Introduction: The Perfect Villain

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Mallory Moore; Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal Lecter: The Good, the Powerful, and the Mysterious

Mallory Moore

Gardner-Webb University

Introduction: The Perfect Villain

Dr. Hannibal Lecter, one of the central figures of the 1991 Oscar-winning film, The Silence of the Lambs, is a terrifying enigma of a character. Originating in the mind of novelist Thomas Harris and appearing on-screen in several movie and television adaptations, Hannibal “The Cannibal” has charmed his way into American pop culture, often being “affectionately parodied” and even being named the number one villain by the American Film Institute in 2003 (Blake, 2013, pp. 370-371). Despite the brutality of his crimes, which involve cooking his victims and eating them, Hannibal is known for being elegant, cultured, and well-mannered. In this paper, I shall focus on Hannibal as he is represented in three films, each based on an individual Thomas Harris novel of the same name: The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002). While these three films each have different directors and production teams, they all feature Anthony Hopkins in the role of Hannibal.

Although Red Dragon was produced last, it is actually a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. In both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the jailed Hannibal aides FBI agents in catching other serial killers with his keen understanding of how such criminals operate. In these two films, his character is explored through his relationships with two FBI agents, Will Graham (Edward Norton) in Red Dragon and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. At the end of the latter film, Hannibal escapes from jail, which frees him to take the spotlight in Hannibal. In the chronological final installment of the trilogy, Hannibal’s character arc is complicated as the audience gets to see what he does with his life outside the confines of cell bars. This film also explores Hannibal’s morals when his friend and mentee, Clarice Starling (now played by Julianne Moore), is assigned to track him down and put him back in prison.

Throughout these films, it is not just the cannibalistic or murderous tendencies of this villain that make him so memorable. The films place him next to other villains that commit just as frightening crimes, such as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the serial killer who skins his female victims to make himself a suit out of their skin. Yet somehow, it is Dr. Lecter who sticks in the audience’s minds, succeeding at simultaneously frightening and seducing them. Hannibal Lecter is successful as a villain for three reasons: he is a dynamic anti-hero that has both good and evil qualities, he exudes frightening power through charm, education, and psychiatric skill, and he is mysterious, attracting audiences by making them want more information.

Biographical Sketch: The Man with No History

While other Hannibal adaptations have given the character a backstory, little to no information is revealed about Hannibal’s past in the three Anthony Hopkins films. It is as if he stepped out of a painting as a grown man and a fully developed villain, ready to seek out unsuspecting victims for no reason. During Hannibal, while in conversation with a minor character, Hannibal briefly mentions that he is not originally from America, hinting at his Lithuanian origins from the novel (Bettina, 2002, p. 102). This is the only information we are given about his past, and we are left guessing about the harsh upbringing or traumatic events that could have created such a terrible criminal.

Red Dragon opens in 1980 in Baltimore. Hannibal is a seemingly wealthy psychiatrist and patron of the arts. He is also a medical doctor, although this side of his profession is not as emphasized in the films as his psychiatric practice (it is briefly mentioned in Hannibal as he signs a letter to Clarice with his title, M.D). He is well-read and highly intellectual, able to recall knowledge on the spot about a variety of topics, from roller pigeons to poetry. He has well developed tastes, fostering a love for “cordon bleu cuisine, the music of Bach, and the art and architecture of the Renaissance” (Blake, 2013, p. 371). His tastes also extend to human flesh. At the start of the film, it is implied that he has already committed several murders and cut out select organs of his victims to cook and consume. In the case of his latest victim, a flutist in the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, Hannibal has cooked the musician’s body into a meal that he serves at a party he throws for the orchestra’s board.1 In this case, we see Hannibal’s tendency to murder those who he views as a disgrace to society in some way, since this flutist was known for messing up in concerts and playing consistently out of tune.

FBI agent Will Graham is investigating these murders, not knowing that it is his good and trusted friend, Dr. Lecter, who is behind them. Will catches Hannibal, who is then put in the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital, an asylum and jail under the watch of Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald). Hannibal remains in this asylum in a solitary cell, at the end of a long hallway with no windows, for nearly eight years before he escapes. It is in this setting where he is most recognizable as the terrifying villain that has made his mark on pop-culture.

While in the asylum, Hannibal wears neutral colored prison suits that make him blend in with the drab walls of his cell. He is surrounded by simple furniture and sometimes charcoal pictures that he has drawn and hung up on the walls. His space is pristine and well-lit compared to that of his fellow inmates, whose filthy, dark cells line the long hallway in the depths of the asylum. While the other patients heckle at anyone who walks by, Hannibal is calm and reserved, which makes him seem very out of place in the asylum. He stands to greet his visitors or simply lays on his cot as they approach. Hannibal is known for his impeccable manners and always greets visitors in a calm, polite voice. His body structure is not frightening in itself; it is his eerily calm smile, his slow movements, and his nightmarishly hypnotic voice that give us the chills when we see him in that cell.

Several years after the arrest, Will Graham returns to visit Hannibal for help in tracking down serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, known as “The Tooth Fairy” (Ralph Fiennes). Hannibal’s relationship with Will is based on a kind of equality between the two. Hannibal respects Will’s intelligence and his ability to think like a killer in order to catch criminals, but he is also greatly disturbed by the fact that the young agent outsmarted him. Their relationship seemingly ends at the end of Red Dragon with a letter that Hannibal writes to Will after The Tooth Fairy case is over. Will is not mentioned again in the next two films.

In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal assists agent in training, Clarice Starling, in capturing another serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Hannibal also establishes a relationship with Clarice, which many have speculated to be romantic. In fact, Hannibal and Clarice do end up in a romantic relationship in the end of the novel Hannibal, but this was cut from the films (Robbins, 1996, p. 71). In his relationships with both Will and Clarice, Hannibal acts as a mentor figure, guiding and teaching them as they catch killers.

In the midst of the Buffalo Bill case, Hannibal is moved to a holding site in Tennessee. It is from this site that Hannibal escapes. He remains at large for several years, eventually making it to Italy where he attempts to get a job at a library (killing the previous curator to make room for himself, of course). He is in Italy at the start of Hannibal, right on the brink of securing that job. Meanwhile, his only surviving victim from before his initial arrest, the very rich Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), is out for revenge. The FBI also re-opens Hannibal’s case, assigning agent Starling to track him down. With both of these parties looking for him, Hannibal leaves Italy after disposing of the Italian police officer who discovered his identity.

Back in the United States, Hannibal is caught and nearly murdered by Mason Verger, but Clarice steps in. Hannibal and Clarice have a final confrontation in which Clarice almost manages to turn him back in to the FBI. But, once again, Hannibal escapes. He is shown flying to an unknown destination in the final scene of the film, suggesting that he has finally escaped conflict with the FBI and found freedom.

Anti-Hero: The Good Villain

There are two parts to a successful anti-hero: the “anti” part, which is easy to achieve for most villains, and the “hero” part, which is less easily accomplished once a character is shown to be evil or frightening. Hopkins’ charisma makes Hannibal easy to like on screen, but it takes a deeper connection to keep the audience cheering for him throughout three films until he escapes to freedom. Hannibal works as a good or likeable villain because of his relationships with the other heroes of the films, who humanize him and aid in his character development. He is also likeable because he ultimately defeats the real villains of the films, unlikable characters like Dr. Chilton.

We’re Very Much Alike”

Hannibal’s relationship with Will Graham makes him look good because he helps Will catch The Tooth Fairy. However, Hannibal’s position as far as “taking sides” on this case is a little murky. His clues are vague, he gives Will’s address to the serial killer, and he receives a message from The Tooth Fairy that boosts his ego. Because he likes to switch sides, depending on which one will most benefit him, Hannibal’s alliances to Will are not the main factor that makes him a good villain in Red Dragon. Rather, it is the fact that Will and Hannibal are equals. For a villain who is seemingly invincible, it is significant that Will is able to catch him. For a villain who is always calm and collected, fearing nothing, it is significant that he “fears the man who arrested him for murder” (Gregory, 2002, p. 110). Hannibal is a successful anti-hero because Will humanizes him. Once the audience realizes that Hannibal is not an all-powerful criminal genius, but that he can be outsmarted, they can see him as human-like and worthy of sympathy, which is what separates the anti-hero from the average villain.

The two characters are established as equals in their first scene together. Special agent Graham comes to Dr. Lecter’s house, late at night, to share an insight he’s had on a murder case. After explaining the insight to Hannibal, Will says, “I needed to see you first,” rather than share the information with the FBI. When Will discovers, not five minutes later, that Hannibal is the murderer, Hannibal quickly acts and stabs him. He talks down to Will as the initial pain from the stab takes over, hushing him and calling him a “remarkable boy” with courage. It is clear that Hannibal has done this many times before with other victims, as he is even able to talk Will through the stages of pain he will feel. But his confidence is his downfall. Will is able to stab him back with arrows, artifacts from Hannibal’s shelf. Hannibal stumbles back to the other side of the room. It cannot be the wound that sends Hannibal stumbling back, for Hannibal’s body proves to be strong when he survives this wound and several gunshots. It is the shock of being beaten that disrupts Hannibal’s confidence. When the audience sees this figure stumbling back with a look of complete shock, he is not so scary anymore.

When Will first comes to visit Hannibal in the asylum, several years later, the caged criminal is not standing to greet him as he does when Clarice Starling comes to visit in The Silence of the Lambs. He is lying on his cot, a passive position, like the patient coming to see the therapist. This is his act of surrender. He knows that Graham is just as intelligent as he is, and he angrily accuses Will, saying, “You think you’re smarter than me.” He even tries to hide his humiliation by torturing Will with the knowledge that the two are similar. (Gregory, 2002, p. 100). He says, “We’re very much alike.” But Will is quick to retort, saying that even if he is similar to Hannibal, he was able to win because Hannibal has the disadvantage of being “insane.” Will’s quick responses and his ability to keep up with Hannibal’s accusatory banter show the audience that Hannibal is only human, and he can be conquered. Once the audience knows that Hannibal is not invincible, it is easier to sympathize with him and cheer for him.

People Will Say We’re in Love”

The relationship between Hannibal and Clarice Starling is probably the strongest character relationship in the trilogy. In The Silence of the Lambs, this relationship is built in only four face to face scenes. Despite the fact that the film “dramatically omitted the novel's gestures… in the direction of a "normal" love-interest," the dynamic between the two characters is just as strong, maybe more so, than most on-screen romantic relationships. (Robbins, 1996, p. 71). When Clarice admits that she comes to visit Hannibal because she wanted to, he teases her, saying, “People will say we’re in love.” The strength of this relationship makes Hannibal an anti-hero, not just a villain, because it completes Hannibal’s character arc. It allows Hannibal to develop compassion. Regular villains are often static characters. They appear on screen, they are scary, they continue to be scary, and then they die. But Hannibal’s relationship with Clarice forces him to change, giving him the dynamics of an anti-hero.

Hannibal’s first sign of compassion towards Clarice occurs when his neighbor in the asylum, “Multiple Miggs,” assaults Clarice on her way out of the asylum by throwing his sperm on her. Hannibal defends Clarice, first by giving her a clue about the Buffalo Bill case to help her out, and then by whispering to Miggs in the night until he chokes on his own tongue. After this incident, Hannibal continues to pursue a relationship with Clarice. He serves as a mentor and therapist by helping her to look into her past and connect a traumatic experience from her childhood with her desire to work in the FBI (Robbins, 1996, p. 81). He contacts her after his escape, once by telephone and once by letter. For a villain who so desperately wants to “get out” of jail to a place of freedom with “a view,” it seems odd that he would maintain such close ties with an FBI agent. He may indeed be using Clarice as a way to exact his revenge on the FBI, since she often finds herself at odds with the patriarchal bureau (Gregory, 2002, p. 113), but a final act of compassion at the end of Hannibal suggests that his relationship with her meant more.

In one of the final scenes in Hannibal, Dr. Lecter has Clarice trapped to a fridge by her hair, and the FBI are on their way. Clarice stealthily manages to handcuff Hannibal to herself. Hannibal, determined to escape, must cut off one of their hands to get out of the cuffs. When the FBI arrives and Clarice raises her hands in the air, we know that Hannibal sacrificed his own hand to spare Clarice any pain. This final act of compassion, so different from his escape scene in “The Silence of the Lambs” when he sacrifices two police officers to escape, demonstrates Hannibal’s character development. He has developed a relationship with someone and compassion for her, much different from the self-centered villain who began the trilogy.

Conquering the Common Enemy

People often unite over a common enemy. The Hannibal films certainly provide plenty of vile characters that serve as common enemies to unite Dr. Lecter with the heroes of the films. Since Hannibal is, for the most part, helping the heroes, while these other villains are standing in their way, Hannibal looks more like a good guy while sharing the screen with the heroes’ real enemies. Hannibal is successfully characterized as a good villain, or anti-hero, because of the presence of other non-heroic villains. One villain in particular is the annoyingly arrogant Dr. Frederick Chilton.

Dr. Chilton first appears in Red Dragon when Will Graham visits the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital. Already, he is obsessed with figuring Hannibal out; he chases Will towards the hallway of cells and begs this brilliant agent, who caught Hannibal, for information about how to conquer this killer’s mind. Chilton is indeed hungry for a reputation of psychiatric brilliance. He tries to take credit for discovering the identity of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, even though he does not yet have the right identity (the information was based on a misleading clue from Hannibal). But his real villainy comes to light in his treatment of Clarice. According to Bruce Robbins’ (1996) article on the Lecter/ Starling relationship, the main reason that audiences rejoice when Hannibal finally gets Chilton is because he was such a sexual predator to Clarice. When Chilton speaks to Will Graham about Hannibal, we can see his respect for the agent as a man because he speaks in scientific terms about testing the criminal. But when he speaks to Clarice, he uses fanciful words like “monster,” as if to try and scare the woman to flirt with her. His sexism is also apparent in his close ups when he talks to Clarice. As many of the male characters do throughout the film, he looks directly into the camera, making the audience feel his creepy eyes on them just as Clarice does. With a man of such questionable intentions sharing the screen, Hannibal seems even less like a villain. He triumphs over Chilton at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, eyeing his enemy greedily from a hiding spot as he tells Clarice over the phone, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

The Powerful Villain

In order for a villain to succeed, he needs to have some kind of power over the good guys. If there is no chance that the villain will triumph or trick the hero, then the audience has no reason to fear him in the first place. Dr. Hannibal Lecter has power in several forms. As stated in the biographical sketch, Hannibal does not necessarily have a powerful physical stance; sometimes he even looks sickly in his prison attire. For this villain, his power lies in his charm, his education and brilliance, and his discernment as a psychiatrist.

Charm: Hannibal’s Element of Surprise

In his article on the professional relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, Bruce Robbins (1996) writes that Hannibal "represents a synthesis… of contradictory elements. On the one hand, he is the campy gay aesthete as upper-class, hypereducated consumer. On the other hand, he is the male rampager, an angry generic figure of the (white) male working-class imagination" (p. 88). Hannibal is powerful because he can hide his evil intentions behind the charming mask of the “campy gay aesthete.” His charm gives him the element of surprise; the audience never knows when he is going to snap. In the films, this charm is accomplished mostly by Anthony Hopkins’ acting.

In Red Dragon, we see Lecter’s charm in a scene in which he woos a temporary secretary at the University of Chicago to get him Will Graham’s address, posing as someone working in publishing. While on the phone with the secretary, Hopkins speaks in a low lilt, adding a seductive inflection to the end of his line, “I’ll dance at your wedding if you read it to me.” There’s a trace of some kind of European accent that calms the secretary, and the audience, making us curious about this charming man. Even though they are not speaking face to face, Hopkins adds the slightest wink when he tells her to “be a darling,” another charming quirk. His mannerisms reflect that of a charming seducer.

Hannibal’s charm is not always part of a devious plan, however. Sometimes there is something sincere and innocent in Hopkins’ acting. One particular shot that encompasses this charm in Hannibal is during the opera scene. Italian Inspector Pazzi has taken his wife to the opera, unaware that Hannibal, who he has just identified as the infamous criminal from America, will also be in the audience. In the midst of this dreamy scene, driven by the passionate aria being sung onstage, Hannibal turns to Pazzi with a look of knowing. It’s impossible to tell if there is compassion in his eyes, or threat. Hopkins’ ability to simultaneously convey peace and horror in one look demonstrates the character’s charming power.

In her book on “Evil and The Appeal of Horror,” (2000) Cynthia A. Freeland also notes Hannibal’s charm by comparing him to a vampire. She writes that he “functions like a vampire because he is a figure on whom the camera lingers, a monster who can mesmerize by his intense gaze, a villain who seeks intimacy with the heroine" (p. 200). Close ups of his blue eyes and the way he is “lit and shot,” particularly in the catacomb-like asylum, make him quite similar to the charming yet dangerous vampire (Freeland, 2000, p. 200). Indeed, Hannibal’s cell comes like a tempting oasis of good manners at the end of the long asylum hallway. Just as the vampire stands out against other villains as a charming and attractive figure, Hannibal’s cordial greeting to Starling, a simple “good morning,” stands out against the leering comments from the other men in the asylum. His charm sets him apart from other villains and gives him a special, powerful edge.

The Know-It-All

In her entry on Hannibal Lecter in The Ashgate encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (2013), Linnie Blake writes that Hannibal’s “unapologetic rejoicing in the decadence of the Old World” contributes greatly to his charm (p. 371). This “rejoicing” also illustrates that Hannibal is well-educated. Often times, education can be a sign of power. Hannibal is a powerful villain because there is almost nothing that he does not know about. He is often able to apply his knowledge to make clever plans and outsmart his enemies.

Dr. Lecter seems to have lots of knowledge on almost every subject, and he is quite talented in many areas. He is a “sadistic serial killer notable both for his utter sadism and his intellectual acuity, taste, and sophistication: a potent and unique combination" (Blake, 2013, p. 371). In Red Dragon, we can see Hannibal’s refined tastes in his home before he is arrested. His bookshelves contain artifacts from other cultures, a scientific display of bugs, and of course, lots of books. In Hannibal, we hear a recorded conversation between him and one of the workers in the asylum about the life of Roller pigeons, showing Hannibal’s range of knowledge. While in the asylum, he draws intricate pictures of Florence, Italy from memory. He is also shown playing piano in one Hannibal scene, another of his many talents. It seems that, on top of his career as a medical doctor and psychiatrist, there is there is no subject that the Doctor doesn’t know about, and no hobby or talent he hasn’t pursued.

Hannibal’s brilliance is also evident in his ingenious plans. He is very well known for "selecting his victims in advance, engaging in elaborate planning, and executing his crimes and his victims with utterly ruthless efficiency" (Blake, 2013, p. 370). One of his most brilliant plans, his escape from jail, is enacted during The Silence of the Lambs. He picks the lock of the handcuffs that hold him down while the guards deliver his dinner by using part of a metal pen that he somehow hid on his person, most likely by swallowing it, before he was moved to the Tennessee holding site. After attacking the guards, he cuts off one of their faces, puts on the skin mask and the officer’s clothes, hides the body, and pretends to be the injured officer. His body is rushed towards the hospital, and he attacks the paramedics on the ambulance. The fact that he uses Buffalo Bill’s technique of wearing his victim’s skin shows how observant he is. Despite all of his knowledge, there is still room in his brain to take in more information and adapt to make the best plans. This brilliance, combined with his extensive knowledge talents, make him a truly powerful villain.

Get Out of My Head!

The power achieved from mastering the human mind through psychiatry can be truly frightening when it is in the wrong hands, or rather, the wrong brain. Hannibal Lecter is successful as a villain because he is able to get into people’s heads, a truly frightening power for such a deranged villain. As another FBI agents warns Clarice before she meets him, “You don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”

In order to get information out of Hannibal about the Buffalo Bill case, Clarice must agree to answer Hannibal’s personal questions about her life and past. He pokes and prods until she admits that it is the traumatic events from her childhood that make her so invested in the case, particularly in saving the female victims. While any good psychiatrist might eventually get a patient to spill dark secrets, Hannibal is especially good at it. He only shares four scenes with Clarice, which function as four therapy sessions, yet in this time he gains her trust and gets her to admit her life story. Repeated close ups that focus on his eyes, followed by similar close ups of her, suggest that he is getting into her head. His constant prods of “why?” and “tell me more” are hard to resist when Clarice knows that she must answer in order to get the information that she needs, demonstrating Hannibal’s tight grip on Clarice and her private thoughts. Even before she has told him a lot about herself, he has her figured out. A few minutes after meeting her, he picks up on her West Virginian roots and starts making fun of her and her past, to which she replies, “You see a lot.” His ability to dissect Clarice in a very short amount of time reveals his psychiatric power.

In her article on the psychology behind the Hannibal Lecter of the novels, Bettina Gregory (2000) states that Hannibal “plays God with people's lives to devalue them in order to show them that he does not need them" (p. 112). When Hannibal must deal with people that he does not like in the films, Gregory’s assertion holds true. When Hannibal’s vile cell neighbor in the asylum disrespects Clarice, Hannibal eliminates him. In a flashback, we are shown how Hannibal has enough power over the mind of his patient, Mason Verger, to convince the young man to take drugs, peel off his face, and feed it to dogs. When Clarice helps Hannibal escape from the adult Mason’s plan of feeding him to monstrous pigs, Hannibal is able to manipulate Mason’s nurse, with only a few words, into pushing Mason himself into the pigs. In these cases, Lecter uses his knowledge of the human mind to convince people to do his will. From forming a relationship with an interesting young agent to making his enemies do what he wants, Lecter’s ability to get into other characters’ heads displays the power that makes him a successful villain.

The Mysterious Villain

In their first scene together in The Silence of the Lambs, after Hannibal Lecter uses his psychiatric power to dissect Clarice, she challenges him to “point that high powered perception” at himself. As Linnie Blake (2013) points out, “the FBI may be able to explain the motivations of a Tooth Fairy or a Buffalo Bill, but they are entirely incapable of offering either a clinical or a sociological explanation for Lecter's crimes" (p. 372). While villains with dark, tragic pasts can evoke sympathy from the audience, those like Hannibal who seem to commit crimes without reason are even more frightening. If we cannot pinpoint the problem, we cannot control it, and we are more afraid of it. Hannibal Lecter succeeds as a villain because the films give him no background and no explanation for his crimes. They also leave the audience with a mysterious ending that does not say exactly what comes next for Hannibal, suggesting that he could still be out there, anywhere.

No Past

As stated in the above section, “Biographical Sketch: The Man with No History,” the films give no insight into Hannibal’s past. Even in the novels, according to Bettina Gregory (2002), “one must read through Thomas Harris’ first two novels, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, and well into his third, Hannibal, more than one thousand pages, before Harris finally gives us any clue about Hannibal Lecter’s childhood” (p. 101). For those who choose not to read the novels and only watch the films, three hundred and seventy three minutes of film will give no such information. The only glimpses into Hannibal’s past involve the details of his crimes, not the reason why he committed them.

For example, the flashback in Hannibal involving Mason Verger, detailed above in the “Get Out of My Head!” section, is the only pre-arrest flashback in the films. Yet, it reveals no information about where Hannibal came from or what he was like before he started killing his patients. It almost suggests that Hannibal has always been a villain, terrorizing his patients and others around him for decades. This makes him more frightening to audiences because it suggests that villains like Hannibal could pop up anywhere without explanation. It suggests that a psychiatrist does not need a tragic backstory to become a scary villain. It suggests that human beings can be born with some innate evil that will turn them into cannibalistic serial killers without any outside influence. Without a backstory, Hannibal brings to light the possibility of inherent evil. This makes audiences fear not only the stern doctor in the white jump-suit that could eat them, but it also makes audiences fear their own potential for evil.

No Motives

In her psychological analysis of Hannibal, Bettina Gregory (2002) posits that “Thomas Harris wants us to believe that all of Hannibal Lecter's evil deeds including murder and cannibalism, are… motivated by his desire to avenge the death of his sibling" (p. 101). But, since his childhood and sibling are completely cut from the films, the audience is left with only vague guesses as to what makes Lecter tick.

One possible suggestion made in the Hannibal trilogy is that Lecter is so obsessed with culture and manners that he will attack only those who offend his standards. In Hannibal, when trying to answer a question about Hannibal’s motives, Clarice Starling says that he eats people “to show his contempt for those who exasperate him,” or “sometimes to perform a public service.” Indeed, many of Hannibal’s victims in the films have clearly exasperated him by somehow insulting his idea of perfection. In the opening shots of Red Dragon, which takes place at a symphony concert, Hannibal is clearly frustrated by a flautist’s playing. He twitches and grimaces in his seat when the flautist messes up, and soon it is made clear that this flautist is the main course of Hannibal’s next dinner party. After being arrested, Hannibal is in his asylum cell for several years, putting up with his neighbor, Miggs, but it is not until Miggs displays extremely bad manners towards Clarice that Hannibal manipulates him into killing himself. In Hannibal, Clarice states that Dr. Lecter was assigned to Mason Verger by the court to provide therapy because of Mason’s sexual offenses. Perhaps it was these disgraceful offenses that prompted Hannibal to try and kill Mason.

However, most people in the world have specific tastes that they would like to uphold. Many people are frequently annoyed by others. But not many people turn into serial killers. Even with a small explanation as to Hannibal’s motives, audiences still don’t know exactly what is happening in Hannibal’s mind that makes him lash out and kill. There are other cases where Hannibal kills people simply because they are in his way. He gets rid of two police officers in The Silence of the Lambs when he escapes, and he kills inspector Pazzi in Hannibal just before the inspector turns him in. These cases support Linnie Blake’s (2013) analysis of Hannibal’s actions: that he simply prefers “to revel in the infamy of irrational evil rather than participate in the behaviorist rationalizations of second-rate therapists” (p. 372). Hannibal’s irrational evil is his preference, and no doctor or analysist will ever know why.

In fact, when other characters try to tap into Hannibal’s mind, he gets defensive. In one of his more famous lines from The Silence of the Lambs, he states that, “a census taker once tried to test me. I hate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” He states this while Clarice is trying to get information out of him, as if to say, “Anyone who tries to figure me out will be my next victim.” In his first meeting with Starling, Hannibal also says that he is unlike most killers because he keeps no souvenir from his victims. Clarice responds, “No, you ate yours,” in a matter-of-fact, analytical tone. As soon as she says this, Hannibal’s eyes shift in his close up. He stops looking directly at Clarice, which he had been doing throughout the entire conversation. He lets his guard down and allows her to pass him the questionnaire that she has been trying to get him to fill out, as if he is embarrassed and hurt by her direct comment on his behavior, or as if he is just trying to change the subject. It is clear that if anyone tries to analyze Hannibal, he will either close himself off our lash out.

Still At Large

All three films have open endings that suggest that Hannibal’s life is not over. Red Dragon segues perfectly into The Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal is told that an FBI trainee will be coming to interview him. But his last words to Will Graham, expressed in a letter and heard though a voice over, leave the audience with the chilling feeling that Hannibal will never really leave Will’s head or dreams. He asks his former mentee, “Do you dream much, Will,” a final nod to the notion that the two are very much alike because they have similar dreams and inner hopes or fears.

The Silence of the Lambs ends with Clarice’s frantic pleas to Dr. Lecter after he hangs up on her and walks off to enjoy “an old friend for dinner.” The audience is fairly certain that the brilliant and sly Lecter will be successful in killing Dr. Chilton, which nicely wraps up Hannibal’s story for this film. The climax of his story occurred when he escaped, and now he has his freedom and sweet revenge in the resolution. Yet there is also an element of frightening mystery as Lecter walks into the crowd. While the audience rooted for him to escape, they realize in the last shot how frightening it is that Hannibal is now on the loose. As the credits roll, his body seamlessly blends in with the rest of the crowd as he walks away, suggesting that he could be anywhere. He even could be the next man on the street.

Hannibal also closes with Dr. Lecter’s escape. The audience is satisfied when they see his injured arm, knowing that he cut off his own hand rather than Clarice’s. However, once again, there is the chilling reality that this serial killer could be anywhere. Lecter is on a plane with a Tupperware of fried human brain (he is shown earlier in the film extracting the pieces of brain and cooking them). A curious young boy who is sitting next to him is eager to know what his travel neighbor is eating. He even wants to try some himself. The boy represents a new mentee for Lecter, now that Clarice and Will are both out of his life. This new mentee means a new life of freedom for Hannibal, which is satisfying since the audience supports the villain. Yet it is also haunting, knowing that this criminal isn’t behind bars. In the end, Hannibal proves to be the most successful villain of all because he is never caught.

Conclusion: A Complete Journey worth Investigating

Hannibal Lecter is a successful anti-hero because he is good, powerful, and mysterious. He is humanized by his relationships with Will Graham and Clarice Starling, and his relationship with Starling especially makes him a dynamic character by helping him develop compassion. He is a good hero because he defeats the real villains of the story that threaten Clarice. His charm, education, and psychiatric skill give him the necessary power for a frightening villain. The films’ lack of background information or analysis about Hannibal make him mysterious, and therefore scary and attractive, to the audience.

Although the final installment in the trilogy does not explain where Hannibal is going or what he will do next, his story arc is still complete. As a criminal, his ultimate goal is freedom. He is in conflict with the law and must overcome this conflict by finding a place where the law cannot reach him, where he is free to have the open “view” that he so desires. His often exotic destinations, such as the unnamed place at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, represent places with no bars and no FBI (Robbins, 1996, p.89). Since the last we see of Hannibal is him flying away in a plane, we can assume he is soon to arrive in such a place. On the journey to overcoming this conflict with the law, he develops two meaningful relationships. One of them allows him to develop compassion, which makes him a dynamic character in the end. His character development and journey are both completed, then, by the time he flies to freedom.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is worthy of further study. His complicated relationship with Clarice Starling in particular has been analyzed in several different ways, including Bruce Robbins’ (1996) assessment of Clarice’s career-driven attachment to Hannibal. Many of these analyses are worth reading to gain a better understanding of the significance of this relationship. The Silence of the Lambs, the most well-made of the three films, is excellent in developing this relationship with film making techniques that are worth further study. The exchange of close ups between the two characters, the symbolism of the glass and bars between them, and their expertly crafted dialogue all contribute to the films’ virtues. The debate over whether or not the there is an “erotic subtext” between these two characters in his film has not been solved and is also worth looking into (Robbins, 1996, p. 82). The presence or absence of romance can change the way audiences view Clarice and Hannibal’s relationship.

Hannibal’s mysterious practices are also worthy of further study. While I only focused on three films in this paper, there are several other film and television adaptations that offer different insights into Hannibal’s motives and background. An analysis of why Hannibal is such an effective villain might be made stronger by comparing one actor’s version of Hannibal to another. His practices are also worth further study because the medical field’s knowledge of criminal behavior and mental illness is likely to change in the future. Bettina Gregory (2002) is able to apply concepts from a 1927 paper on criminal psychology in order to analyze Hannibal (p. 102). An analysis based on more recent studies of the human mind might come to different conclusions.

Anthony Hopkin’s version of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and its prequel and sequel make such a strong impression on audiences that it is worthy of further study. This character frightens and entices, repulsing the audience while also making them want more. He is a successful anti-hero who, despite various analyses and opinions, remains cloaked in mystery.


Blake, L. (2013). Lecter, Hannibal. In J. A. Weinstock (Ed.), The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (pp.370-372). Burlington, VT: Routledge.

Davis, A. Z. (Producer), & Ratner, B. (Director). (2002). Red Dragon [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

Freeland, C. A. (2000). The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Goetzman, G. (Producer), & Demme, J. (Director). (1991). The Silence of The Lambs [Motion picuture]. United States: Orion Pictures.

Gregory, B. (2002). Hannibal Lecter: The Honey in the Lion's Mouth. American Journal Of Psychotherapy56(1), 100-114.

Lustig, B. (Producer), & Scott, R. (Director). (2001). Hannibal [Motion picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Robbins, B. (1996). Murder and Mentorship: Advancement in The Silence of the LambsBoundary 2: An International Journal Of Literature And Culture23(1), 71-90.

1 Here lies a significant inconsistency in this trilogy. In Hannibal, the flutist is identified as Benjamin Raspail. However, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal identifies Benjamin Raspail as the man whose severed head Clarice Starling discovers in an abandoned storage unit while investigating the Buffalo Bill case. Hannibal states that this Benjamin Raspail was a former patient of his, and also a former lover of Buffalo Bill’s, but he assures Clarice that he did not kill Benjamin himself. The name has been used for two different murder victims.

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