Columns > Published on February 15th, 2016

Book vs. Film vs. TV Series: 'Hannibal Rising' Vs. 'Hannibal'

'Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences...'

—Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

We've come to the end of the Hannibalverse, having explored all three previous books in the series—Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal—as well as their various screen incarnations. Now we have the decidedly unpleasant task of tackling Thomas Harris's fourth and final Hannibal Lecter novel, Hannibal Rising (I'll say it right now: I hate this title). 

Unpleasant mainly because this entry to the series really shouldn't exist. If you'll recall in our discussion of Hannibal, I went into some detail about Harris's revelation that the titular doctor was not entirely a product of nature, as he insists in the above quote. Harris tells us that witnessing his sister Mischa's death and cannibalization by deserted Nazi soldiers during WWII in part shaped this erstwhile innocent boy into the man-shaped monster we've come to know. Hannibal Rising takes this backstory many steps further, exploring the aftermath of this horrific event, predominantly Lecter's pursuit of revenge. 

Basically, this narrative is the Hannibalverse equivalent of the Star Wars prequels (there's even a hammy "NOOOOO!!!" moment). By making this comparison, I'm also hearkening Cath Murphy's recent piece "How Backstory Almost Totally Fucked-Up The Stars Wars Franchise," because that is exactly the same situation we're in with this last story from Thomas Harris. When I say it shouldn't exist, what I mean is, the overarching story of Hannibal would be far more interesting without revealing the circumstances of Hannibal's ascension, as it were. As a character, Lecter is far more terrifying in the shadows, and any attempt, however noble or even well-crafted, to "reduce [him] to a set of influences" will inevitably end badly.

So let's jump right in, shall we? Other than being pointless by default, what is it about Hannibal Rising that just doesn't work? And do either of the screen incarnations, the 2007 film of the same name or the TV series Hannibal, best the novel in any way?

The Book

I'll try not to dwell on the plot here, primarily because it isn't as complex as previous entries in the series. When all is said and done, Hannibal Rising is a fairly standard revenge narrative. In short, Hannibal lives in a castle with his well-to-do patriarch Count Lecter, his mother, his sister Mischa and a host of servants and tutors. World War II is in its final year, and the Lithuanian family are packing up and going into hiding in their hunting lodge several miles from the castle. The Lecters and most of the servants make it to their destination without incident, but the cook and another servant are murdered by Vladis Grutas and his gang of marauders, who are all defected Russians.

The Lecters spend several winter days and nights locked up in their cabin, wanting a little for food but otherwise happy. This all changes when a band of Russians in a tank stop off at the cabin to get some water, but are bombarded by a German air fighter. The Russians manage to fell the plane with a canon blast, but unfortunately the resultant plane crash and explosion is too close to the cabin, killing everyone but Hannibal and Mischa. 

The overarching story of Hannibal would be far more interesting without revealing the circumstances of Hannibal's ascension.

The former continues to care for the latter, and they make out okay for a while. Until, that is, Grutas and his men stumble upon the cabin and decide to shack up there for the winter. The gang is starving, and eventually the men resort to cannibalism, first eating a little boy they find wandering in the woods...

We jump ahead in time, and witness young Hannibal greeted by a group of Russian soldiers as he stumbles out of the woods, his arm broken and his ability to speak buried along with his memories. He is sent, ironically enough, back to Lecter Castle, which has now become a boy's orphanage. There, he gets into fights with bullies, showing the first signs of his mercilessness when it comes to dispatching the rude and inconsiderate.

More time elapses, and at the age of thirteen, Hannibal is taken in by his uncle Robert Lecter, a somewhat successful painter, and his wife, Lady Murasaki, who was also orphaned by the nuclear blast in Hiroshima. Working with a psychologist, Robert and Murasaki hope to draw out the awful memories Hannibal has kept repressed all these years, particularly the fate of his sister Mischa (long story short, he eventually remembers the ghastly details that we already know from Harris's previous novel, Hannibal).

Hannibal develops an affection for Murasaki, and his speech returns when defending her honor at the market. He attacks a Vichy butcher for loudly and lewdly suggesting that "Japanese pussy runs sideways." In a barely audible whisper, he calls the man "Beast." Because the butcher was well hated for being a German sympathizer during the war, the incident is more or less brushed under the table. However, Robert Lecter goes to the butcher himself and berates him, the exertion triggering a heart attack in the middle-aged man, the heart attack triggering death. Goodbye Robert Lecter, we hardly knew you.

Hannibal decides to take full revenge in his uncle's stead. He steals Murasaki's grandfather's katana, and beheads the butcher. Here Hannibal first practices cannibalism, eating the man's cheeks.

Because the incident is first believed to a be a war crime, the French police call in Inspector Popil, an expert in the field and a man who lost his family to the war, just like Hannibal and Lady Murasaki. He quickly surmises that Hannibal was responsible, but he cannot prove it (Murasaki helps Hannibal dispose of the evidence).

More years go by. Hannibal is now eighteen years-old and in medical school. Lady Murasaki, now living close-by in Paris and lonely after the departure of her attendant Chiyo, begins to spend more and more time with Hannibal. Popil still keeps tabs on Hannibal, unconvinced that Hannibal isn't guilty of the butcher's murder. Moreover, he has developed feelings for Lady Murasaki himself.

Now is the point we can pretty much hit fast forward. There's a love triangle of sorts between Hannibal, Lady Murasaki and Popil, with no party ever really acting on their impulses (for a while at least). In the meantime, Hannibal discovers his sister's murderers are now, conveniently, living in France as well, and he begins a systematic process of killing and eating them to avenge Mischa's death. Murasaki more or less knows what Hannibal is up to, and offers him her body and her love in exchange for a promise: that he will stop his evil deeds and live quietly with her. He refuses her advances, however, stating firmly, "I already promised Mischa."

Super fast-forward: Grutas and his remaining gang members kidnap Murasaki in an attempt to draw Lecter out; he figures out they're keeping the Lady on a boat; he finds the boat, kills the remaining gangsters, and finally Grutas, but not before this particularly evil dude reveals that Hannibal also ate Mischa in a broth—unknowingly, of course, but it did apparently happen, prompting Hannibal's "NOOOOOOO!!!!" He kills Grutas, blows up the boat, says goodbye to Lady Murasaki, and moves to America to study at Johns Hopkins under a medical scholarship, there being too little evidence to hold Hannibal in France. Cue Will Graham and the events leading up to Red Dragon.

There are two key things to note about this narrative:

One, as far as decent-enough "violent revenge" stories go, this is a solid example. It does lose a lot of its complexity about halfway through the novel, becoming something a bit more standard and recognizable—basically, what we expect from a tale of this sort—but not without its entertaining values. The fact that the protagonist is Hannibal Lecter weakens the narrative, however. Substitute anyone else—an original character, perhaps—and the novel would instantly become just an alright book, and not downright godawful when compared to Red Dragon, Silence, and even Hannibal. Basically, Hannibal Rising was doomed to fail because of its predecessors, and because, again, we just don't need this backstory for Dr. Lecter. It is better if he simply happened.

Two, to Harris's credit, it does not seem that Hannibal's evil was a result of the horror he experienced as a child, but rather that the evil was always within him, waiting for the right set of circumstances to set itself free. As Harris writes in his prologue to the novel:

Robert Lecter's letters, recently unearthed, may help us establish the vital statistics of Hannibal, who altered dates freely to confound the authorities and his chroniclers. By our efforts we may watch as the beast within turns from the teat and, working upwind, enters the world.

Later, to firmly suggest Hannibal's monstrousness has always been within him, Harris makes this statement as Hannibal begins to contemplate his revenge:

He is growing and changing, or perhaps emerging as what he has ever been.

When taking these passages into consideration, we can see that Lady Murasaki's attempts to quell the beast within are futile. It seems that Harris suggests Hannibal has no other trajectory to follow, that because of what he is, the monster would have eventually gotten out anyway. This is important because it shows Harris is at least not willing to explain away this character's evil, in the same way he reduces Francis Dolarhyde, Jame Gumb and Mason Verger to a set of influences. Yes, these events unlocked the beast from its cage, but if not this horror, than it would have been something else. In this way, we can commend Harris this much for keeping some of Hannibal's mystery intact.

Now, as for the movie...

The Film

Basically, the movie, released in 2007 and directed by Peter Webber, IS the book. This is mostly due to the fact that Harris actually wrote the screenplay himself, making a few changes here and there, most of which are inexplicable and do more harm to the narrative than good.

Baby's first anti-bite mask.

For one, the film skips Hannibal at age thirteen, jumping straight ahead with eighteen and older Hannibal with a clearly adult actor (Gaspard Ulliel). I suspect in the scenes meant to depict the newly teenaged Hannibal, we're supposed to accept Ulliel as a boy of this age, but it decidedly doesn't work.

Another change: instead of simply being adopted by his uncle and Lady Murasaki, Robert Lecter is already dead, and we witness an overly complicated escape scene, in which Hannibal deserts the boy's orphanage, distracts a group of Russian soldiers with a scarecrow and jumps the border fence. We're then treated to an Indiana Jones map montage as Hannibal travels to France to find Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Perhaps this was done to make up for the fact that Ulliel doesn't look anything like a thirteen year-old, and thus the idea of a family adopting him would be too ludicrous to film. Perhaps the producers felt the movie needed a jolt of action (the proceeding hour or so of the film is pretty static, though not uninteresting). Who can say why this choice was made? All I know is, it feels out of place and a bit pointless.

But perhaps the most significant change of all is Hannibal's first words after years of being a mute. Recall that in the novel, he growls "beast" at the butcher who just insulted Lady Murasaki. This word comes after Hannibal's violent assault of the man, in which his intent is decidedly to kill (and he carries through with this intent later). That he utters an insult, a negative word intrinsically linked to his killer instinct after so much time saying nothing, is important, as it ties into the notion that Hannibal himself always carried a beast within that was waiting to get out, and now the animal, the monster, was taking its chance.

In the film, however, Hannibal's first words are "thank you," which he whispers in this loving, doe-eyed manner to Lady Murasaki after she stitches up his sliced thumb. It is this tender moment between the two characters, particularly for Hannibal, and it completely subverts Harris's original intent. Indeed, Hannibal is here seen to really struggle with choosing light over dark, culminating in the scene where Murasaki attempts to seduce Hannibal in order to pull him back toward good. It is this painful, tormented, teenage angst moment in the film, with a wavering-voiced and teary-eyed Ulliel telling Murasaki he already promised Mischa; whereas in the novel, while it is clear Hannibal would like to give in to his desires, his previous promise is a mere cold fact. Sure, he isn't willing to lie to Murasaki to get what he wants, so he earns some merit on that end, but at the same time, this decision isn't difficult for him. It is what it is.

Because of this and several other moments, overall the film doesn't really feel like a Hannibal Lecter narrative. If you're a completist where this character is concerned, pick up the book and skip the film. You'll enjoy it far more, I guarantee it. 

That being said, I wouldn't put Hannibal Rising high on the must read list either. It genuinely wasn't as atrocious as I had anticipated it being, but it certainly doesn't shed any light on this character in any meaningful way. There are some solid ideas, but overall they're not fully fleshed out and thus they diminish rather than expand Harris's Hannibalverse.

Thankfully, we do have a screen adaptation that manages to remain faithful to Harris's material while also improving it significantly...

The TV Series

BEDELIA: Why can't you go home, Hannibal? What happened to you there?

HANNIBAL: Nothing happened to me. I happened.

The above exchange of dialogue comes from Hannibal, season 3 episode 3 "Secondo," written by Angela Burnett, Bryan Fuller and Steve Lightfoot, directed by Vincenzo Natali. Of course, Hannibal's line should be familiar by this point: it's what he says to Clarice in Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, and I've consistently gone back to it as a means of reiterating the importance of keeping Dr. Lecter's past a mystery. So it is significant that the Hannibal writers decided to place this line here, in an episode that directly deals with the events of Hannibal Rising, in such a way that acknowledges Harris's creation while also subverting it.

Fans of the show were "introduced" to Mischa early in season two, when Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) asks if Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) ever had children, to which the doctor replies that he was like a father to his sister, and that she taught him much about himself. This information is left sufficiently cryptic, and it is not until "Secondo" that Will Graham, now on the hunt for Hannibal in Europe, decides to investigate his good friend's past. He travels to Lecter Castle in Lithuania, where he finds Chiyo (Tao Okamoto)—Lady Murasaki's attendant from the Hannibal Rising novel—keeping watch over a disheveled and emaciated man imprisoned in the castle's basement. (Reportedly, series creator Bryan Fuller had originally intended to introduce Murasaki, but wanted a younger character instead; read about the fine details of this move via Bustle). Chiyo reveals that Hannibal told her this prisoner killed and ate Mischa; when she wouldn't let him kill the man to avenge his sister's death, Lecter left the prisoner's life in her hands. Will counters that Hannibal was no doubt curious to see whether Chiyo would eventually kill the man herself. He also makes this astute observation about Lecter's supposed evil origins:

WILL: Mischa doesn't explain Hannibal. She doesn't quantify what he does.

Chiyo's desire for Hannibal to spare the man's life and effectively "forgive" him directly echoes Murasaki's plea in Harris's novel. However, in "Secondo" and indeed Hannibal in its entirety, forgiveness is not a black and white issue, as Hannibal serves as both the betrayer and the betrayed in his relationship with Will, Chiyo, and even Mischa. You see, it is Bedelia (Gillian Anderson), Hannibal's psychiatrist and now stand-in wife, who deduces the truth of Hannibal's experiences with his sister, and she calls him out on it:

BEDELIA: How did your sister taste?

It is further revealed that the prisoner in Lecter Castle is innocent, a scapegoat for a fairytale concocted by Hannibal to manipulate Chiyo into engaging with one of his psychological experiments. It was indeed Hannibal who killed and ate his sister, though the writers never exactly reveal why. All that is said of the matter comes from Hannibal directly:

HANNIBAL: Mischa didn't betray me. She influenced me to betray myself, but I forgave her that influence.

What does this mean? Does it mean anything at all? Remember what Harris himself wrote about Hannibal in the prologue to Hannibal Rising: "[he] altered dates freely to confound the authorities and his chroniclers." Fuller and company prove this about the character with the lie he told Chiyo, but who is to say any of it is true, or any of it is false? Hannibal could be lying about everything.

Do you see what's happened here? Instead of answering questions, as Harris attempted to do with his novel and subsequent screenplay, Fuller and company actually raise questions, and thus reinforce the mystery of Hannibal—just as the character should remain, shadowy, incomprehensible, a figure with no other name befitting him than monster. Lovecraft insisted the ultimate horror arose from the "fear of the unknown," and this certainly applies to Hannibal Lecter, who must always remain unknowable. Thus, where Harris weakened his own creation, the TV series strengthens him through subversion of the creator's own material.

The Winner

Isn't it obvious? Both the book and its faithful film adaptation are disappointing and do more damage to Hannibal Lecter than good. The series, on the other hand, managed to make the character terrifying again, and keep him that way despite clear arcs and moments of light sympathy. 

So, now that we've reached the end, let's recap the winners in the previous installments:

Red Dragon — The book is a must-read. Manhunter is a cult classic in its own right, and props should be given to Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson for their respective performances in Red Dragon, though I feel the TV series best handles the material onscreen.

The Silence of the Lambs — Jonathan Demme's film is a classic and expertly made, but I tend to gravitate more toward the book simply because Clarice feels more fleshed-out there. (The series doesn't really figure into this conversation, since the producers didn't have the rights to adapt it directly, though it does borrow bits of dialogue and subplots generously.)

Hannibal—Definitely read the book, but maybe skim all the stuff with Pazzi; the movie is entertaining too, particularly Gary Oldman's performance as Mason Verger, but the TV show overall adapts the material the best.

Hannibal Rising — Check out the book if you're curious about the material at all. It's a quick read. Skip the movie. Watch the show. For the love of god, watch Hannibal.

Well, that's that. What do you guys think about Hannibal Rising, either the book or the film? Did you like the series's handling of the material? What do you think about the Hannibalverse in general? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

For analysis on Harris's Red Dragon and its various adaptations, click here; for The Silence Of The Lambs, here; and for Hannibal, here.




About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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