Hannibal Lecter: History of the Character

We take a look at the many sides and incarnations of our favorite famous serial killer and master chef...

Hannibal Lecter, M.D., is arguably the most famous cannibal serial killer in fiction. He has enjoyed monstrous success ever since author Thomas Harris first breathed life into him. He is the quintessential villain turned anti-hero turned monster. A man of impeccable taste, his vast intellect, mastery over the arts, and talent in the kitchen are unimpeachable. He is as precise with the scalpel as he is with his insight into the human mind. A killer, through and through, he still follows a moral code; imparting a unique style of chaotic justice on the people around him. He is precise and methodical, thinning the herd and eliminating threats to his territory; just as any other apex predator would. 

And I am pretty sure he was the inspiration for the Dos Equis commercials which feature “the most interesting man in the world.” I mean, who else would have morning breath with hints of lavender and saffron? Hannibal Lecter. 

The Hannibal franchise has been wildly lucrative, starting with his first appearance in the 1981 novel Red Dragon and then going on to dominate print, film, and now television. Considering the divergence in format and the number of actors, directors, writers, and producers who have had at him, it is surprising that Lecter has largely stayed intact as a character. Still, we have to acknowledge that he has undergone significant changes in the past 30 years, showing us how shifts in cultural perception can shape a character.

Now go put on your finest designer duds, pour a glass of your best Monteregie, sit back, and dim the lights as we take a long look at the man, the myth, the legend: Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

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The Novels

Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris 

Harris’ first novel, Black Sunday was about terrorists, a blimp, and the Super Bowl. He clearly knew he wanted to write an investigative crime thriller, but did not find his niche until this, his second book, which featured retired FBI agent Will Graham, and his unique ability to empathize with serial killers.

During his time in the Bureau, this talent was put to good used by Will’s old supervisor, Agent Jack Crawford, head of the Behavioral Science Unit. Several years after his retirement, Crawford is keen to exploit that talent again in pursuit of the Tooth Fairy, a ruthless killer who slaughters (and gnaws on) entire families.

Against his better judgment, Will gets sucked in to the investigation, during the course of which readers are introduced to Lecter, the last killer Will apprehended, becoming grievously wounded in the process. 

In this, his first incarnation, Lecter is despicable. He is sly and cunning. He seems preoccupied with the fact that it was Will who had caught him; as if he can’t quite believe it. There is narcissism there, and bitterness. The animosity between them is personal, but it does not stem from a sense of betrayal. Lecter was a Goliath brought down by an emotionally damaged David. The situation galls him.

Here, Will had interviewed Lecter while investigating the sixth victim in a series of killings. The victim had been treated at a hospital while Lecter had been on call. In Lecter’s office, Will notices a medieval age illustration called the Wounded Man (which outlines many possible types of punctures and lacerations) which matched the wounds the victim had sustained. As he was making the connection, Lecter snuck up behind him and attacked. 

Will was the hero. Lecter (and the Tooth Fairy) the villains. They both attacked Will to defend themselves. Nine other victims of Lecter’s were mentioned (with two surviving), as well as a tendency in childhood for cruel and sadistic behavior toward animals. 

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The novel wraps with the Tooth Fairy attacking Will at Lecter’s instruction, disfiguring the retired agent’s face before being killed. The attack seems to appease Lecter for the inconvenience of his incarceration; he does not go after Will again. For his part, Will’s character does not reappear in the novels, and is mentioned in a later book as a ruined drunk with a face that looked like “Picasso drew on it.” 

In 2000, Red Dragon was re-released with a great introduction in which Harris remembers staying in his friend’s cabin, out in the middle of nowhere while he worked on the novel. Apparently he spent the bulk of his time wandering around open fields accompanied by a pack of half wild dogs he had taken in.

Interestingly, what he described sounds a lot like a scene from Will’s life in the Hannibal TV series.

The Silence of the Lambs (1988), by Thomas Harris

The sequel to Red Dragon follows an almost identical plot device. Only this time, since Will’s utter ruination, Crawford decides to exploit a trainee. Here we meet the iconic Clarice Starling, a young and optimistic FBI cadet with a tortured past, who is quite literally thrown into the lion’s den. Despite the similarities, the tenor of the story had changed. While we retain the wit and cunning of Will and Lecter’s previous exchanges, the relationship between Clarice and Lecter is much different. 

What changed? While Red Dragon had been successful, the accompanying movie, Manhunter, had failed to impress the critics. Within the context of the novel, Lecter had spent a good amount of time incarcerated. He was used to being a doctor, a physician, a psychologist, and a mentor. In her honest naivety, Clarice afforded him the opportunity to experience those things again. Unlike Will, she was not a challenge to his intellect or his freedom (seeing as it was already gone). He could guide her, and like Crawford, exploit her. At this point, going strictly by the book, the relationship is paternalistic in nature, and feeds Lecter’s inherent narcissism. 

Plus, playing the game with Crawford and Clarice proves lucrative, and Lecter manages to manipulate the situation to the point where he can make one hell of an exit; through a gaping plot hole in Harris’ narrative. 

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Once he was a total villain. However, Lecter’s character starts to become sympathetic. No longer just a cold, calculating killer, his is a victim of Dr. Chilton’s (head of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane) petty abuses, he is the friend and confidante of poor, orphaned Clarice who shoulders her wholesome innocence and tries to carry it up through the glass ceiling of law enforcement. At this point in the series, Lecter’s transformation into anti-hero is plausible. His escape out of a specially constructed, old timey, courthouse/jail/office building/historical society reading room stocked with art supplies and personal music, is not.

We get that Harris had intended to set Lecter free in the third act, he went through a lot of trouble and put the plot through its paces, in service to the character.

Hannibal (1999), by Thomas Harris

Eleven years, one screamingly successful movie later, and Harris introduces us to a vastly different Lecter. Where the last novel alluded to a paternal relationship between Clarice and Lecter, the movie version positively radiated with chemistry. Sir Anthony Hopkins was handsome and debonair; even in a straight jacket. A silver fox who could send shivers up a lady’s spine; especially if that lady had daddy issues.  

Paternal? Sure, you bet. In a naked sort of way. And apparently everyone got the message; including Harris.

Hannibal” completely changes the game. The story drops the investigative crime drama aspect and becomes a full blown thriller. The plot is no longer about the moral fortitude of a single FBI agent, or the Mephistophelian antics of a quantifiable devil. Everything is topsy turvy. Clarice has been broken on the wheel of a corrupt bureaucracy and the devil suddenly looks a lot more like Batman.

Well, if Batman was 60-ish. 

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The real villain is Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s surviving victims. A sadistic pedophile who spent a lifetime perfecting the ability to torment the people around him. Verger is a monster so grotesque that he makes Hannibal the Cannibal look sexy. 

For the first time, Lecter takes center stage while Harris provides us with direct insight into his thinking. This is not the nasty, bitter man we met in Red Dragon, who needed to prove himself to Will or fulfill sadistic tendencies (against animals). Instead all of his wit and verve are at the fore. Here is an oft maligned intellect too great for the cattle of the world to comprehend.

I mean, he kills pedophiles. Who could hate someone that kills pedophiles? The problem with character development like this is that while the reader can bridge the gap, making Lecter sympathetic, it is much more difficult to take Clarice and raise her to his level. Pedophile killer or not, he is still a psychopath. I guess even psychopaths need love; an interesting concept, but one that ultimately panders to the reader. We want the happy ending. We want them to end up together. We want Clarice to change him, calm him, domesticate him. And we want Lecter to free her from the corrupt embrace of ‘the man’. For every woman who panted after Lecter once Hopkins was done with him, the idea that SHE was woman enough to catch the heart of a serial killer was just too tempting. Unfortunately, no amount of suggestive psychotropic drugs, bodily injury, psychoanalysis, or personal betrayal at the hands of her beloved Bureau, would ever make Clarice chowing down on living human brains, plausible. Had Harris gotten caught up in the hype of his own characters? Had he fallen so out of love with Will and Clarice that he abandoned the principles they represented in favor of facilitating Lecter’s happy ending?

Will I say it was a good ending? Nope. A reasonable ending? Nope. A plausible finality to the trilogy? Hell no. If “Hannibal” was pie, cannibal Clarice was the fluffy and completely superfluous whip cream.

Hannibal Rising (2006), by Thomas Harris

Full disclosure: I am a huge, whorish, fan of all 1980’s comedy movies. Literally all of them. One of my favorites is Spaceballs. I am particularly fond of the scene where Yogurt, played by Mel Brooks, says “God willing, we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money.” 

I get the feeling you know where I’m going with this. Lecter was dominating his franchise and that franchise answers to both readers and movie goers. People were invested, and I don’t just mean the fans. By this time the studios were still trying to milk the cash cow, not just butcher its corpse. Economics 101: supply and demand. Producer Dino De Laurentiis decided that another chapter in the Hannibal lexicon had to be written, and it could be written with or without Thomas Harris. Harris decided to try and retrain creative control, so long as no one minded if he kicked plot and plausibility down the goddamn stairs. And thus we get the tale of Lecter’s childhood. Remember the animal torture mentioned in Red DragonNeither did Harris. At eight years old, young Lecter, a Lithuanian Count, enjoyed feeding the black swans which swam around the moat to his family castle and giving eggplants to his little sister, Mischa. That was, until World War II. His family fled to a remote cabin in the forest, and were subsequently gunned down in an inexplicable T-34 Soviet tank/Stuka bomber battle that happened, literally, on their front lawn. Immediately after which, Lecter and his sister were set upon by a band of war profiteers who looted the cabin and survived the harsh winter (and consequently the end of the war) by eating Mischa. But wait, it gets worse! Lecter spends the next eight years as an abused orphan. He is a quiet, passionless boy prone to bouts of extreme violence. The story seems mostly reasonable so far. Until Harris takes Lecter out of the Eastern Block and sends him to France to live with his Uncle, who almost immediately drops dead, leaving young Lecter alone with his extremely elegant, extremely attractive, Aunt. Who, by the way, was descended from/raised by Samurai. She and Lecter enjoyed a relationship based on Zen, poetry, repressed sexual tension, and the methodical hunting down and killing of their enemies. Wait, this sounds familiar. Am I watching Dexter?

No, but what a coincidence that Dexter premiered the same year. It used to be the devil we loved to hate, but something happened in the last ten years and now we have the devil we love to love. Both Lecter and Dexter are men who can make the hard choices, take ruthless action, yet do so in the name of justice and still retain the capacity to love. Have we have taken the psycho out of psychopath? Have we neutered the devil and turned him into a mighty ferocious looking trophy?

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The Films 

Manhunter, Directed by Michael Mann (1986)

Notable Cast: Brian Cox (Hannibal Lecter), William Petersen (Will Graham), Dennis Farina (Jack Crawford), Tom Noonan (Frances Dolarhyde), Benjamin Hendrickson (Frederic Chilton)

Let us be clear; I am referring to the director’s cut of Manhunter. If we are going to be snobbish about franchise content, let’s go all the way!

For the most part, the film sticks pretty close to the content and tone of the novel, Red Dragon. Sure, there is a little creative license. Lecter becomes “Lektor” and his victims were all female college students. Still, he and Will were not characterized as having had an expansive relationship outside the investigation.

Instead, Brian Cox’s Lektor is just an unsexy, evil, son of a bitch. He kills, he is sadistic, he enjoys tormenting Will. 

As for the film itself, the set design is a vision of 80’s color and symmetry. There is neon as far as the eye can see, terrible button down shirts, skinny ties, sport jackets, and hideous sunglasses. The majority of the sets, from Will’s home to the Baltimore Asylum, are white on white. They have a blank canvas quality, like an empty stage, that the actors must then animate with their performances. 

Fun fact: Frankie Faison (popularly known in later films as Lecter’s polite asylum orderly, Barney) played a local police officer in “Manhunter”, giving him the distinction of being the only actor to appear in four of the five franchise films.

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The Silence of the Lambs, Directed by Jonathan Demme (1988)

Notable Cast: Sir Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Heald (Frederick Chilton), Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill) 

Here it is! The movie that transformed Lecter from creepy villain to iconic anti-hero. And oh, what a villain! Sleek, cunning, wry, and weirdly sexy in an old man sort of way, Hopkins steals the show. His connection to the tough, but pretty, fresh faced Jodi Foster cemented the character’s longevity as if he’d been dipped in fast drying concrete the minute the movie hit the theaters.

Two years later the police procedural drama Law & Order appeared on our TV screens and refused to die – ever. This was not your granny’s Perry Mason-esque drama any more. This was sexy time and daddy issues police procedural crime drama! The connection between Lecter and Clarice as portrayed in the film (which mirrors the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler) exceeds that of the novel. Case in point; the single stroke of Lecter’s finger against Clarice’s hand as she retrieves a case file from his ridiculously implausible, specially created, make-shift cell. For those of you who would argue that the subtext was present in the book, do me a little favor. Imagine Brian Cox reprising his role. Now imagine him and Jodie Foster having a romantic entanglement. Yeah, didn’t think so.

Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott (2001)

Notable Cast: Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling) Much like the novels, this is where the story takes a hard left, thematically speaking. However, the continuity in narrative is preserved in the film through careful plot alteration, a much amended ending, and a masterful and consistent performance by Hopkins. Fun fact: Unwilling to sling mud like De Laurentiis; Jodi Foster rarely comments on her lack of enthusiasm to reprise her role. In one interview she said that she just did not agree with who the character had become. It’s possible. Maybe she was holding out for a bigger payday. Or maybe she was tied up in a project of her own. Personally I find it difficult to believe anyone would decline a role for “creative” purposes.  Anywho. Ten years later, the role went to Julianne Moore, who did an excellent job playing an older, wiser, Clarice whose innocence was soundly beaten to death in front of her. I enjoyed watching her fend off Ray Liotta, who did a scarily convincing job as the inherently shitty, Paul Krendler. The real difference here, between the novel and the film, is that Scott allowed Clarice to retain her credibility. The character had matured into a stunning, sexy, woman. But there is no point where she would be able to view Lecter as a viable mate. Sure, the women in the audience can see it. After all, he’s trying so hard to save her and woo her. Remember, he only kills pedophiles! And corrupt Italian detectives. But still. Where is the love?

Exactly where it belongs.

Scott, as an artist, knew what Harris had forgotten. There is no reason for these stories to end tidily; let alone happily. Remember the last two chapters? Didn’t Will “deserve” a happy ending? After Silence of the Lambs, Lecter was once again free to devour the human sheep of the world and to some degree Clarice was complicit in that. The story endings were satisfying, cathartic even, but happy? No.

Sure, the fans are rooting for Lecter and Clarice, but keep in mind that the viewing public are some sick, sick bastards. I know; I’m one of them. [A Confession!] We also like “Dance Moms”. We can’t be trusted. We have terrible taste. And Lecter is supposed to be that Dos Equis guy, remember? The end of the film has Lecter feeding a piece of Krendler’s brain to a little boy. This was Scott’s way of reminding us that no amount of justice by way of murder was going to make Lecter a good guy. He was a monster. Sure, he was a sexy, older gentleman type monster who could know love, but he was a monster none the less. And monsters were meant to be feared not loved. 

Red Dragon, Directed by Brett Ratner (2002)

Notable Cast: Edward Norton (Will Graham), Harvey Keitel (Jack Crawford), Ralph Fiennes (Frances Dolarhyde)

Red Dragon sticks to the message of Lecter as monster, by drawing the sex appeal away from the doctor and focusing it squarely on Will. Who, I might add, is no longer an emotionally damaged drunk, but the sexy and capable Edward Norton. And Norton’s Will does not take any of Lecter’s shit. 

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Immediately on the heels of Hannibal came this reboot of Manhunter. Despite the fact that the first film had held up well enough to become a cult classic, I will admit that the remake was pretty goddamn awesome. How can you go wrong with Norton, Keitel, Hopkins, and Fiennes? Especially when Fiennes runs around butt ass nekkid. Anywho, the major difference in this version is the implication that Will and Lecter had a personal relationship prior to the doctor’s incarceration, collaborating on investigations together. Here the relationship with Clarice is rebuilt as a shattered bromance. Hopkin’s Lecter is obviously still reeling from the shock of recent incarceration, only this time the narcissism underlies a grudging respect despite the sense of betrayal. In this film, Lecter has still been rewritten as the debonair gentleman killer. And Will is not just a talented gumshoe, he is something of an empathic savant who Lecter sees as a protégée. 

Hannibal Rising, Directed by Peter Webber (2007)

Notable Cast: Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Lecter)

Pretend I’m a big time movie studio executive: I know there are people in the world who will pay good money for a movie about cannibal killers and repressed sexy time. Hrm. Well, Anthony Hopkins is now really, really, really old. And not Patrick Stewart old. He’s Leonard Nimoy old. Even the lady fans with daddy issues are not going to sign off on that anymore. Ralph Fiennes’ character was shot in the face. Repeatedly. And despite his good looks, he was kind of a pussy. Edward Norton has sailed off into the sunset and his character is technically supposed to be a disfigured drunk. Lucky for us, Harris has decided to go back in time and revisit Lecter’s childhood. Oh how the studio executives rejoiced that day! A young and sexy Lecter?! SOLD! Just so long as no one notices Lecter jumped the shark, then harnessed said shark, and then rode it up and down the coast for a while. Fans noticed. Trust me; we noticed way back when the book was released a year earlier. Convenient, considering that Harris wrote the screenplay for this movie as well. Ahhh, the ugly, twisted side of franchising. Or as I like to call it, George Lucas Syndrome. Lecter had once again ceased to be the villain. He wasn’t even an anti-hero anymore! He was the romantic lead. Why does this constitute a problem? First and foremost, it panders. Especially to women. There is the underlying theme that we can control a bad / dangerous / powerful man with our sexuality. Then there is the thematic crutch of the infallible hero, which dictates that no matter how ridiculous and implausible the scenario, the hero cannot fail. We see this in comics and soap operas all the time, embodied by the lead character, usually a hegemonic male, who cannot die. Worst of all is the highly detailed deconstruction of the human psyche. The cat and mouse manipulation of predator and prey, all conceived by writers for a franchise who cannot see the flaws inherent in their own creations. It’s like seeing a psychiatrist who doesn’t understand why owning 15 cats in a one bedroom condo is a bad sign. I get it. The franchise is like candy. Delicious, delicious, candy. I heart Lecter. When I was growing up, I had a girlfriend who liked to pretend Jason Voorhees was her boyfriend. I pretended Hannibal Lecter was mine.Sick? Yes. Twisted? Yes. Did I continue to pay, pay, pay and support the declining franchise this entire time, despite my disgruntlement? Hell yes. But before we can change a bad behavior, we have to acknowledge it. Take ownership of it. Hannibal Lecter is an adult, intellectual, but no less frivolous, version of Edward Cullen. And just as I was about to bring myself to let go of the Lecter teat; Bryan Fuller rewarded me for my decades of loyalty by bringing light to the darkness…  


Hannibal, NBC (2013)

Notable Cast: Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal Lecter), Hugh Dancy (Will Graham), Laurence Fishburne (Jack Crawford), Gillian Anderson (Bedelia Du Maurier) Finally. A depiction of Lecter that hits all the marks. Here we see him in his prime; accomplished, at the height of his career, highly sexualized, and deeply curious. He explores the world around him, looking for someone who can challenge him intellectually and emotionally. Fuller pulls back the curtain into the doctor’s life before incarceration, reimagining Lecter and Will’s relationship. Mads Mikkelsen has taken on the role of Lecter, and good lord he is sex on a motherfucking stick. Hugh Dancy, brilliantly cast as Will, is sex on a smaller, sweatier, sad-kitten stick. The best part? The fact that, despite my fondest desires, none of these people are actually having sexy time. Sure, this ploy to build tension has been present throughout the franchise, but never to such dramatic effect. The series is once again about monsters, what lies beyond perceived normalcy, relationships, and the splintering of the human mind. The characters are deeply, terribly, flawed. And more importantly, they grow and react as they are shaped by their experiences. Is everything perfect? No. Is everything plausible? One episode features a serial killer/music teacher/ninja. So, no. But oh my, things are certainly getting there. Case in point, Fuller tricks us into forgetting just who we are dealing with. No amount of fractured, murderous, justice or paternalistic displays, or sexy time make Lecter less of a monster. As his own psychiatrist points out, he walks around wearing a very convincing human suit. He is an alien; a psychopath. The difference between the TV series, the films, and the novels is that Lecter’s attempts at acting human do not endear him to us; they only serve to underline how different he is – but only in the season finale. Look, I did not mean to write this as a twenty page dissertation about Fuller’s genius, but goddamn. Hannibal plays on the existing fan base’s desire to humanize him, to domesticate him, to turn him from monster to Batman. As we watched each episode, we were fooled into thinking that we were getting insight into his emotions, his desire to know grief and friendship. We saw what we wanted to see, Harris’s Lecter. And Fuller let us have our delusion. But all of those emotional bells and whistles are just trimming; part of his human suit. For Lecter, these relationships are a game, a personal challenge. And you better pray you know the rules to that game because if you don’t, and you get sucked in by his devilish charm and ability to emote, well, what you might be lacking in brains hopefully you will make up for in “taste.