In 1981, in the pages of his novel "Red Dragon," author Thomas Harris birthed a character that would go on to become one of the most memorable movie villains ever: Hannibal Lecter. Charming, educated, and ruthless, Hannibal was a serial killer who had a nasty habit of eating his victims.
Four actors would ultimately inhabit the role, across various films and television projects, with the character remaining a seductive avatar of evil. But what really captures the essence of the character? Read on to find out (fava beans and a nice chianti optional).
Apparently author Thomas Harris, who usually takes his sweet time developing stories, was coerced into writing this prequel novel by producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was desperate for additional material. Reading the novel, you can tell. It's written like he has a gun to his head. (Harris also penned the "Hannibal Rising" screenplay.)
Amazingly, the movie is even worse; flat and artless, with an uninspired origin for one of the greatest villains of all time. Gaspard Ulliel plays a young Hannibal, who watches Nazis eat his baby sister (an event depicted far more hauntingly in the "Hannibal" novel) and later tracks them down. For one of the most refined baddies in history, his first outing feels uncomfortably rote and threadbare. (Bafflingly, wraparound scenes with Anthony Hopkins were dropped at the last minute.) The only plus is that it provided additional material for the brilliant television series, which wisely cherry-picked what it needed from the novel/story.
This should have been phenomenal. It was, after all, a more faithful adaptation of Harris' novel "Red Dragon" (previously made into "Manhunter"), only this time written by "Silence of the Lambs" screenwriter Ted Tally and starring everyone's favorite Hannibal, Anthony Hopkins. (The starry supporting cast included Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.) But, sadly, directorial duties were handed to Brett Ratner, a man totally ill equipped to handle suspense, set pieces, or any kind of actual thrills, really.
It's the cinematic equivalent of finger painting. Ratner has all of the right colors and he's working on a beautiful canvas, but nothing is where it should be; everything is off. (The "Hannibal" television series would finally adapt the novel in an interesting way.) "Red Dragon" should be awarded some small points for the delicious way the movie ends. It's a nifty endnote that makes you wish the rest of the movie was as much fun.
There was no way that a follow-up to "Silence of the Lambs" was going to be anything but a disappointment. That film is perfect. And it was clear when the novel was released in 1999 that people were going to fall on one side of the divide or the other. (Some critics hated the book while Stephen King lauded its intensity and scariness.) Most of the talented folks behind the "Silence of the Lambs" movie, too, opted out, either disagreeing with the levels of violence of the material or the direction that Clarice took (in the book, she runs away with Hannibal at the end in an uneasy romantic union).
When the film version of "Hannibal" was handed to Ridley Scott (working from a script by Steve Zaillian and David Mamet), he seemed to understand the material immediately and crafted something bolder and more operatic than the earlier film, sidestepping some of the controversy while stoking it other places. (Julianne Moore took over for Jodie Foster.) This is one of the most violent movies ever released in mainstream cinemas and also one of the most bleakly funny; the climactic dinner scene is a Grand Guignol tour de force. But if another filmmaker (David Cronenberg comes to mind) had really engaged with all the nastiness of the novel, it could have maybe been a masterpiece to challenge "Lambs."
Michael Mann's hyper-masculine, neon-drenched adaptation of Harris' "Red Dragon" makes a number of significant detours, most notably the new spelling of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecktor (essayed by Englishman Brian Cox). The fundamentals of the original story remain but are heightened, electrified, and put through a processor that makes everything slightly more abstract and bold.
It was an early artistic triumph for Mann if not exactly a financial one. (The fact that "The Silence of the Lambs" was made just five years later without even a passing connection to this film says something.) "Manhunter's" biggest downfall, however, is William Petersen in the lead role of FBI profiler Will Graham. He's supposed to be tortured and almost supernaturally talented. Instead, he just seems kind of sleepy.
Talk about something that should have never worked -- a primetime series that aired on network television, centered around one of the bloodiest franchises in either literature or film. What's more, the series was robbed, due to complicated rights issues, of the series' signature character, plucky FBI agent Clarice Starling. Instead, Will Graham, the lead from "Red Dragon," was centralized, as events from "Hannibal Rising," "Hannibal," and modified (and legally dissimilar) scenarios from "Silence of the Lambs" filtered in and out.
"Hannibal" creator Bryan Fuller made a kind of Hannibal greatest hits mixtape, and stars Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy were more than game. By the end of the series' frustratingly short run, it had become one of the boldest, most artistically uncompromised series to ever air. Instead of a run-of-the-mill procedural, it had become something abstract and gorgeous; a collection of vivid, viscera-strewn tableaus that were as beautiful as they were horrifying. Hopefully it'll come back one day, with Starling, too.
This is it, a genre masterpiece and one of the most frightening films of all time. The only horror film to win a Best Picture Oscar, "The Silence of the Lambs" cleverly adapted Harris' literary sensation, making the nerve-shredding intensity of the novel more palpable but no less intense. (In particular, the final fifteen minutes or so, after that great reveal, is some of the most white-knuckle filmmaking ever.) Much of "The Silence of the Lambs'" success has to do with the casting, with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins giving performances that give rich nuance to what could have been flat archetypes. (While Hopkins returned to the role a few times since, nothing can top his Oscar-winning turn here.) But it's the late, great Jonathan Demme's direction, which is as sensitive as it is sensational, that truly elevates the film.
Demme's stylistic tics, like having the actors frequently look directly into the camera, creates an immediacy and an intimacy that mirrors the psychological shading of Harris' text. You can tell that he did his time on indie character pieces and not big budget spectacles, and his emphasis is clearly on the truth of the material, even when it's at its most oversized and operatic. "Lambs" is a movie that is just as powerful and profound as it was when it was released in 1991.