The Evolution of Hannibal Lecter

By Laura Harker

Our horror culture is made up of only a handful of archetypes that crop up again and again in different guises. Zombies have been covered extensively, from 2002’s post-apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later to 2004’s Shaun of the Dead’s comical portrayal in 2004. The vampire legend has been portrayed in every way possible, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the sparkly romantics in The Twilight Saga. But when it comes to cannibals, there is only one main character that pop culture remains fascinated with. Even though culture has slightly changed this cannibal over time, each depiction has remained remarkably similar over a 30-year course of novels, films, and a TV show.

Thomas Harris first gave life to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, telling the story of Will Graham, an exceptional profiler used by the FBI to help find a serial killer known as the “Tooth Fairy”. Despite only appearing as a minor character, Lecter captivated audiences’ imaginations becoming the central character in the following installments of the franchise.

Four actors were tasked with bringing the character from page to screen: Brian Cox commanded his fleeting screen time in cult-classic Manhunter (1986); the buzz surrounding Anthony Hopkins’ performance in Silence of the Lambs (1991) led to him taking the character through two more movie adaptations: Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002); Gaspard Ulliel picked up the character in 2004’s largely forgettable prequel Hannibal Rising. If that wasn’t enough, 2013 saw screenwriter and television producer Bryan Fuller use the characters from the Red Dragon novel in TV show Hannibal, in which Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen was cast in the titular role.

When we‘re introduced to the character in Harris’s Red Dragon, Lecter is already behind bars. Will Graham, having gained a reputation for catching the cannibal earlier in his career, is now in early retirement. A serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy” is killing families in their homes, and FBI Agent Jack Crawford talks Graham, known for his skills of being able to place himself in the minds’ of killers, out of retirement to help catch the killer. This first novel in the series is very much centred around the case of the Tooth Fairy and its effect on Graham’s already delicate mentality. For a series that would go on to focus on Lecter, he’s in surprisingly few scenes in the first book. Only two, in fact, which add up to around twelve of the 480 pages.

With each novel and film, Lecter plays a more central role, but never really takes center stage. In The Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal, Graham is swapped for Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee. Even though Lecter is given a more prominent role, this still isn’t a book about him. There’s a more chilling murderer on the loose; Buffalo Bill, who has been killing young women for their skin.

The later books go on to use Lecter’s cannibalism as a source of horror, but in Red Dragon he takes a back seat, merely appearing as a cameo. His cannibalism is mentioned in passing and can be seen as an incidental detail — it isn’t something the reader should be scared of yet. However the book gets its frights from the barbarity of the Tooth Fairy’s killings, as well as Graham’s mental breakdown from working on the case.

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Brian Cox in Red Dragon

The first film adaptation, Manhunter, in which Brian Cox took on the role, was even less bothered about Lecter’s cannibalism than its source material. So much so, that the film never mentions that the character – known as Hannibal Lecktor, the only time we see a deviation in the name – is actually a cannibal, and only cites him as a serial killer. Manhunter places Graham and the Tooth Fairy center stage, though it is Graham’s short screen time talking to the cannibal that is the most chilling, as it is evident that Lektor still haunts him, something the cannibal is acutely aware of. Cox’s Lecktor knows exactly how to play to Graham’s fears and confidently brings out Graham’s haunted character. This makes the character more than just a crazed cannibal — he has a cunning personality, something which cannot be restrained by the bars of his jail cell.

In The Silence of the Lambs, we see Lecter play second fiddle to the serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Tasked with trying to persuade Lecter to help find Buffalo Bill, Clarice Starling replaces Graham as a new sparring partner for Lecter. We met Graham a few years after Lecter attacked him, whereas Starling is a completely fresh face for the killer — a new, stable mentality for him to corrupt.

Eleven years after the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, Harris penned Hannibal, in which the character is finally brought out from the shadow of other killers as he goes on the run from Starling and the FBI in Italy. The game of cat and mouse climaxes with one of the scariest scenes in the whole film series — Lecter convinces Starling to join him in dining on the lobotomized Agent Krendler’s prefrontal cortex, making one of the most shocking scenes in the entire Hannibal Lecter franchise. Lecter’s mind games and taunting has finally paid off; Starling has yielded to Lecter’s mind games and the audience can finally see just how depraved and sadistic the character really is.

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Anthony Hopkins in Silence of The Lambs

Throughout Silence of the Lambs, it is apparent that Lecter is unable to affect Starling in the same way as Graham. Red Dragon showed how Lecter was able to play with Graham’s moral compass and blur together the two obsessive mind sets of killer and investigator. Yet Starling seems immune to Lecter’s mind games and her morals remain intact — the only way he can reach her is by taunting her about her broken childhood.

One thing is clear throughout every portrayal of Lecter: his role in the story may increase and be given more pages or screen time, but it is never focused on him entirely. Even though he becomes the cannibal around which the whole franchise is based, the tension doesn’t just come from his barbaric crimes, and the films and books scare their audience with other plot devices: a serial killer lurking in the background or the mental fragility of Graham and Starling. By the time the 2013 TV series Hannibal previews, the emphasis is all on Lecter, but the tension is created by the characters and situations within his periphery. His main purpose is to bring everything together.

We only ever see Lecter’s grip on Graham and Starling in the films, but throughout the TV series, the cannibal plays puppet master to an entire cast of characters. Hannibal takes us to a period before Red Dragon, when Lecter was still working as a psychiatrist. The series focused on his entwined relationship with Graham, bringing the psychological thriller elements seen in Manhunter back as the main source of horror of the story.

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Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal

As the TV show has the advantage of portraying Lecter a free man – thus giving Mikkelsen more room to explore the character than Hopkins and Cox had – it can play around more with cannibalism. Until now, the audience and readers have only witnessed the character’s cannibalistic tendencies at the end of the book and film versions of Hannibal. However, hardly a TV episode goes by without us seeing Mads Mikkelsen’s Lecter preparing and eating human meat. Lecter isn’t just controlling each character; he is feeding them the meat too. And the audience is in on everything, weighing up the moral implications. As Lecter says during the third season, “Ethics become aesthetics. Morality doesn’t exist, only morale.” This quote is supported by the visual feast and the ignorance of the other characters, who are unwittingly joining in with Lecter’s crimes. It is this ignorance and the exquisite food styling that increases the tension of each dinner scene — as the other characters sitting around his table admire his culinary skills, the audience is left feeling uneasy: do we dig in or do we throw up?

While the TV show is gorier and more blatant in terms of cannibalism than the movies and books, its version of Lecter is more sophisticated and charismatic. Mikkelsen’s character hides within plain sight of the other characters and it is realistic to think he could easily function in the real world — unlike Hopkins’ deranged Lecter. But it isn’t he alone who scares the audience. We can see clearly how this character uses his charm to break down Graham’s fragile mentality and is also able to charm the other characters. It seems as though Lecter’s hyper-intelligence and charm make him invincible. With Mikkelsen’s Lecter we have the ultimate anti-hero: suave and charming, yet he plays out his nightmarish actions in full view of the audience.

Even though each text handled their Lecter differently, and each actor took him off at slightly different tangents, one thing remained clear throughout. Lecter wouldn’t work particularly well as the only central character, as each medium plays off his relationship with either Graham or Starling.

However, as the franchise goes on, the character’s cannibalism is embraced more readily than before. The cannibal was given more characters to play with. Coupled with blatant acts of cannibalism, Mikkelsen’s TV portrayal sees the franchise move from psychological thriller to all-out horror series. Each character is vulnerable in Hannibal, but not as vulnerable as the audience, which is left to watch each of the cannibal’s macabre acts and mind games.


Laura Harker is a freelance writer based in the UK and regularly writes about travel, culture and the North of England.