The Hannibal Lecter franchise is a unique patchwork of a film series. Characters look completely different movie to movie (only three actors appeared in more than one film) and the styles are wildly varying. It’s also arguable that only the stone-cold-classic The Silence Of The Lambs ever really captured the imagination of the public, meaning the series is often remembered as one good film with a string of inferior follow-ups rather than a beloved franchise in its own right.
But, with one notable exception, all the films excel in certain areas, and the series makes for a fascinating marathon where, unlike some franchises, you never feel like you’re watching the same film twice. Due to five extremely different filmmakers, it’s a series that is quite disjointed, but never anything less than interesting.
So, in reverse order, let’s start with the one we’d all rather forget.
5. Hannibal Rising (2007)
One of the most well-worn titles in my Blu-Ray library is my Hannibal Lecter Trilogy set. This handsome collection, including Red Dragon, The Silence Of The Lambs, and Hannibal, was released in 2011, a good five years after Hannibal Rising was unceremoniously dumped into cinemas.
The message is clear; Rising is not part of the series. It’s the bastard child no-one loves, and while I wish I could defend it, that really isn’t possible.
It’s not so much that Rising is bad. Well, it is; it’s a terrible movie, but that’s not its biggest fault. Rising is competently made and boasts the kind of cinematography that would put many Oscar-bait historical dramas to shame. Even the performances are fine. If Hannibal Rising was just a revenge thriller based on the horrors of the Eastern front, it would be an inoffensive, maybe even slightly enjoyable film. But it carried a greater responsibility than that. This was the film that would lift the curtain on one of the most fascinating villains in history. For long-time Lecter fans like myself, this movie was a big deal.
The fact is, Hannibal Rising had an impossible task. Lecter had already been overexposed and defanged, and showing the genesis of his evil was hardly going to help matters. But I maintain that if it had to be done, there surely was a better way to do it than this. It didn’t have to be perfect, but it could have at least been interesting. Or even just tried. Everything about this film reeks of a production team chasing a paycheck. Lecter’s origin is so basic and bland that the good Doctor himself would find it rude.
It’s common knowledge that Thomas Harris didn’t particularly want to return to his most famous creation, and Hannibal Rising was written more out of fear that someone else would mishandle it than anything else. And to be fair, the book isn’t bad; by Harris standards it’s shallow, but it still manages to show glimpses of the poetic beauty and sharp-tongued wit that made the previous entries sing. But the movie doesn’t even allow for a taste of personality. It’s a cookie cutter, by the numbers slice of popcorn cinema that chooses inoffensive mediocrity over failed artistry (more on this in a second) and that is arguably the biggest crime a Hannibal Lecter film can commit.
Defining scene: The only half decent moment in this film is Hannibal’s first kill, where he takes bloody revenge against a local butcher for insulting Lady Murasaki. It’s dumb, but it’s blackly comic and kind of fun as Hannibal takes to the foul-mouthed lout with Murasaki’s sword, taunting him as he goes. Sadly, this scene comes shortly before we see cinema’s greatest villain delivering an emotional monologue to a photo of his dead parents, so any goodwill quickly dissipates.
4. Red Dragon (2002)
This was a tricky one to place. In many ways Red Dragon is a better film than the often messy Hannibal, but, like Rising, it suffers from a blandness that stops it just short of being the stellar thriller that occasionally feels in reach.
But what Red Dragon has in its corner is brilliant source material, a novel so good that even Brett Ratner can’t stifle it. And with the help of a top shelf cast, Red Dragon generally works. Danny Elfman’s soaring score creates a feeling of menacing grandeur that elevates some moments to real excellence. The opening sequence depicting Lecter’s capture is an absolute standout; tense, thrilling and leading into one of the best credits sequences ever. And Ralph Fiennes is really magnificent; both horrifying and sympathetic as Francis Dolarhyde.
Red Dragon is the best novel in the series; a perfectly crafted, meticulously written thriller that, frankly, it’s almost impossible to get wrong provided you stick relatively close to the major story beats. Luckily, the film by and large does and as an adaptation it’s perfectly serviceable.
But to understand what is wrong with Red Dragon, you just have to look at how the film portrays Will Graham. In the novel, the man who caught Hannibal Lecter is a complex, tormented soul, a person who hates his ability to empathise with killers and constantly wonders if he is walking a fine line between fighting the darkness and plunging headfirst into it, an insecurity that Lecter takes great pleasure in exploiting. So why does the film choose to depict him as a straight-laced everyman hero?
It’s not that Edward Norton does a bad job; he’s good enough to make you wonder what he could have done with the Graham of the novel, but the script is so focussed on giving Lecter more to do that it outright forgets to develop its central character, and this speaks to a deeper issue running through the film.
While we had not yet reached the sheer cynicism that forced Hannibal Rising into being, Red Dragon is very much a film designed to capitalise on a brand, no matter how well it disguises it, and it’s hard not to wonder if studio executives were nervous about the commercial potential of a film with a protagonist as deeply troubled as Thomas Harris’ Will Graham. So instead of a personality we get occasional lip service to Graham’s troubles, but we never really see them and consequently the relationship that should haunt the film never becomes as compelling as it should be.
Thomas Harris’ world is one of complicated characters and operatic tragedy wrapped in the twisted psychology of damaged minds. Red Dragon does a fine job in bringing a great thriller to life; but it stops short of mining the depths of the world and characters, and sadly, for everything it does right, it could never be anything more than serviceable.
Defining scene: There are a lot of great moments in Red Dragon, but aside from the sterling opening, the part to remember is the final showdown, where Will mimics the taunting of Dolarhyde’s abusive grandmother to disconcert the killer. It’s a powerful moment where for just one irrational second we wonder whose side we’re actually on.
3. Hannibal (2001)
I’m the first to admit this is a contentious ordering. Hannibal is a film that rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and it’s subject to a level of derision that Red Dragon doesn’t often meet. But this in and of itself says a lot; Hannibal is rife with the kind of forceful personality that the prequel films woefully lack, and while it may be a mess that veers from Grand Guignol gore to slow introspection, it feels absolutely alive. Ridley Scott had no interest in creating a stylistic follow up to The Silence Of The Lambs, and he doesn’t even try.
Where Silence was restrained, Hannibal is over the top, by turns an action film, a slasher horror and a classical romance; moving parts that don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. But somehow Hannibal becomes something approaching a flawed masterpiece.
Bryan Fuller’s brilliant television adaptation may lift the plot and characters predominantly from Red Dragon, but stylistically it is closest to this film. The heightened, operatic world coupled with a languid pace and dreamlike aesthetic makes for a fascinating creative vision. The novel Hannibal is a big, sprawling epic that jumps between protagonists and subplots; it’s a glorious mess of a book and the film, despite trimming several major subplots, embraces the insanity with the kind of bravery that its successors woefully lack.
So where does it fall short? The issue with Hannibal is that, while its tonal juggling act makes it never anything less than interesting, it is also wildly inconsistent and at times feels like several different films all jammed together. The big contradiction of Hannibal is that this gonzo approach is a major part of what makes it good, but it doesn’t always work.
And maybe it would feel better if we had a strong and likable cast of characters to see us through, but while Hannibal is well acted across the board the characters are never as likable or well developed as in Silence. Julianne Moore does a good job taking over from Jodie Foster, but without a Jack Crawford or Ardelia Mapp to interact with, Clarice never feels like a character with a life of her own and consequently is never as well rounded and empathetic as she was in the previous film. The only scene where she appears to have a positive relationship with another human being is in her brief exchange with Barney, and theirs isn’t even a real friendship. It makes Clarice seem untethered and disconnected, and consequently, with nothing to lose, the stakes feel awfully low.
It doesn’t help that just about every other character in the film is either evil, corrupt, sleazy or all of the above.
This makes Hannibal a hard film to truly invest in and therefore the violence starts to feel gratuitous and ugly. The television series is just as gruesome as this film, if not more so, but it is also rooted in characters whose fates we care about. When the violence becomes extreme it is either extremely powerful or treated with a tongue-in-cheek sense of black humor. The violence in Hannibal never really strives for either and so it just rings hollow and ultimately distracting.
Without consistency or grounding, Hannibal becomes a film that challenges without giving us a reason to engage with the challenge. For personality alone it creeps above Red Dragon, but the flaws are too big to let it reach the classic status that it isn’t as far from as many critics would have you believe.
Defining scene: Hannibal boasts moments of beauty that the other films never quite reach, and the simplest and most effective among them is the scene where Hannibal attends the opera. To the beautiful strains of “Vide Cor Meum,” a Dante-inspired song written for the film, we see how much Hannibal is defined by his appreciation of beauty as he is moved almost to tears by the music, only to be distracted by the wary gaze of Inspector Pazzi.
The following moment, where Hannibal approaches Pazzi and his wife, manages to be both unsettling and quietly moving, as Hannibal reflects on the woman who plagues his thoughts and fixates him, gently underlining the twisted romance at the heart of the character.
Red Dragon the film is just good enough to not feel like a waste of a great novel, but it’s arguable that it would be a more frustrating adaptation if the book had not already been brilliantly handled in its original incarnation. Manhunter is the black sheep of the cinematic Lecter family; a Hannibal Lecter film that has barely any Hannibal. In many ways it is the purest of the series; an adaptation of Red Dragon made before Hannibal was a cultural phenomenon, and so this time the story can develop without the weight of being part of a wider franchise. And it pays off in spades.
Manhunter is a film that exudes a personality unlike any of the other films. The epic scores and gothic imagery give way to cheesy rock and neon lights. Manhunter is absolutely a product of its time, but director Michael Mann ensures that it never feels like a relic. Manhunter is like the dark side of Miami Vice; it is haunting, it is moody and it is downright unsettling at times. While electric guitars and synthesizers fill the soundtrack, Mann also offers moments of stark simplicity, tiny islands of disturbing clarity in the chaos. The scenes between Will and Hannibal in particular are stripped down and sparse; there is no ominous music or yelling here. The duologues are delivered in tense monotone as two men who hate and respect each other are forced to face off.
William Peterson brings controlled electricity to his Graham; this is the coiled spring of Harris’ novel, a man who controls his every move lest he let something bad slip out. And Brian Cox is a perfect counterpoint. His is a Lecter who is quietly, calmly mocking, saying more with a raised eyebrow than Hopkins did with a sneering hiss. Tom Noonan offers a slightly less sympathetic Dolarhyde than Ralph Fiennes, but it’s still a brilliant performance, one predicated more on presence and physicality than tortured vulnerability. Manhunter, however, makes the wise choice to make Graham the central focus, and this is what elevates it far above Brett Ratner’s version of the same story.
In one scene, a weary Graham has fallen asleep on a place, crime scene photos still spread in front of him from his examination, no thought to how the people around him might react to the horrifying images until he is woken by the distressed crying of the girl next to him. This is a man whose humanity recedes when he delves into the darkness, a darkness he may well feel uncomfortably at home in. This Will Graham is a far cry from the dullard portrayed by Norton in the later film, and an early template for what Hugh Dancy would go on to do with the character in the television show. He’s a fascinating, transfixing character at the centre of a fascinating, transfixing film. Any franchise boasting one film of this quality is very lucky indeed. Somehow, the Hannibal Lecter series boasts two.
Defining scene: Hannibal and Will’s conversation is a moment scarcely topped by anything else in the canon. Unlike the gothic dungeon of Silence and Red Dragon, Mann puts the two adversaries in a tiny, claustrophobic white room and the tension and discomfort mounts until the moment Will literally runs from the room, not stopping until he is out in the fresh air again. This scene illustrates like no other just how damaged Will is and how hard it is to return to the world that almost killed him.
1. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Manhunter and The Silence Of The Lambs are within an arm’s reach of each other, but Silence is the masterpiece that defined the franchise and, in many ways, the genre. It is a gothic thrill ride that operates on so many levels; an examination of sexism, identity and human connection. It is exhilarating, terrifying and satisfying all at once. It is a perfectly paced, perfectly structured film hinged on two deservedly Oscar winning performances.
There is so much that has already been said about The Silence Of The Lambs that any praise at this point feels moot. It is quite simply one of the greatest films ever made.
Like Manhunter, Silence had the benefit of being made at a time before Hannibal Lecter was a household name, but it is far more a Hannibal film than its predecessor. Lecter is a major player this time around, but the genius of this film lies in the fact that, as central as he is, his role in the story is still subservient to the arc of Clarice Starling. He is the obstacle she must overcome to defeat evil, the manifestation of all her fears about herself and a challenge to all she thinks she knows about the world.
He is a funny, scary scene stealer but crucially this is not his story. While the later films tried to force Lecter more and more into the spotlight, even if the story didn’t call for it, Silence deploys him in the exact right way at the exact right times. He becomes the centre of the film for the nail-biting sequence of his escape, but after that the focus locks squarely on Clarice again, and switching back to the straight-laced hero never feels like a chore. Silence succeeds because we care about Clarice and Jodie Foster’s vulnerable yet determined performance makes the heroine almost as iconic as the monster who would go on to spawn a franchise. Yet without the perfect balance of likable hero and fascinating villain that sits at the heart of Silence, none of the sequels would ever escape its shadow.
Luckily, The Silence Of The Lambs is a high benchmark, and its quality doesn’t preclude inferior films from being good in their own right. With the possible exception of Hannibal Rising, every Lecter film has something to recommend it, and while the film franchise may have been killed by its final abysmal installment, the television series is keeping the twisted spirit well and truly alive in an incarnation that feels both faithful to Thomas Harris’ vision and completely fresh at the same time. The varying styles of the different films just prove how malleable this series can be.
Defining scene: There are so many to choose from. Hannibal and Clarice’s first meeting, “puts the lotion on the skin,” “having an old friend for dinner,” the final takedown of Buffalo Bill, but really, nothing can ever trump the terror and thrill of Hannibal’s audacious escape. Everything about it has you on the edge of your seat, from the first moment you realise what is about to happen, to the stunning reveal that caps the sequence. In a film of immaculate craft, this scene is the jewel in the crown.