Hannibal Lecter: forensic psychologist, FBI asset, and “Hannibal the Cannibal.” The charismatic serial killer with a taste for fava beans and Chianti emerged from Thomas Harris’ books to become one of the great horror icons of cinema.
The Silence of the Lambs was a huge success when it was released in 1991. Its taut psychological horror, brilliant direction, and superb casting changed cinema forever. Though many still argue that it’s a pure thriller, the horror credentials are undeniable. It should be proud to be the first and so far only horror film to pick up the Academy Award for Best Picture.
It swept the big awards at the 1992 ceremony. Jonathan Demme took home the Oscar for Best Direction and the two impeccable leads, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, claimed the leading actor awards. Foster’s brilliant turn as FBI cadet Clarice Starling would be a one-off, but Hopkins would return to cement the serial killer as his most famous on-screen character in two subsequent films.
As The Silence of the Lambs wasn’t the first of Hannibal Lecter’s appearances on-page, that took some chronological trickery.
Thomas Harris’ FBI-based books were Lecter-free when they started. He wrote 1975’s Black Sunday in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis. Charting the attempt of two intelligence officers, one American and one Israeli, to stop a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl in New Orleans, it didn’t give much of a clue where Harris’ books would head.
Still, Hollywood snapped up Black Sunday, and the adaptation was released in 1977, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern. Interestingly, Harris has stated that the inspiration of the fearless cadet Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs lay in the female terrorist Dahlia Lyad in Black Sunday, a hint of the dark themes to come.
Thomas Harris’ tremendous legacy is all the more remarkable given that he’s not the most prolific author. To date, he’s only released six novels. His second, Red Dragon, was released in 1981. It introduced the character of Lecter, set the psychological themes of the stories to follow, and formed the central dynamic for the Hannibal television show that ran on NBC between 2013 and 2015.
Red Dragon was far more successful on the bookshelves, with Agent Will Graham introduced as its main character. Graham’s former ally Hannibal Lecter, now known for his fondness for eating his victims, was restricted to just two devastating scenes. That carried through to the serial killer’s first appearance on film: Michael Mann’s Manhunter. That 1986 movie wasn’t just a tongue-twister ⏤ it was a stylish but cold adaptation of Red Dragon, putting actor William Petersen in Will Graham’s shoes. Hannibal Lektor (a purposefully different spelling) was brought to life by future Logan Roy Brian Cox, who offered a colder and removed portrayal of the character. It’s a powerful performance, but it would be reset.
It was Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs that propelled Lecter to film superstardom. Hopkins’ reptilian presence is pitch-perfect, whether during his interrogation, manipulation of events, or daring escape from custody.
When the sequel novel Hannibal was released a decade later, it seemed ready-made for the screen. The sprawling story left behind the tense procedure of the FBI of Harris’ earlier books. But what it lost in its fantasy-tinged international thrills, it gained in sequences written for adaptation. In particular, the opening set piece that derails the once-promising career of Clarice Starling (played by Julianne Moore).
Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was a dreamy fairy tale that captured the horror and grotesque beauty of Hannibal’s plot and, as a result, it’s just as flawed as the overlong novel. It gained notoriety for the gruesome scenes it adapted but left others on the page that were just too unpalatable.
It looked like Hannibal’s film career was complete, but there was a clear gap. Hopkins’ Lecter was too large a character to contain, and producer Dino De Laurentiis was eager to complete the story that could make up for the disappointment of Manhunter. Director Brett Ratner brought Red Dragon to the screen to complete the trilogy of the Hopkins-starring thrillers. It was more faithful to the book than the earlier adaptation, although it was also overstuffed with star names led by Hopkins and Ed Norton taking over the role of Will Graham. Red Dragon earned its place in the trilogy thanks to the quality of its source, which, for all its similarities to The Silence of the Lambs ⏤ Lecter helps a reluctant FBI agent ⏤ is arguably the fundamental Hannibal story.
A fascinating part of catching the complete film saga is watching characters’ motives turn like a shadow on a sundial. Behavioral science and the lines that blur between characters nominally on opposite sides of the line, are central to the story. After seeing how events affect Will Graham, the motivation of a character like Jack Crawford ⏤ the FBI lead who runs through all the films ⏤ in sending a young cadet to interview Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is chilling. Again, these ideas were brilliantly explored in the Hannibal series.
But Hannibal’s movie career wasn’t over when the trilogy concluded. Thomas Harris completed the novel cycle by returning to and exploring the origins of his horrific creation in the harsh environment of post-war Lithuania. Hannibal Rising was duly adapted for the screen, with the late Gaspard Ulliel taking over young Lecter’s role. Hannibal Rising remains Thomas Harris’ only screenplay.
To date, that’s the complete saga of Hannibal the Cannibal on screen, but never say never. Lecter has proven irresistible. Just ask the FBI…
How to watch the Hannibal movies in chronological order
Here’s the best viewing order if you want to enjoy the films Hannibal Lecter has appeared in from a chronological standpoint:
- Hannibal Rising
- Red Dragon
- The Silence of the Lambs
How to watch the Hannibal movies in order of release
If you’d rather view Hannibal’s story in order of release, the above order almost reverses:
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Hannibal (2001)
- Red Dragon (2002)
- Hannibal Rising (2006)
Hannibal the TV series
NBC picked up the rights to bring Lecter to the small screen in the early 2010s. Showrunner Brian Fuller intended to build a complete adaptation of the book series in chronological order. Early seasons that explored the unwritten relationship between Agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter before Red Dragon would segue into direct adaptations of the books before the production met significant challenges.
Fuller mined the pages of Red Dragon to shape a psychologically-charged and bloody relationship between his leads, but his plans met a block when he couldn’t secure the rights to The Silence of the Lambs. What’s a Hannibal saga without Lambs? Unfinished.
How to watch Hannibal the TV series in order
Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter saga is a rewarding watch and is straightforward to view in order. Although it remains true to its subject matter, it will play games with your memory if you’re familiar with the books and movies.
The first season tracks the blurred relationship between forensic psychologist Hannibal Lecter and the uniquely gifted FBI profiler Will Graham, brilliantly played by Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, respectively. To develop this prequel, Bryan Fuller picked up on the similarities between the two characters seeded in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. Despite not being able to touch the events of The Silence of the Lambs, there are strong parallels in the first year journey of young cadet Miriam Lass, played by Anna Chlumsky.
The second season expanded references to the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, introducing Mason Verger and laying the background of the victim, who would later stop at nothing to get his revenge on the doctor.
The first half of the third and final season completed its loose adaptation of Hannibal, while the closing episodes incarcerated Lecter as the series finally reached the main plot of Red Dragon. The best way to view the show is very straightforward:
- Hannibal season one
- Hannibal season two
- Hannibal season three
You can’t keep an icon like Hannibal Lecter down. Following the abrupt cancellation of Hannibal, fans haven’t given up hope that the story will be concluded, even if Bryan Fuller’s original six-season plan dramatically changed. As a continued strong performer on Netflix, rumors have recently resurfaced that the show could be renewed for a fourth year on the streamer.
Meanwhile, Clarice Starling won’t be denied her time on the small screen. In 2021, CBS broadcast the first season of Clarice, which follows the agent between the events of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.
Like TV’s Hannibal, Clarice’s future is currently unclear.