Julien Neaves, Editor
Dr Hannibal Lecter. Just the name alone is enough to conjure up bloody and disturbing images. The psychiatrist and cannibal first appeared in the 1981 novel “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, but it was his appearance in the 1991 film adaptation of the 1988 sequel “The Silence of the Lambs” that forever cemented him in pop culture.
With the Silence of the Lambs having turned 30 on January 30 (golden anniversary, that’s cool) and a recent trailer for the CBS series Clarice (focusing on franchise protagonist FBI special agent Clarice Starling) it is the perfect time to do a ranking of all franchise entries featuring Hannibal the Cannibal. With a five-course-meal-sized SPOILER ALERT for both the novels and films let’s dig in!
#6 Hannibal Rising (2007)
Harris’ Hannibal series features four novels, the aforementioned “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as 1999’s “Hannibal” and 2006’s “Hannibal Rising”. Well it seems they couldn’t wait to adapt the last novel as the film came out just one year later, and from a screenplay by Harris himself. The prequel focuses on the origin of Lecter and his quest to get revenge on a group of former World War II deserters who ate his young sister Mischa at the family lodge in Lithuania.
It was easy to choose the bottom entry on this list as Hannibal Rising is just not a very good film. One of the biggest issues is Gaspard Ulliel as the titular character. For the entirety of the movie he has about two expressions: blank and menacing. It’s a far, far cry from Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning portrayal. Now it would have been unwise for Ulliel to try to copy Hopkins’ iconic performance, but he could have at least tried something. His acting could not have been flatter if someone beat it with a meat tenderiser.
Gong Li is much better as Hannibal’s affluent aunt and love interest (they’re not blood related but still…) though her chemistry with her nephew just feels off, and not just because it is somewhat incest-y. The other performances are very phoned-in, including Rhys Ifans as cartoonish villain Vladis Grutas.
The film’s other main issue is the plot. Hannibal just doesn’t work as an anti-hero. You understand why he is hunting and mutilating these men, but because you can’t connect with him nor the cardboard victims their interactions are just hollow and feel like cheap gore porn.
And the film wastes a grand opportunity to explore the psychopathy of Hannibal, opting for the overly simplistic “the boy died when his sister died” and “he eats them because they ate her.” And the twist of him eating the broth made from his sister felt like a weak attempt at a shocking twist. The only thing shocking is how bleh this movie is, and how much of a cash grab it feels. And seeing that it is the worst financial performer of the four films, that cash grab failed spectacularly. More like Hannibal Floundering.
#5 Hannibal (2001)
You know how people say that the book is usually better than the film? Well I read the novel, and 2001’s Hannibal is pretty faithful to it barring the ending. Unfortunately the novel wasn’t very good so the movie did not have that much hope. To be fair, the film had massive expectations following the multi-Oscar-winning predecessor. But even removing The Silence of the Lambs from the equation, Hannibal is an objectively subpar film.
Anthony Hopkins returned to the role and though he has much less to work with he does provide a few chilling and surprisingly funny moments. I loved the scene where he warns Starling about the heavy penalty for carrying an unauthorised concealed weapon. On the chilling side is the unforgettable image of Lecter cooking the brain of corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) and feeding it to him. Talk about brain food. Also very good is an unrecognisable Gary Oldman as disfigured Lecter victim Mason Verger. There is just something fascinating about this odd and gruesome antagonist.
And that’s about it for the positives. Lecter’s ability to travel back and forth despite being one of the most famous serial killers ever defies the suspension of disbelief. He may no longer be on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted but he is still wanted. Speaking of the FBI, Jodie Foster opted out of returning as Starling and Julianne Moore is a most bland replacement. How are we supposed to root for her if her two many emotional states are vigilant and pissed off? And she and Hopkins bounce off each other like two cement blocks. The rest of the cast are kind of just there, including Giancarlo Giannini as greedy, amoral cop Pazzi. Yeah, he was a real patsy. At least his death was memorable.
The Ridley Scott-directed film also feels a bit schizophrenic, jumping from generic cop action to a drawn-out slasher in Florence to the body horror with the man-eating pigs to the macabre brain eating session to whatever the heck that ending was on the airplane. As you jump from scene to scene, murder to murder, tone to tone, there are zero stakes
and zero investment. At least the film didn’t follow the novel and have Starling turn into Hannibal’s cannibal lover. That was just stupid.
#4 Manhunter (1986)
After those two duds we are now getting into the better entries on this list. This adaptation of “Red Dragon” was the first franchise entry but it made little impact when it was released. And that’s a bit sad as it is a genuinely good film. Thankfully it has become a cult classic.
William Petersen (To Live and Die in L.A., CSI) is fantastic as FBI profiler Will Graham, and I actually prefer his haunted performance to Edward Norton’s in the 2002 version. He also has a lively chemistry with Dennis Farina as Graham’s FBI superior Jack Crawford. I was however let down by Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecktor (they changed the last name for some reason). He comes off as smug and a little slimy but there is no menace nor Uber intelligence. It is very underwhelming.
Tom Noonan is pretty creepy as the psychopathic Francis Dollarhyde (Dolarhyde in the novel) and he is actually more believable as the twisted killer than the much more attractive Ralph Fiennes in the 2002 version. Stephen Lang is also much more punchable as sleazy Tattler reporter Freddy Lounds than the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman version. A young Joan Allen also does solid work as Dollarhyde’s blind love interest Reba.
Director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) keeps a brisk pace with this thriller and it is highly entertaining. After all those compliments why do I have this one rated lower than the 2002 version? Well, other than Cox’s meh performance, the film unfortunately changed some key things from the novel. It cut out important aspects like Dollarhyde’s abuse by his grandmother and the scene where he eats the William Blake drawing. They also changed the ending from Dollarhyde faking his death and then attacking the Graham home to having Graham rescue Reba from Dollarhyde in a bloody finale. While still entertaining, it lacked the emotional stakes of the original climax, though there is the unexpected benefit that it contributes to making it different enough from the 2002 version to be enjoyed separately.
I watched Manhunter for the first time for this list and I do recommend it. And do look out for actor Frankie Faison as an eager cop before he would take up the role as head orderly Barney Matthews.
#3 Red Dragon (2002)
After the disappointment of Hannibal, Red Dragon was a welcome return to form. Sure it was not on the same level as Silence (then again, few things would be) but it delivered on the two best aspects of the franchise — strong procedural thriller and superb serial killer performances.
Edward Norton and Harvey Kietel deliver solid performances as Graham and Crawford respectively, though as mentioned above I preferred Petersen’s haunted intensity to Norton’s wired intensity. And Mary Louise Parker does well as Graham’s concerned wife.
On the bad guy side Hopkins is superb as Hannibal, delivering his lines with a mixture of charm, relish and venom. He and Norton have a simmering hostility that is interesting, though not as good as the Foster/Hopkins chemistry in Silence. Ralph Fiennes also a had a great restrained hostility as Dolaryde which very fascinating.
The film also gets points for the memorable image of the naked Fiennes with that dragon tattoo and the scene of him devouring the Blake drawing. He also has lovely chemistry with Emily Watson’s Reba which helps to humanise this monster. Fiennes’ Dolarhyde is a much more tragic figure than Noonan’s version. And that climax in the Graham home and the gunfight through the door is just thrilling. I’m not the biggest fan of director Brett Ratner, but he delivered a wonderful thriller here.
#2 Hannibal (TV series 2013-2015)
I flirted with the idea of making this number one because I absolutely adore this series. And two of the main reasons is Mads and Mikkelsen. His version of Dr Hannibal Lecter is simply brilliant. He is much more charming, calculating and refined than Hopkins’ version, which actually makes when he goes full killer even more terrifying. He has an electric and explosive relationship with Hugh Dancy as Will Graham (my favourite version of the character btw) which is the heart of the show.
The two are ably supported by a stellar cast including Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Caroline Dhavernas as Psychology Professor Alana Bloom and X-Files’ Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s psychotherapist Bedelia Du Maurier. I was entertaining seeing both the original stories and their adaptations of “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal” plots.
The wonderfully-written series is part procedural crime drama and part serial killer thriller, and features a rogues gallery of increasingly creepy and creative psychos. There is some some stunningly beautiful and extraordinarily disturbing imagery that will sear into your soul. One scene where a man attempts to escape a grotesque “sculpture” of bodies by ripping his flesh from another person’s flesh made me cringe down to my toenails.
This multiple-award winning series is one of my favourite television shows ever and a must-see for Hannibal Lecter fans or fans of crime thrillers in general. Can we please just get that Season 4? Pretty please, with some fava beans on top?
#1 Silence of the Lambs (1991)
What can I say about The Silence of the Lambs that has not already been said? The movie is just the perfect psychological thriller and one of my all-time favourite films. Hopkins is in the movie for just 15 minutes but his masterfully psychotic performance looms over the entire film like a grim eclipse and netted him a Best Actor Academy Award.
Jodie Foster also received an Academy Award for one of her best performances ever as the eager but unsure FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Her scenes with Hopkins are some of the most iconic in all of cinema. Let’s also not forget Ted Levine as the supremely unsettling Buffalo Bill.
Jonathan Demme’s sterling direction wastes not a scene, not a moment, and rightfully won him Best Director. Howard Shore’s haunting score and Tak Fujimoto’s incisive cinematography add to this extraordinary movie experience.
Instantly quotable and truly unforgettable, this Best Picture winner, and only the third film to win the top five categories (including Best Adapted Screenplay), is not only the best of the Hannibal franchise but one of the best films ever. And if you disagree, I am sure a visit to Dr Hannibal Lecter will change your mind. He might even offer to have you for dinner…
So that’s my list. Do you agree with the ranking? For Sommer’s thoughts on the Hannibal TV series you can check out her list of Top 5 Horror Movies that Became Awesome TV shows here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. I can also be found posting about TV and movie memes, news and trailers on Facebook at Movieville.