Film discussion

Examining Hannibal Lecter on screen

It’s not often slurps can be said to be the most famous in movie history, but that is exactly the case with The Silence of the Lambs and one of its most iconic moments.

Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the most famous cannibal in pop culture history is perhaps the reason why Thomas Harris’ creation has infiltrated the pop culture spectrum in the way that is has, but the truth is the character had been around before Hopkins won an Oscar for it; and it continued to be around after his last cinematic portrayal.

First unleashed on the world in 1981, Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon would end up on the big screen in 1986, his cannibalistic supporting character having his name spelled as Hannibal Lecktor, and the film itself christened Manhunter. Starring William Peterson as Will Graham and Brian Cox as Lecktor, the film was directed by Michael Mann and featured a tremendously atmospheric score courtesy of Michael Rubini and The Reds.

Unfortunately the film was not a massive box office success, nor was it received very well critically at the time. The impact of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 would bring Manhunter the attention it deserved when audiences discovered that there was an earlier movie featuring Hannibal the Cannibal, not to mention the rise of Mann’s subsequent directorial career which would see him become one of Hollywood’s most distinctive and highly visual directors. Another contributing factor in ensuring the film’s cult status was William Petersen being cast as Gil Grissom in the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a variation of his Will Graham character, going from criminal profiling to forensics.

Drenched in 80’s style atmosphere, with compelling and powerful performances from Graham, Cox and Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde, the film was very much what one would expect from Mann, both the modern-day auteur as well as the famed director of many a Miami Vice episode, with a final set-piece making glorious use of Iron Butterfly, with several intense scenes throughout featuring Petersen in profiling mode and Noonan’s brilliantly tragic and frightening portrayal of Dollarhyde.

Cox’s portrayal of Lecktor was less grandiose than Hopkins would turn out to be, but was every bit as powerful. More understated and with less charm, there was a methodical detachment to his performance that was equally as powerful and when he asks a telephone operator to patch him through to a number because he has no arms, his own prison telephone having no dialling numbers so as to stop him from reaching the outside world, the result is incredibly chilling down to how matter of factly he is during the entire conversation.

Of course, it would be 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs that made the character one of the horror genre and pop culture’s most enduring characters. Manhunter had been produced by Dino De Laurentiis, but he opted to pass on gaining the rights to Harris’ follow up novel, instead letting the rights slip to Orion Pictures. Instead of bringing back Brian Cox, and his proficient, brilliant and realistic portrayal, director Jonathan Demme cast Anthony Hopkins, turning him from respected British actor to major Hollywood star.

Best of all though, the film boasted a superb performance from Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the story being told mostly through her point of view (sometimes literally) as the film showcased much of Demme’s brilliant use of POV shots. Marketed as a suspense thriller, the film had much in the way of suspense, but in actuality was more of a classy horror. Not without controversy, it was heavily criticised for its portrayal of a homosexual character as a serial murderer, not to mention its handling of transgender themes, accusations that hurt the openly gay Demme, prompting him to make his follow-up film the much more sympathetic and very emotional Philadelphia.

Going on to win five academy awards, all of them in the main categories, talk inevitably turned to a sequel, but it would be ten years coming, with much of the wait being down to Thomas Harris writing the sequel. When it did arrive in bookstores, opinion was split right down the middle and in the end Demme and Foster would not return for it.

Instead Ridley Scott would call the shots, with a script courtesy of David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, Hopkins returning to the role and Julianne Moore taking over as Clarice Starling. Less of a taut procedural than Lambs or Red Dragon/Manhunter, instead Hannibal predominantly takes place in Florence and feels more akin to one of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Visually classy and elegant, no surprise given Scott’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s most brilliantly visual directors, and making gorgeous use of many a Florence location, the film also ups the violence considerably to almost Grand Guignol levels, although it would change the ending of Harris’ novel which saw Starling and Lecter become lovers and travel the world together, a primary reason for Foster and Demme declining to return as they saw it as a betrayal of Starling’s character.

The movie, like the novel, was heavily hyped, and ended up a commercial success, but reviews were more mixed and it did not feature as heavily at the Academy Awards. With the knowledge that Lecter was a star attraction (his name was the title of course), it features more of Hopkins than the previous movie did, focusing as much as it does on his antics in Florence as it does on Starling’s investigation of his whereabouts. Julianne Moore did a very good job as Starling, while Gary Oldman as Mason Verger was practically unrecognisable under so much latex, but its mixture of graphic violence, man-eating boar, as well as an unforgettable brain eating climax involving Ray Liotta meant it was a different type of cuisine to the film it was following on from. It did, however, feature a superb score from Hans Zimmer, and, despite being a different type of movie to the one it was following, was very entertaining in its own right.

Amazingly it would only be eighteen months before Hopkins and Lecter would be back on our screens, this time in a new adaptation of Red Dragon.  Bringing the continuity more into line with Lambs and Hannibal, the film functioned as more of a direct prequel to Lambs and starred Edward Norton as Will Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dollarhyde. The movie would feature the famed cell set from Lambs, as well as returning appearances from Anthony Heald as Dr Chilton and Donald Faison as Barney, while the film would retain the final set piece twist from Harris’ novel that Mann had not used in his own adaptation.

Hopkins walked away from the role permanently and when Lecter came back to movie screens it was via a prequel that explained the character’s origins and delved more into the story regarding his sister that Harris had hinted at in the books. Hannibal Rising was not met highly in terms of critical acclaim and did middling business at the box office, but did see French actor Gaspard Ulliel gain good notices for stepping into Hopkins’ shoes. A period drama, as opposed to the modern settings of the previous movies, the movie took place in 1949 and detailed the character’s attempts to gain revenge for the murder of his sister.

Although the film itself met with negative reviews, Ulliel’s performance was regarded as the film’s main highlight. Even more amazingly, the script was actually written by Harris, adapting his own novel, having been spurned on to write it by De Laurentiis’ assertion that he would make a movie about the origins of the character with or without a Harris source novel, thus the reason the book and movie were released within two months of each other.

When the character returned to our screens, surprisingly it would be another prequel/remake of sorts, with a different actor and on American network television. The show would be critically acclaimed, amass a dedicated cult following and last for three seasons, despite consistently low ratings on one of American television’s biggest networks.

Developed by Bryan Fuller, the series would mix and match when it came to adapting Harris’ novels, doing so in a fresh way, with Fuller putting a very modern spin on proceedings in a manner that gripped a very devoted following whilst being acclaimed as one of the greatest horror shows ever broadcast on television.

Even more amazingly, despite airing on network television as opposed to cable, the series was incredibly violent and disturbing, not looking away from its darker exploration of human violence, while also throwing some deeply surreal imagery on to our screens.

Mads Mikkelsen took over the role and managed to be both natural in a manner that recalled Brian Cox, and yet deeply charismatic in a manner that recalled Hopkins, albeit less over the top than Hopkins became in later movies. Being a prequel to Red Dragon, the series looked at the development of Hannibal’s friendship/relationship with Will Graham (a brilliantly tormented Hugh Dancy), with season one and two functioning as prequels to Red Dragon, and the first half of season three actually taking the novel Hannibal as its inspiration, before going into Red Dragon itself for the show’s final hurdle, with Richard Armitage portraying Dollarhyde.

Fuller, who cited David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and Dario Argento as inspirations for the series, had talked about wanting to do his own version of Silence of the Lambs if the series made it beyond adapting Red Dragon, but alas it did not happen. More amazingly, and brilliantly, the series took the central relationship at the heart of Harris’ novels, that of Lecter and Starling, and applied it to Lecter and Graham instead, becoming a dark work of homoeroticism, serial killers and shocking levels of horror.

Also starring Laurence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas and Gillian Anderson, the series became massively popular on the internet with a plethora of fans devoted both to the show and its central relationship, inspiring a plethora of art work and fan fiction about Hannibal and Graham.

Despite being cancelled after its third season in 2015, talk has recently started up of a potential fourth season, but even if this is the last we see of the character for a while, Harris’ character has made a mark on popular culture and the horror genre, having made considerable impact in prose, cinema and television, whilst being surveyed by different actors and different interpretations.

Those slurps will last a lifetime.

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