The life and times of Hannibal Lector on screen

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector in The Silence Of The Lambs
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Hannibal Lector has become an iconic cinematic character over the past decades – and there may yet be room for more of his story.

Spoilers for Hannibal lie ahead

Even through his iconic face mask, when Anthony Hopkins stepped into the role of Hannibal Lecter he became the face of villainy in cinema. The acclaimed actor played the role of Lecter three times, including his Academy Award winning performance in Silence Of The Lambs. But his portrayal of the character doesn’t fit into the confines of a traditional and satisfying trilogy, as his legacy would let us believe.

The reality is that Hannibal has had a varied career on screen, with surprising twists and turns much like the films themselves. With sequels, prequels, remakes and spin-offs, there have been five films and two television series based around Thomas Harris’s most famous character, with Hopkins not being the first or the last to step into the murderer’s shoes.


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If we look at recent cinema trends, fans love a return of a former icon: with Peter Weller returning to the role of RoboCop, all four Ghostbusters reuniting thanks to the help of some CGI in Ghostbusters: Afterlife and the Predator franchise returning to breathe new life into the series with Prey, it makes me wonder why Hopkins is yet to receive another chance to star in a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

While the television revival of the character did what seemed impossible in producing a performance that was worthy of Hopkins, with the effortlessly fantastic Mads Mikkelsen playing the role of Hannibal, the show received an unworthy cancellation despite huge acclaim from its passionate fan base.

More recently we have seen the release of Clarice, a television show revolving around the adventures of Clarice Starling between Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal. A Hannibal series without Hannibal? Feels like a Jason Bourne film without Jason Bourne…wasn’t that a weird time?

Brian Cox played Hannibal in the character’s first feature film appearance. Due to a licensing issue the spelling the cannibal’s surname was changed to ‘Lecktor’. The film has been somewhat swept under the rug due to the popularity of other adaptions of the story, however in recent years Manhunter has found its audience and gathered a cult following.

In Cox’s autobiography, he states that he and Anthony Hopkins are very close friends who speak regularly, however, Cox claims they have never once had a conversation regarding Hannibal. This can only be assumed to be a sign of respect between the two actors, with it being understandable if there was some bitterness from Cox around Hopkins’s success in the role. It also shows modesty from Cox considering his proud title of being the only man to play Hannibal and appear in an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

The Silence Of The Lambs is considered the Hannibal film, going on to become just one of three films to win academy awards in the top five major categories. The film was shrouded in controversy upon initial release, with there even being protests from LGBT+ groups regarding the portrayal of Buffalo Bill. Director Jonathan Demme would later publicly state that this was misguided, and he always viewed Bill as a straight man.

The third film in the series, titled Hannibal, left the door open for a follow-up. However, the novel ends with a much more definitive closing of the door to the story. The film ends with Hannibal cutting off his own hands instead of hurting Clarice, showing the suggestion of an intimate relationship between the two. Lector is then seen on a plane doing what he does best, fleeing and snacking on a human brain.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Hannibal Lector in TV series Hannibal.

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lector in TV series Hannibal.

Yet the ending of the novel focuses much more on the connection between Starling and Lector. Starling cuts off her own breast and gives it to the cannibal as a gift and as an act of love. The two then flee together and spend the rest of their lives in love, experimenting with cannibalism and drug use. This ending, though, seems much too far out for a Hollywood film and didn’t leave any chance for a sequel.

Hopkins has stated that he even wrote a follow-up screenplay, which entails Starling eventfully killing Lector. This story would seem very fitting given how the events of Hannibal unfold, but the sequel never came to light. When asked if Hopkins would ever do another Hannibal film, he very bluntly said no, and that he regretted doing any follow-ups at all.

Instead of making another sequel, the studio decided to make a prequel, serving as a remake of Manhunter and a more faithful adaption of Red Dragon, now with Lector appearing with the correct spelling of his name. Hopkins stars in the prequel despite being visibly older than he was at the time of the first film.

The structure of the movie shares more similarities with The Silence Of The Lambs than Hannibal. One of the recurring criticisms of Hannibal was it lost the sense of mystery around the character that the previous two films had, so returning Hannibal to his captive state and having the story focus on Ed Norton’s Will Graham, a detective who requires the help of Hannibal to catch a serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy, seemed a logical move.

The films continued to go backwards in the chronology of the series, with the next one to be released being Hannibal Rising, an origin story of Hannibal’s younger days. The film took a huge step away from the previous films, with no returning cast members, and the titular character now played by Gaspard Ulliel.

It is believed that Harris had no intention of writing another Hannibal novel, however he was coerced into it due to the threat of losing the rights to his most famous character. Harris knew that with or without him, the franchise was going to continue, therefore he wrote the prequel Hannibal Rising and even penned the screenplay for the film. Harris’ lack of genuine passion for the story is reflected Hannibal Rising’s poorer quality than its predecessors. While some look favourably at Ulliel’s performance, it’s generally considered the weakest instalment of the franchise and to date is the last film appearance of Hannibal. Tragically Ulliel passed away in 2022 in a skiing accident.

With the future of the franchise up in the air, it made the transition to television on 2013 in the critically acclaimed TV show Hannibal, in which Lector was now played by Mads Mikkelsen. The series takes place before the events of Red Dragon, with Hannibal being employed by the FBI to analyse Will Graham, with his true motives being kept a secret. The cancellation of the show after the third series is still a huge shock to fans.

The franchise has made many questionable decisions as to where to go next, none stranger than creating the television show Clarice. TV series that are in any way linked to established series are all the craze right now, but a series in the Hannibal Universe without Hannibal, in a time where fans beg for a revival of the pre-existing TV show, is a baffling one. Despite being 84, Hopkins recently won his second Academy Award, proving that he’s still at the height of his acting powers. Surely one more encounter with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti and the chance to finally bring a sense of closure to the franchise would be delicious treat cinema lovers would adore.

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