Hannibal Lecter's Secret

A cannibalistic serial killer has become one of film and television’s most popular characters, thanks to his performers’ unique approaches to the role.


When the FBI profiler Will Graham meets Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's 1986 film Manhunter, the character's first on-screen appearance, Lecter is almost disappointingly human.  He’s imposing (as played by a burly Brian Cox), and eerily collected considering his reputation as a demented serial killer, but there’s an undeniable element of banality within his particular brand of evil.

The same two characters of Graham and Lecter are the leads of NBC's Hannibal, which kicks off its third season Thursday. But in this incarnation, Lecter (as played by Mads Mikkelsen) has evolved into a seductive, evil demigod, sometimes glimpsed as a demonic vision with jet-black antlers, to whom the laws of nature barely apply. This is in contrast to Anthony Hopkins’ seminal interpretation of the character, in which Lecter seemed to resonate with a horrifyingly charismatic form of urbane psychopathy.

Hannibal Lecter is one of the great fictional characters of the last century; a villain who’s at once chilling and disturbingly seductive. But rarely have portrayals of such an iconic villain been so different in their attempts to portray Lecter’s twisted but compelling allure. In a pop-culture landscape that habitually recycles and reinvents characters, the four actors to interpret Lecter have all used heightened theatricality to make the character feel like a credible, rather than campy, threat.

A preening, well-educated serial killer who turns his victims into gourmet meals, Lecter was created by Thomas Harris as a supporting character in his 1981 novel Red Dragon. The erudite forensic psychiatrist with a taste for human flesh was collared by Graham, and then agreed to consult with him from prison on a new case out of a strange respect for the man who’d caught him. When Mann was casting the role for his adaptation of that novel, titled Manhunter, he focused on character actors with sonorous voices—John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, Brian Dennehy—before settling on Cox, a largely unknown Scottish actor. Cox apparently delivered his audition with his back turned to show that he could command the room with just his voice, and when in Manhunter, Lecter first appears the same way—with his back turned to Graham (William Petersen), silent for a moment, before joking, “That's the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court three years ago.”

Cox's Lecter is laid-back and happy to engage in banter, but the threat of violence lurks in his eyes—he's incarcerated now, and respects Graham for locking him up, but there's never any doubt what he'd do to him if he wasn't behind bars. Manhunter is primarily concerned with Graham's fragile mental state as he gets inside the head of a rampaging killer called the Tooth Fairy. But Cox’s performance left an indelible enough impression to earn Lecter a much more prominent role in Harris' next book, The Silence of the Lambs, which was adapted into a film 1991 directed by Jonathan Demme, and starred Anthony Hopkins in an Oscar-winning turn. This was, of course, the performance that made the character infamous—Lecter was named cinema's number-one villain by the American Film Institute, and he inspired a new wave of horror films centered around serial killers possessing theatricality and dangerous allure.


While Cox makes his debut as Lecter with his back to the audience, in The Silence of the Lambs, Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally practically roll out the red carpet for Hopkins. As the FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is led through a prison to see Lecter, his psychiatrist warns her of his superhuman strength and penchant for violence, and the camera glides past cell after cell before finding Hopkins standing at attention. If Manhunter seems frightened of Lecter, mostly shooting him through thick white prison bars, Silence feels entranced by him. “Closer,” Lecter commands, asking Clarice to hold her FBI badge up to his Perspex cell wall. “Closer!” Demme happily obliges, filling the frame with Hopkins' face. Lecter might still feel like a secondary character in Silence of the Lambs, consulting with Clarice about yet another serial killer, but he’s indisputably its star. Hopkins won an Academy Award in the lead actor category despite appearing onscreen for only 16 of the movie’s 138 minutes.

Cox reflected on the different performing styles in an interview with the website Den of Geek years later, comparing the role to Hamlet or Lear in terms of the spin an actor can put on it. “I start the scene with my back to the audience, so I can pull them in. I’m trying to seduce the audience in an entirely different way. Whereas Tony’s there, he’s an indefatigable force,” he said. “It has immense theatricality, and it’s powerful. The only thing that went wrong—and this has absolutely nothing to do with Tony, because I think his performance was tremendous—was the franchise element.”

That Lecter inspired a succession of gory, R-rated crime thrillers is a peculiar anomaly in American cinema. Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001), which charts Lecter's adventures in Italy after escaping FBI custody, made $350 million worldwide despite featuring multiple disembowelings, a villain being devoured by ravenous boars, and another being spoon-fed his own brain by Lecter. Brett Ratner's 2002 adaptation of Red Dragon, which beefed up Lecter's role considerably to turn it into a more convincing prequel, took $209 million, and Hopkins apparently wrote another sequel himself to try and keep things going, but it was never filmed. The actor’s relish for the role is a huge part of Lecter's charm—here's a man who can’t wait to deliver his next creepy one-liner—but it ended up softening the character almost beyond recognition.

In his early appearances when he’s behind bars, Lecter represents a tricky but fascinating endeavor: to try to understand the motivations of the intelligent psychopath. Graham and Starling use him as a sounding board for insight into the killers they’re chasing, while contending with Lecter's own inscrutable ambitions. Hopkins’ theatricality in the role succeeds partly because the audience knows he's up to something—but once he's out in the world, he's dully superhuman, dodging every effort by the cops to re-capture him and simplifying his relationship with Clarice into a rather formulaic romantic obsession. A final attempt to add humanity to the character came with 2007’s Hannibal Rising, an ill-advised origin story that starred the French actor Gaspard Ulliel in the role, and was a critical and financial bomb.

The challenge NBC's Hannibal faced before airing even a second of footage was ducking out of the long shadow of Hopkins’ performance. Pitched as a prequel to Harris’ books, the series (developed by Bryan Fuller) focuses on Will Graham's (Hugh Dancy) early days at the FBI consulting on various serial killer cases, with the help of Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a refined Baltimore psychiatrist. Keeping to the character's Eurocentric casting traditions, Mikkelsen is a Danish thespian best known for playing the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, and he brings similar restraint to Lecter, helped by the fact that the character is still hiding in plain sight from the FBI. There’s no boasting of eating a census collector’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. There's barely even a hint that Lecter is up to no good at first, as he helps Graham take down a killer nicknamed the Minnesota Shrike. Mikkelsen hardly lets his Lecter smile, let alone monologue—this is a cautious, impeccably dressed shark of a man, lurking on the sidelines, analyzing the perfect moment to strike in secret.


Such a reboot could sound improbable, given Hopkins’ titanic performance in the role. Why would viewers want to watch a prequel about a serial killer they already know is guilty, especially since Mikkelsen barely lets him have any fun onscreen? Much has been written about the twisted morality of the show, which is shockingly violent for network TV (one reason, perhaps, for its relatively low ratings and summer timeslot), and seeks to invest its viewers in a man described as a “pure psychopath.”

But what makes the show such a success is what Fuller and Mikkelsen have understood about the character’s core appeal: his seductiveness. Audiences aren't interested in Lecter because he eats people, they're interested in the sway he holds over them, from Graham's tortured expression in those five minutes of Manhunter to Clarice's childhood confessions in The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’ Lecter was superhuman both in strength and charm, but Mikkelsen's seems able to bend reality around him. Manipulating Graham via their psychiatric sessions, Lecter conjures strange visions for him (accompanied by Brian Reitzell's impressionistic, atonal score) that inspire the agent to commit uncharacteristic acts of violence.

When devising Hannibal, Fuller (who’s created some of network TV's most original shows, from Wonderfalls to Pushing Daisies) said that Mikkelsen pitched his take on the character as a kind of fallen angel, a human devil walking the earth and toying with the motivations of others for his own amusement. "[In] one of the very first meetings with Mads Mikkelsen about this role, he referenced that he didn’t want to play the role the way Anthony Hopkins did or the way Brian Cox did," Fuller told The A.V. Club when talking about the first season. “He wanted to play him as though he were Lucifer himself.” That motif has remained true throughout.

In the series, when Graham goes into one of his fugue states (resulting from a combination of encephalitis and Lecter’s hypnotic therapy techniques), he often has visions of Lecter as a monstrous stag lurking in the periphery, representing his unconscious manipulation of Graham. By the second season, Graham has realized the depths of Lecter’s villainy, and now visualizes him as a more humanoid version of the same monster. Fuller’s brilliant ploy was to tamp down Lecter’s outward ostentation—Mikkelsen is vamping if he breaks into even a hint of a smile—and balance it with staggering visual sequences that underline Lecter’s supernatural charisma.

So many reboots struggle to redefine the iconic trappings of their brand, having nothing to add but a younger cast or sexier visual effects. Hannibal’s ultimate success is that it embraces what its audience knows to expect from its main character. Lecter doesn’t do anything in the first few episodes outside of chat with Graham, but there’s an awareness that he’s pulling strings behind the scenes and committing murders the police can’t solve—because he’s Hannibal Lecter. In the third season, Fuller’s show is catching up to Harris’ books, following Lecter as he hides out in Italy, having been unmasked by Graham and the FBI, who remain in pursuit of him. Again, the audience knows what will happen—this year, it’ll turn into yet another iteration of Red Dragon, with Lecter behind bars, dispensing advice to his former arch-nemesis as he chases the Tooth Fairy (Richard Armitage has already been cast). It’s been done time and time again, and still,  Fuller and Mikkelsen make it a tantalizing prospect. What other reboot can say that?