Lecter vs. Lecter
It's difficult to find a fictional character with a more notorious name than Hannibal Lecter. Ever since his first appearance in the 1981 novel, Red Dragon, he's stood as one of the most iconic villains in the history of fiction, along the likes of Darth Vader, The Joker, and The Wicked Witch of the West. Characters that are complex and unusual tend to have been analyzed hundreds of times over, and Lecter is no different, but where Hannibal Lecter stands out is his appearances in film as well as television. He has appeared in various movies and TV shows, allowing for a truly detailed character profile to form. Today I would like to compare the portrayal of this iconic character in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Bryan Fuller's Hannibal (2013-2015).
Before analyzing the character, it's important to get an understanding of who he is. Hannibal Lecter was created by author, Thomas Harris, and made his first appearance in the 1981 book, Red Dragon. He is a Lithuanian-American serial killer who famously eats his victims after murdering them. Before his life of crime, he was a respected forensic psychiatrist, one of the most renowned in the field. After being incarcerated at a maximum security facility, he has been used by the FBI to help catch various murderers including, Buffalo Bill. Serial killer, Alfredo Ballí Treviño, serves as the real-life inspiration for Hannibal Lecter.
In 1991, Anthony Hopkins gave the performance of a lifetime as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor. This portrayal of the character stands as the most famous iteration of Lecter, when you ask somebody to picture Hannibal Lecter they will most likely conjure up an image of Hopkins with a cage over his face. However, this is far from the only time that the character has been given the spotlight. In April of 2013, Bryan Fuller's television show, Hannibal began airing on NBC, with the titular role being played by Danish actor, Mads Mikkelson. The show ran for three seasons and acted as a sort of prequel to Silence of the Lambs, during Hannibal Lecter's medical practice and murder spree. In the show, Lecter helps aid FBI special agent, Will Graham, solve the case of the Chesapeake Ripper, which is actually Lecter himself. It's based off Thomas Harris' book, Red Dragon, which comes before Silence of the Lambs. The show was incredibly well received, like the film that came before it, holding consistently high scores on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Like Hopkins, Mikkelson also won several awards for his portrayal of the character. Despite the fact that Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal both include the same character and have both garnered high praise, it's clear to anyone who watches both how differently they handle the character of Hannibal Lecter.
In Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins plays a very eccentric, obvious psychopath. Even before the character first appears on screen the audience is made aware of his notoriety and just how dangerous he is. This could have a lot to do with the fact that at this point in the story he is a well-known, convicted murderer rather than someone who hasn't been caught, like Mikkelson's portrayal. Mads Mikkelson plays the character as much more understated in Hannibal. He's a wealthy, cultured, extremely intelligent individual that the average person would admire. In place of his signature caged mask, he wears expensive designer suits and is rarely seen without them. Almost like a Patrick Bateman sort of psychopathy, associating wealth and extravagance with normalcy; an attempt to blend in. Perhaps the most notable scenes in the show are ones of him cooking with human meat, filmed and edited like a promotional video for a five-star restaurant.
The most notable part of Hannibal Lecter as a character is his affinity for eating his murder victims. And although both versions of the character in Hannibal and Silence of the Lambs eat human meat, there's a stark difference in how the writers approach it. Of course, we all know the famous line "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti" but it's clear that he doesn't need special accommodations to consume human meat. In perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Hopkins' Lecter, tears into a police officer's face, biting off a sizable portion of his cheek, eating it raw. Mikkelson's Lecter still commits grisly murders throughout the series however he never eats a victim without carefully preparing it to the point where it looks indistinguishable from a regular meal. It's an interesting way to demonstrate how the character changed after going to prison, becoming more desperate and vicious. Mikkelson's Lecter also seems to noticeably exhibit more empathy than his predecessor. We still see him commit murder without remorse, including one of his own patients, however he also goes to great lengths to help Abigail Hobbs, a teenage girl whose late father was a prolific serial killer, he even helps her cover up a self-defense murder on her behalf. I really enjoy the added layer of subtlety that Mikkelson was able to bring to the character in Hannibal. The feelings of Hopkins' Lecter is much more ambiguous, we know that he establishes a relationship with Clarice Starling, however despite how amicable the two may seem, it's still unclear as to whether or not he'd try to kill her if he had the chance, although she mentions that he'd consider killing her as "rude." It's much more easy to tell who, when, and how Mikkelson's Lecter will kill. It remains true to the character's nature while also keeping the audience on their toes, if there's one thing Hannibal Lecter benefits from, it's unpredictability.
I'm not trying to say that one version of Hannibal Lecter is better than the other, in fact it's a rare privilege to see the same character appear throughout multiple mediums and be portrayed by different actors. The addition of Mads Mikkelson's Hannibal Lecter adds some well-needed depth to the iconic character, and the original performance by Anthony Hopkins was able to introduce the world to Hannibal Lecter and terrify an entire generation of audience members. Hopefully in the future, we will get to see more characters with multiple interpretations that make us think and keep us on the edges of our seats. I think it's safe to say that an entire generation hasn't enjoyed a glass of Chianti the same since...