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.