to see so much more of Hannibal.

    Anyway, awesome pick and really good article – it’s thought-provoking, and I enjoyed it immensely. 😀

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    1. Thank you! I quite enjoyed the change of writing about this, as my month has mostly been me writing about girls in children’s fiction.

      I’m sure there’s something out there about why we find these characters compelling. My supposition is that, much as you said, he looks so good on the outside, but he has a darkness. That’s a huge part of what’s alluring—Western culture loves bad boys. And Americans, particularly, love the outlaw character. We love an anti-villain as much as we love an anti-hero, especially when the anti-villain is doing something that ends up well.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping in, and glad you enjoyed and commented. 🙂

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  2. Got a theory that even though the cultured monster seems so far removed from us, we feel connected nonetheless. Characters like Hannibal and Dexter Morgan are by all outward appearances normal, but they both have a stark darkness inside. We all do, which is why we’re at once intrigued and somewhat unnerved.

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    1. Yes, I think you’re right about that. They’re uncanny–so like but so unlike us as to be unnerving. Dexter is another good example of a really compelling killer because he’s such a good character. We understand him but we don’t.

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  3. I preferred the Brian Cox version of Hannibal. I found his still, understated performance much more terrifying than Hopkins’ theatrics. I always think Anthony Hopkins would be better on stage–he is so much a showman that I don’t buy him in the role (or many others). Even though the movie is good, he just doesn’t capture the creepiness of The Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs for me–just the humor.

    Thank you for posting such an interesting review–I liked knowing more about the characterization of Hannibal. Leah

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    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      I think one of the reasons I’ve liked the Hopkins performance so much is the theatricality. Lecter is so aware that Chilton is watching, that he’s essentially on a stage, that that has always worked for me. I do see the appeal of the Brian Cox performance, though, and I might’ve liked it more had I seen it earlier–because the years of watching Hopkins in the role also made a big difference.

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    2. I agree about Cox. Something about his ordinary-ness makes him scarier, the fact there’s no exterior clue to the monster makes it more of a threat. He’s a perfectly intelligent, quiet, interesting man. Who eats people. Creeps me out.

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  4. I learned a lot from your post! Firstly, I had no idea there were so many Hannibal novels, nor did I know there were so many adaptations of this character.

    Thanks so much for participating in this blogathon and for featuring the charming and chilling Hannibal Lecktor.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      Hannibal has been a big favorite of mine since I was a teen, old enough to watch The Silence of the Lambs and then read the books. He’s very well-drawn, and that makes him interesting to watch and read.

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  5. Insightful post, thank you! The Silence Of The Lambs actually inspired me to read the book, which I found so disturbing that I can’t re-watch the film or sequels. It’s not that Hopkins wasn’t scary enough, but I found I was focussed on his performance and I didn’t think through the psychological traits as much as I did when I read the novel (perhaps also because the way I consume literature is different to the way I watch films).

    I agree with your point about Lecter the ‘outlaw’, you want to believe there’s something good in him, and to find out there really isn’t just goes against our belief in humanity.

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    1. Thanks, and thanks for stopping by!

      I prefer books to film in general, but Silence of the Lambs I prefer on film. There’s something about being able to see Lecter pace around, watch Clarice get more comfortable with and then his escape, that works better than reading it. I do prefer the books to the films of the other things in this series, though.

      And I definitely think he’s an example of the fascinations with the bad guy and the outlaw. We want to know more, want them to be more, especially when they’re damaged or broken and we see them as just working out that damage in their villainy.

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  6. well done. One of the creepiest for sure. Hannibal’s impact is such that I had a poster of Silence of the Lambs up for a long time and people would visibly shudder just walking by the thing. With further incarnations he becomes mythological/folklore figure which is fascinating.
    thanks for taking part in the event, glad to have discovered your blog as a result

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    1. Thank you, and my pleasure! This is a delightful event. I’m excited to read through more posts this week. 🙂

      It’s interesting that you say he becomes a mythological/folklore figure. In many ways, he has. We know he’s not real, and yet…We can’t help but worry that he might be.

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  7. There is quite a bit more history involved in Hannibal than I ever knew. He is such a great villain. He is intense, vicious, despicable and brutal. I am deathly afraid of him, and he will forever haunt me. Anthony Hopkins gives a remarkable performance in “Silence of the Lambs”, and it’s that performance that has made Hannibal’s legacy such a lasting one.

    Great write up, on one of the greatest screen villains of all time!

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  8. I enjoyed your interesting write-up and the look at the different iterations of this character. I’ve only seen Silence of the Lambs — the subject matter is a bit much for me to take — but I will be sharing this post with my mom, who has read all of the books. Good stuff!

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    1. Thanks!

      I enjoy reading about this kind of thing quite a bit, and Hannibal is such a complex character that I’ve just gobbled up everything I can find about him.

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  9. Neat analysis of a very compelling character! Although I still prefer Manhunter to Red Dragon, but mostly to the fact that Mann is a better director and cinematographer.

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    1. Thanks!

      And I’m just the opposite. I much prefer Red Dragon, but I think it has more to do with the actors than anything. Anthony Hopkins, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton are all favorites of mine–as is Mary Loise Parker. Manhunter is understated, and it definitely has its good points, but overall I just enjoyed the other version better.

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      1. Psychological thrillers fascinate me too. I think this one got to me as I have an intense fear of masks. I always equate the storyline with the mask Hannibal wore. It’s weird how a story can mess with my mind yet I enjoybut put the mask in and it is a different issue. Play Misty ForMe is one of my favourites 🙂

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        1. Interesting–I’m not a big fan of masks, either, but they don’t bother me that much. The less human they are, the more disturbing they seem to be.

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  10. Great post! I love the show Hannibal, Mads Mikkelson is a wonderful, debonaire and scary character all at the same time.

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  11. Must say watching Silence of the Lambs many years ago was very unsettling, then the others came…still unsettling but I was conditioned to tolerate better…

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    1. I loved them all, but I’ve always been fascinated by the bad guys, especially serial killers…At one point I wanted to work in forensics or enforcement, but I didn’t think I could realistically deal with the emotional baggage..So I just watch them on TV now.

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  12. This is a home run. I didn’t even notice the length until I was three quarters of the way through and going “what? there’s more?”

    Haven’t seen the newer stuff, but I checked Red Dragon out from the library and read it before there was even a Silence of the Lambs. It is a fascinating book.

    Yes. He is a monster, in every sense of the word. The warning, if I had to put into a single sentence is : “Don’t forget that humans can be monsters, or that monsters tell us things about human nature.”

    I am going to find all the sponsors of this and follow them now. It’s such a great idea. If they do it again when I am less busy, I’ll certainly join in.

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    1. Whew. I’m glad it doesn’t feel as long as it is, at least. I had a difficult time stopping, as there was just so much more to say.

      Lecter is one of the most fascinating characters in American popular culture…And he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

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    1. Thank you!

      And yes, I would recommend the TV show for anyone who isn’t squeamish. It’s got quite a bit of gore, but it never seems gratuitous–there’s always a point. And Mads Mikkelson is a wonderful actor, as is Hugh Dancy (Will Graham in the series). We watched the first season on Amazon Prime, and the second season is 7 or 8 episodes in, most of which are on the NBC site available for free.

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  13. I think Anthony Hopkins’ look helped sell Lecter too; he looks like an ordinary, middle-aged man, not buff or fit or a creepy psycho, but as you say, a polite, average guy, except for a quirk or two.

    I really dug Jodie Foster’s take on Hannibal appealing to the underdog as well. That seems so weird to me, but true as well.

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    1. Yes…I was surprised when I read the description of him in the books, as I’d seen Silence of the Lambs before reading. I don’t know that the polydactyl with red eyes would’ve been as compelling, though it might’ve been more frightening by far.

      And yes, I really like what Jodie Foster said–and I think it’s true, especially if one starts with Silence of the Lambs. It seems like Lecter is the underdog, having everything down to his toilet seat taken and put into the worst kind of restraints when we haven’t seen him commit any violence yet. He’s also, we find out later, an orphan who has been subjected to something horrible. So I think her theory goes quite a long way.

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