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30 Years of Hannibal Lecter, Cinema’s Greatest Villain

As Manhunter celebrates three decades, a history of everyone's favorite cannibal.

Thirty years ago this week—in a film that was widely recognized as a commercial flop upon its release—moviegoers first made the acquaintance of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the Greatest Villain in Cinema History.

You don’t need to take my word on that. That lofty title was bestowed upon Hannibal by the American Film Institute, which ranked the character above Norman Bates, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West in a 2003 survey. But while each of those also-rans have long since been strip-mined by popular culture—in Bates Motel, the Star Wars prequels, and Wicked, respectively—their initial impression is the one that has survived. Anthony Perkins' deranged smile. James Earl Jones' booming "I am your father." Margaret Hamilton wailing as she melts. But Hannibal is something different: a villain whose most celebrated appearance came years after his initial introduction, and whose long-term legacy is still an open question.

Hannibal made his debut in Michael Mann's Manhunter, where his last name is spelled "Lecktor" in a pointless deviation from the novel. (It's a philosophy that also extends to the movie’s title, which swaps out Thomas Harris' Red Dragon—presumably out of concern that audiences might mistake it for a fantasy film—in favor of the ultra-generic Manhunter.)

The role of Hannibal was originated by Brian Cox, whose performance embodies the banality of evil. Balding, a little portly, wearing all white in an all-white cell, Cox's Hannibal is a vicious cannibal killer whose teeth seem to have been pulled out long before the story began. There’s nothing particularly intimidating about him; if I had to describe the character in one word, I’d probably go with "fussy." But that non-threatening demeanor is a long con, played on the audience by Cox's performance and Mann's direction. As soon as Hannibal gets the chance, he attempts to manipulate a disturbed serial killer into murdering Will Graham, the movie's protagonist.

But despite the key role he plays in the narrative, the most interesting thing about Manhunter's Hannibal is how much he fades into the fabric of the movie. Mann's interests clearly lie in the coiled intensity of Will Graham and the deep psychosis of the man he spends the movie hunting—Francis Dollarhyde, who bristles at the nickname "Tooth Fairy" because he thinks of himself as a dragon. On a blind viewing—without any knowledge of the pop-cultural prominence to which Hannibal would eventually rise—he might not make much of an impression at all.

And while Harris' literary sequel to Red Dragon was published just two years after Manhunter arrived in theaters, the film's box-office failure might have snuffed out the Hannibal franchise before it began. Instead, Manhunter's failure served as an unlikely asset. Because so few people had seen Cox's interpretation of Hannibal, director Jonathan Demme had the license to completely reinvent him.

The Silence of the Lambs was Hannibal Lecter's real coming-out party, and the one that still looms largest in most people's minds. Anthony Hopkins' more theatrical take on Hannibal became an instant pop-cultural phenomenon, netting him a Best Actor Oscar for a role that would undoubtedly be considered a supporting performance if it didn't tower over the rest of the movie. (It's also, incidentally, the specific performance the American Film Institute was citing when it declared Hannibal the greatest villain ever.)

Hopkins' performance has been parodied over and over again since The Silence of the Lambs arrived in theaters, but in context, it remains a powerful and menacing performance. His smirky, unblinking Hannibal feels larger than life, and Jonathan Demme's camerawork makes him seem even more grandiose, letting his bug eyes dominate the frame and allowing him to loom over his victims as he escapes his captivity. It's a performance that cannily seduces the audience into liking Hannibal without ever letting us totally forget that he's a vicious, cannibalistic killer.

Unfortunately, Hannibal became the victim of his own success; for all the parodies, no one did as much damage to The Silence of the Lambs' legacy as Anthony Hopkins. 2001's Hannibal, which put the character at the center of the narrative for the first time, is a ludicrous fiasco of a movie (which, to be fair, is adapted from a ludicrous fiasco of a novel). As it turned out, there was a good reason Hannibal Lecter lurked on the sidelines of his first two cinematic appearances; in the spotlight, Hopkins' colorful performance began to feel cartoony, and a slew of narrative missteps culminated in a film that shifted Hannibal from a mesmerizing villain to an unconvincing hero. The growing malaise was only compounded by Hopkins' final performance as Hannibal—Brett Ratner's wildly unnecessary adaptation of Red Dragon, in which Hopkins chews so much scenery that it starts to feel like a retroactive parody of his finely calibrated work in The Silence of the Lambs.

Clearly, it was time to take the character in a new direction. Unfortunately, the direction they chose is the dumbest one you can possibly imagine. Hannibal's ill-advised transition from side villain to main hero reached its logical but unfortunate conclusion with the prequel Hannibal Rising, which gives Hannibal a Batman-esque origin story. Adapted from the novel of the same name—which Thomas Harris only wrote because producer Dino De Laurentiis threatened to make it without him if he didn't get to work—Hannibal Rising is a disaster that embodies all the worst qualities of a prequel. We get the story behind everything: his intellect, his cannibalism, even the mask. Played, as you definitely don’t remember, by a bland French dude named Gaspard Ulliel, Hannibal is utterly demystified by Hannibal Rising. By the end of the movie, it's not just that the whole Hannibal story had been told; it's that the whole story had been so over-told that it felt like there would never be a need for a Hannibal story again.

And then came Hannibal, the gorgeous, gory NBC series that managed to bring Hannibal back from the dead. The brilliance of Hannibal's approach to the character was in remixing and elongating one of the few parts of the Hannibal Lecter story that hadn't been told: the time immediately before his capture, when he worked alongside Will Graham before anyone knew he was a cannibalistic killer. Showrunner Brian Fuller found the ideal actor to reinvent Hannibal: Mads Mikkelsen, who opted to play him as if he were literally the devil. It's a Hannibal designed to erase all the preconceptions audiences might bring to the character, and while the show's ratings were always terrible, it was a creative triumph; by the end of the series, I'd argue that Mikkelsen's reinterpretation—wry, brilliant, epicurean in his tastes, and terrifying in his capacity to wreak physical and psychological violence—had far exceeded Hopkins'.

But while the cancellation of Hannibal meant the end of the character's 30-year reign of terror, there's little doubt he'll come back again eventually. Having weathered such a long and fallow creative period can be a blessing in disguise; if Hannibal can survive the worst, he'll be that much harder to kill. When asked about Hopkins' take on Hannibal, Brian Cox shrugged off the comparison: "It’s like comparing two Hamlets, or two Lears." That might sound a little grandiose—but if 30 years of history has shown us anything, it’s that there’s just as much room for an actor to make Hannibal his own.

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