Hannibal: Did Author Thomas Harris Try to Destroy Dr. Lecter?

As Ridley Scott’s film version of Hannibal turns 20 this week, we look back at its strange journey to the screen and beyond.

Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling at Brain Dinner
Photo: MGM / Dino De Laurentiis Company

It’s appeared for a while now that Dr. Hannibal Lecter–the forensic psychiatrist, cannibalistic serial killer, and pop culture icon featured in four novels, five movies, and a TV show–has been unstoppable. Several of those projects were highly acclaimed by critics and tremendous hits with audiences. And Anthony Hopkins even earned an Oscar for playing the doctor The Silence of the Lambs, which itself went on to sweep the Academy Awards.

So why did it seem like Thomas Harris, the reclusive author who created Dr. Lecter and wrote the novels, tried his best to kill off the public interest in Hannibal–if not Hannibal himself–at the height of the character’s fame? Because that appears to be almost exactly what Harris attempted to do with Hannibal, the third book featuring the erudite monster, which was published in 1999. Less than two years later, the film version arrived in theaters (20 years ago this week, in fact) and received just as polarizing a response as Harris’ book.

Two decades later, Hannibal, a top shelf, A-list Hollywood production directed by Ridley Scott and featuring Hopkins in his second portrayal of Lecter, remains a bizarre, flawed artifact. Mostly faithful to the equally weird and at times repugnant book, it’s a borderline insane movie that turns the murderous Lecter into ostensibly a hero and, while not going quite off the deep end as the novel, features one of the most gruesomely bonkers climactic scenes ever filmed for a mainstream motion picture. Why?!


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The Road to Hannibal

Harris, now 80 years old and a former journalist for the Associated Press, published his second novel, Red Dragon, in 1981. That story introduced Hannibal Lecter fto the world for the first time. When the book begins, Lecter is already imprisoned for his ghastly crimes, having been caught by the haunted FBI profiler Will Graham. When Graham is called out of retirement to catch another killer, he consults with Dr. Lecter on the case despite the serial killer’s ability to manipulate Graham psychologically. Lecter is very much a supporting character in Red Dragon, which was also reflected in the first film made from the book, Michael Mann’s Manhunter.

Released in 1986, the movie starred William Petersen (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) as Graham and Scottish actor Brian Cox (Succession) as Lecter (spelled “Lektor” in the movie). Cox is only in a handful of scenes, but makes a strong impression in his few minutes of screen time; both his performance and the film–which was not a success with either critics or audiences in its initial release- have grown in popular stature over the years.

Two years later, in 1988, Harris published his third novel, The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Lecter is a much larger figure here, as he’s called upon to advise on a new serial killer case by Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training whose innate decency and compassion stirs respect and even admiration in the otherwise psychopathic doctor. The parallel storylines, the introduction of a superb character in Clarice, and the further development of Lecter, plus the macabre aspects of the narrative made the book an instant classic and one of the great psychological horror novels of its time.

The Silence of the Lambs was a runaway bestseller, but this time the book’s success was equaled by that of its screen adaptation. Jonathan Demme directed the 1991 film based on Harris’ novel, in which Anthony Hopkins played Lecter for the first time, earning for himself both full-fledged movie stardom and an Oscar for Best Actor. Jodie Foster played Clarice, also landing an Oscar for her work; and the movie was just the third in history to sweep all five major awards by also picking up Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

With the film version of The Silence of the Lambs a box office success, and Lecter entering the pop culture zeitgeist (along with catchphrases like “A nice Chianti…”) as a monster with intelligence, wit and taste, the movie’s producers and the public began to clamor for a sequel.

Hannibal Emerges from His Slumber

It was 11 years before we heard from Thomas Harris and Hannibal Lecter again on the page, with Harris in no rush to deliver a new adventure for the doctor. In his book Making Murder: The Fiction of Thomas Harris, author Philip L. Simpson quotes Harris as saying, “I can’t write it until I believe it.” But in 1999, he finally delivered Hannibal, his longest book to date (484 pages in first edition hardback), and the first in which Lecter is clearly, and perhaps ill-advisedly, the central character.

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Taking place seven years after The Silence of the Lambs, the story finds Clarice facing a career crisis when she is blamed for a botched drug raid. But when a letter from Dr. Lecter to Clarice shows up, the FBI puts Clarice back on the doctor’s trail. Meanwhile Lecter is living in Florence under a different identity but is pursued by an Italian detective named Pazzi. The latter aims to collect a huge bounty placed on Lecter’s head by Mason Verger, an incredibly wealthy pedophile who wants revenge on Lecter for disfiguring him during a drug-fueled therapy session years earlier.

To Harris’ credit, Hannibal does not simply retread the same ground as the classic novel that preceded it. According to a new introduction he wrote for Red Dragon, Harris reportedly “dreaded doing Hannibal… dreaded the choices I would have to watch, feared for Starling.” The book is nothing if not filled with dread, and its main theme is that every single human being is capable of corruption, evil, and depravity–a bleak assessment of the species, even for this book series.

Harris expounded upon his theme by making Hannibal his grisliest novel. Lecter murders Pazzi by disemboweling him and hanging him from Florence’s famed Palazzo Vecchio while the hideous-looking Verger, his face and body all but destroyed, plans to enact his vengeance on Lecter by feeding him alive to wild boars. Verger himself meets his end at the hands of his sister, who chokes Verger to death with his pet moray eel–and after violently extracting some of his sperm so she can have a baby with her lesbian partner.

The book ends on its most controversial and polarizing note: Lecter rescues himself and an injured Starling from Verger’s plan, then captures Starling’s nemesis at the Justice Department, Paul Krendler, and prepares a dinner in which he and Starling eat a portion of Krendler’s brain before Lecter kills him. Lecter then digs up the bones of Starling’s father and uses hypnosis to allow her to “see” her father and say goodbye to him, after which Lecter and Starling become lovers and vanish to Buenos Aires.

In the book’s logic, Starling finally accepts the love of the one man in her adult life who has treated her with respect.

What Was Thomas Harris Thinking?

Hannibal, the book, was the second biggest pop culture phenomenon of the summer of 1999 after the release of Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Some 1.5 million copies of the novel were shipped to bookstores. Other publishers, like movie studios getting out of the way of an Avengers flick, shifted their big titles away from June of that year. An advance review from no less an authority than Stephen King called it “one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time,” placing it alongside The Exorcist, in his New York Times review.

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Then more critics got to read and review it. So did the public.

The novel, and especially its shockingly subversive ending, scrambled the brains of everyone who read it. An analysis of the book by the influential Kirkus Reviews had positive things to say about Harris’ “baroque new approach” to the serial killer genre and his “audacious epilogue,” but directly compared the Dr. Lecter saga to Star Wars in the sense that both had become a brand.

It was true: in the years since the release of The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter had transformed into a tangible intellectual property, becoming the subject of jokes and parodies, and a meme before we even knew what those were. The terrifying monster of Red Dragon and Silence had become the murderer everyone loved and laughed over–a transition which even Anthony Hopkins reportedly found unfortunate and disturbing.

Yet it’s worth wondering then if that is the point in Hannibal. Harris is an intensely private person who did not care for the public spotlight. He told the New York Times in 2019, in his only interview in decades, that he found fame to be “more of a nuisance than anything else.” It is easy to imagine he might’ve viewed Hannibal as a way to short-circuit both the overhyped expectations of the public and the evolution of Lecter into some kind of weird fictional celebrity. And perhaps he saw his book as a way of moving past Lecter himself and freeing himself to write new stories?

“I like to think Harris at least partly ups-the-grotesque-ante in Hannibal to rub our collective noses in our collective love for a serial killer,” wrote Patrick J. Sauer in 2019–the book’s 20th anniversary–at Crimereads. “Maybe Harris knew another straight-forward thriller wouldn’t cut it, so he had no choice but to go Grand Guignol on his readers.”

Professor Mark Jancovich of the University of East Anglia (UK), mused in the same article that Harris had other ambitions. “I think Harris might just have wanted to finish Lecter off like Arthur Conan Doyle tried with Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “But there’s also the sense he might have been under huge pressure by the publishers. It’s not really clear what the impetus for the book is, other than the obvious commercial one.”

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Whatever Harris tried to do with Hannibal, it doesn’t really work. While the book is gripping and the prose precise, making Dr. Lecter the ostensible protagonist is a mistake. We learn more about his background for one thing, including the unspeakable death of his younger sister during World War II, but that robs him of being the unknowable, terrifying force of nature that he is in the first two novels.

Meanwhile the once-formidable Starling is reduced to an almost passive supporting role, buffeted around without agency until she just essentially gives up and is saved by Lecter. Maybe Harris really did want to turn off his public so that he would never have to write about Hannibal Lecter again.

Hannibal Now Playing at a Theater Near You

The film rights to Hannibal were snapped up in record time for $10 million by Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis, who had produced Manhunter yet passed on Silence. But there was a problem: Director Jonathan Demme, star Jodie Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally–all major components of the success of Silence, along with Hopkins–had no interest in coming back after reading the book.

Demme was reportedly disappointed by the novel’s copious gore and skewing of Starling’s character, with Foster also dismayed by the latter. Although she said at the time that she was committed to another project, she later came clean and told Total Film, “Clarice meant so much to Jonathan and I, she really did, and I know it sounds kind of strange to say but there was no way that either of us could really trample on her.”

Hopkins did return, however, and the role of Clarice was recast with Julianne Moore taking the part. According to the “making-of” feature on the DVD, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Swank, and Cate Blanchett were all considered as well. However, Hopkins personally lobbied for Moore after working with her in Surviving Picasso.

“In instances like this, the comparisons are inevitable and of course there’s some apprehension about it, because Jodie was really, really fantastic… I mean, she’s a great actress,” said Moore on the DVD. “But it’s a different movie, so that’s the way I have to approach it.”

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An unbilled, unrecognizable Gary Oldman played the disfigured, malevolent Verger, while Ray Liotta took the role of Krendler. Inheriting the director’s chair was Ridley Scott, of Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator fame, while the script was handled initially by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and then again by a major Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) rewrite. With all that talent, the budget was said to exceed $100 million.

But there was a problem: that ending. While Scott found a certain baroque tone that echoed Harris’ book in some ways, and was perfectly happy to retain the gutting of Detective Pazzi (played by Giancarlo Giannini), the wild boars, and even the cooking of Krendler’s brains by Lecter–a scene which ranks high on the all-time insane list–there was no way the filmmakers were going to alienate audiences by having Clarice Starling eat those brains and then make love to the doctor. Not a chance.

“I couldn’t take that quantum leap emotionally on behalf of Starling,” Ridley Scott told the Guardian at the time. “Certainly, on behalf of Hannibal–I’m sure that’s been in the back of his mind for a number of years. But for Starling, no. I think one of the attractions about Starling to Hannibal is what a straight arrow she is.”

In the film, Clarice does not dine with Lecter and does not fall into the drug-induced hypnosis of the book. With the law closing in on them, Lecter finally professes his love for Starling, and when she manages to handcuff the two of them together so that he cannot escape, he sacrifices either his own hand or at least a finger (it’s never made clear) to slip out of the cuffs and escape into the night.

When we last see him, he’s on a plane to a destination unknown and he’s feeding a slice of leftover Krendler to a young boy seated next to him. Starling remains behind, her future also unknown.

Hannibal, the movie, was released nearly 10 years to the day that The Silence of the Lambs arrived in theaters. The R-rated movie scored $58 million in its opening weekend, the highest opening for a film with that rating until The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004. The movie ended up earning $165 million in the U.S. and a total of $351 million worldwide, good enough for 10th highest gross of that year.

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Critics were less kind than audiences, with the film scoring just 39 percent at Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews were split along the same lines as those for the book. While some critics praised the film’s style and audacity, others bemoaned the lack of great character interaction and thematic resonance that made The Silence of the Lambs a masterpiece.

Hannibal, as a movie, exhibits the same strengths and suffers from the same problems as the book. The projects are stylish, exquisitely written/produced, and possessed of a fair amount of black humor and boldness. But putting Lecter front and center, while robbing Starling of her agency and motivation, creates a box from which the story cannot escape. Both characters are offscreen (so to speak) for long stretches while the Verger and Pazzi stories play out, and the story is so damning of essentially all of humanity that it’s hard to get a handle on anybody.

Yet both the book and the movie were monster hits, so if Harris really did intend to stop Lecter in his tracks with that bizarre ending, he failed.

The Aftermath of Hannibal

Producer Dino de Laurentiis insisted on making more Lecter movies. First he ramped up a faithful remake of Red Dragon, this time under its original title and with Hopkins once again in the role of Lecter, joined by Edward Norton as Will Graham and Ralph Fiennes as killer Francis Dolarhyde. Directed by Brett Ratner, the film grossed $93 million in the U.S. and $209 million worldwide, with critics again giving it mixed reviews but actually rating it higher (68 percent) than Hannibal.

De Laurentiis demanded yet another entry, and told Harris he’d move forward without him if the author did not wish to be involved. So Harris wrote a novel and a screenplay at the same time: Hannibal Rising, which explored–in excruciating detail–Hannibal’s entire early life, robbing him once and for all of any mystery he might have clung to. The film also didn’t really work, with French actor Gaspard Ulliel playing the young cannibal. He ultimately became the George Lazenby of the franchise. The movie was a dud all around, grossing just a paltry $82 million worldwide.

That seemed to be the end of the meal for Lecter, until he was resurrected again in the form of Mads Mikkelsen in the NBC-TV series Hannibal. The series, which ran for three years and featured elements of Red Dragon and the book Hannibal in addition to original material, was acclaimed for its macabre tone and painterly production values. Yet it never became more than a cult favorite, with ratings unable to sustain it past three seasons (although talk persists of a revival). Yet another TV series, Clarice, centered on special agent Starling in the years between Silence and Hannibal, also just premiered on CBS All Access to mixed reviews.

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Even if Thomas Harris wanted to strip Hannibal Lecter of his popular veneer and make him a monster again with Hannibal, it didn’t really work. He left us instead with his most bizarre book to date and a movie that has its own depraved charms, yet ultimately pales next to its predecessors. And in the end, Harris may not quite be done with his most famous creation yet. While discussing Cari Mora, his latest novel, and the first in 38 years not involving Lecter, Harris teased the Times that “the Hannibal character still occurs to me, and I wonder sometimes what it’s up to.”

Perhaps creator and creation will once again sit down to dinner. Someday.