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Revisiting the Hannibal Lecter Films

Updated on June 2, 2016

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is without doubt one the most unforgettable character to ever grace the silver screen. Created by writer Thomas Harris in 1981, he was since featured in 4 incredible books and 5 radically different films. Both charming and scary, audiences can't help but be utterly fascinated by him, especially as portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins. The Lecter movie franchise is an odd one, as all the films are incredibly different in tone and style, the only recurring character being Dr. Lecter himself. All are great entertainment but I obviously have my favorites. Here is my personal review and ranking of his cinematic adventures !

5. Hannibal Rising (2007)

Hannibal Rising is the only film in this list I wouldn't recommend, as I found it incredibly long and frankly I consider it an unnecessary origin story. It is not a bad film but brings nothing new to the table and the story is surprisingly not very original. The movie is adapted from Thomas Harris's 2006 book of the same name, which is the only one I have yet to read. I think it was a mistake from Harris's part to try to explain the motivations behind Lecter's actions as it removes the mystery around the character, which is what made him so appealing to me. The plot involving Lecter's sister Mischa is genuinely heartbreaking if predictable but is ultimately quite dreadful to watch. I thought the movie was not scary or particularly suspenseful but unlike Hannibal (2001) (about which I could say the same), it doesn't have a distinct style or any striking moments that remained with me once it was finished. However, Gaspard Ulliel is a great casting choice for a young Hannibal and his performance here is quite good, as I found him genuinely threatening in some scenes and convincing in emotional moments. The film was not a big hit upon release, grossing 82 000 000$ out of a 50 000 000$ budget (with only 28 000 000$ coming from the US). My advice is : watch this one only if you are a die-hard fan of the character or really feel the need to know what made Lecter so evil in the more interesting films of the series.

4. Red Dragon (2002)

Following the great success of Hannibal (2001), development quickly started on this film, which is in fact a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Critics like to compare Red Dragon with Manhunter, as both films are adaptations of the same book (Red Dragon, published in 1981). The 2002 film ultimately suffers from comparisons to its 1986 counterpart, as director Brett Ratner's style can't compare to Michael Mann's directing and the overall sense of menace that reigns over Manhunter. Red Dragon remains a thrilling watch, probably due to the fact that the book on which it is based is excellent and one of the best I've ever read (it definitely is my favorite book of the series). This version follows the book more closely but still deviates from it in some ways ; there are obviously more scenes involving Hannibal due to the popularity of Hopkins' portrayal. Most of those scenes were pointed out as useless by critics but they don't really bother me as Mr. Hopkins is a joy to watch in the role. We also get a glimpse of Dolarhyde's backstory which was absent from Manhunter. The cast is great ; just look at those names on the poster ! However, the biggest flaw of the film to me is Edward Norton's portrayal of Will Graham. I believe he was miscast. In the book, Graham is a character that is constantly walking a fine line between madness and sanity and I don't believe Norton portrayed that efficiently, as he looks too sympathetic. You don't believe the guy can be dangerous. Ralph Fiennes does a fine job as Dolarhyde but again loses when compared to Tom Noonan's portayal in Manhunter. The movie was a success, grossing 209 000 000$ out of 78 000 000$ budget. This a a great film and is worth your time, especially if you can't imagine anyone else than Anthony Hopkins portraying Lecter. Otherwise, let's take a look to the best adaptation of Harris's masterpiece, which brings us to...

3. Manhunter (1986)

This Michael Mann film is the odd one out in the Lecter franchise. Don't be fooled by its 80's look, this movie is excellent and superior to its 2002 counterpart. Yes it looks dated and might play like a bit like a Miami Vice episode to some, but Mann's visual style makes it both a beautiful and disturbing film. The movie was not a success upon release, grossing only 9 000 000$ in the US out of a 15 000 000$ budget, but it attained a much-deserved cult status with time. It is beautifully shot and the dated 80's soundtrack only adds to the charm. To me, this film is like a fine wine ; it keeps getting better with age. The performances of the actors are all around excellent, especially William Petersen as Will Graham. He succeeds in portraying a tortured hero that even the audience can be afraid of sometimes. You really believe the guy is close to the creeps he helps put behind bars. Tom Noonan's portrayal of the Red Dragon is really one for the ages. He is genuinely creepy here and every aspect of him is unsettling. Behind-the-scenes interviews revealed he managed to stay in character even between takes and that the cast was scared of him. Watch the film and you will see it's not hard to believe ! Brian Cox was the first actor to portray Lecter (here strangely renamed Lecktor) on the big screen. While many critics highlight his performance as one of the highlights of the film, I really don't think it's that memorable, as he is in the movie for only a few minutes and he didn't make a lasting impact on me. I think that with the presence of Anthony Hopkins, Manhunter could've been an even better film than The Silence of the Lambs. This is a must watch !

2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

What is there to say about this one that hasn't been said before ? The film is a classic, winning 5 Oscars and grossing 273 000 000$ out of a 19 000 000$ budget. The movie deserves its status and I honestly can't find faults in it. It is everything a thriller should be. There are many highlights, starting with the actors. Jodie Foster clearly delivers one of her best performances here, portraying Clarice Starling as very sympathetic and as a character to which the audience can easily relate. She is strong, yet there is an appealing tranquility about her. I can't think of a better casting choice than Foster. Silence was the film that kick-started Anthony Hopkins' career and gave the world one of the best performances by any actor in any film ever. Who can forget the scene at the asylum where we get our first glimpse of Lecter ? Some tend to forget Ted Levine's disturbing portrayal of Buffalo Bill, which is right up there with Tom Noonan's Dolarhyde as the scariest of the entire franchise. The scene that features him dancing to the Q Lazarus song Goodbye Horses remains one of the most unsettling I've ever witnessed. The film is filled with such classic scenes and quotes while the suspense never lets go. I remember being genuinely terrified by the film the first time I saw it and it remains one of the most suspenseful movie I've ever seen. Unlike its sequel, the fact that it is very reality-based and surprisingly doesn't feature many gory moments is part of what makes it so scary. The musical score by Howard Shore only adds to the extremely unsettling mood and helps make Silence of the Lambs the ultimate edge-of-your-seat film experience. Must watch !

1. Hannibal (2001)

I know what you think : how could he consider this better than The Silence of the Lambs ? The answer is simple. I don't. Silence is a superior film but I still find myself watching and enjoying Hannibal more often. Why ? The answer must reside in Thomas Harris's book on which the film is based. It is a very strange read and very different than its predecessors, just like this film. It is very over-the-top and stylishly unique. One must not forget that while Silence was a thriller, this one plays more like an operatic drama with elements of dark comedy. One could argue it even is a love story (but a very dark one). It has so many layers and is open to a lot of interpretations.

The movie follows the book quite closely but still omits some elements (notably Mason's sister) and radically changes the ending (read it and you will see why). Anthony Hopkins is back and is now at the center of the film. It is a joy to watch him portray Lecter finally on the loose and it's obvious Hopkins had a great time with the role here. Julianne Moore portrays Clarice Starling quite convincingly but while I still prefer Foster's interpretation, the change of actor didn't bother me too much as the emphasis is really put on Hannibal Lecter here and Hopkins delivers. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as Mason Verger, one of Lecter's surviving victims. The make-up artists outdone themselves here as the sight of him is extremely unsettling. The film is filled with great moments and the supper scene near the end is unforgettable, if maybe hard to watch for some. While Silence had very few gory scenes, this one features plenty, but I don't think they were included only for shock value as they really serve the story and show us what Lecter is capable of. Director Ridley Scott delivers the goods as usual and the movie features many gorgeous scenes, notably the ones set in Italy. Hans Zimmer's score is a thing of beauty and is a perfect fit for Hopkins' Lecter, incoporating a lot of classical elements. The movie has its faults, especially about continuity (how did this character get there?) but it remains my favorite of the franchise. Expectations for the film were huge at the time and it destroyed the box office competition, grossing 352 000 000$ out of a 87 000 000$ budget. Critical reception remains mixed and it is still a very divisive movie. I think it is a misunderstood masterpiece.

Which one of Lecter's cinematic adventures is your favorite ?

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