Columns > Published on February 28th, 2014

LURID: Hooray for Hannibal

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

“And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest…”

Othello, II, iii

It’s thirty-three years since Dr. Hannibal Lecter (AKA Hannibal the Cannibal AKA the Chesapeake Ripper) first appeared as a supporting character in the novel Red Dragon, although he didn’t truly burst into popular consciousness until Anthony Hopkins’ Best Actor-winning portrayal in Silence of The Lambs back in 1991.  Since then, Lecter has stalked our collective imagination, whispering in the darkness, flaying our foolish psyches, quietly convincing the unworthy among us to swallow our own tongues. 

His mesmerizing qualities stem from his status as a walking, talking, scheming paradox. It’s almost impossible to define Lecter in traditional terms – within either clinical or literary theory – as he thwarts every regular expectation.  

He’s a deeply empathic psychopath, a remorseless killer with a chivalric streak a mile wide.  He’s an opera and fine art devotee, a polymath expert in pre-Renaissance Italian history who can rip a nurse’s tongue out with his teeth without his pulse increasing above eighty-five.  He’s a heartless villain who delights in goading the good guys and obstructing justice, yet we root for his survival, and his happily ever after with his rescued princess in Buenos Aires. He consumes white truffles and human belly sweetbreads with equal gusto. He’s elegant, educated and sophisticated, driven by old-school noblesse oblige, yet he operates beyond morality, in a realm where the cannibal urge is king.  He’s the beast and the angel in us, Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula rolled into one.

You must understand that when you are writing a novel you are not making anything up.  It's all there and you just have to find it.

— foreword to Red Dragon (2000 reprint)

To date Dr. Hannibal Lecter has featured in four novels, five movies, and last year’s critically acclaimed NBC drama series. Tonight, to the delight of ‘Fannibals’ everywhere, he’s back for another 13 episodes.  Who’d have thought that this “small, lithe” maroon-eyed monster, this compact mass of contradictions, would have such widespread and enduring appeal?

Probably not Thomas Harris, Lecter’s creator, an author of the “write to find out” school.  Harris didn’t set out to create the character hailed by the American Film Institute in 2003 as the #1 Movie Villain of all time.  He fashioned Lecter first as a bit part, spawned as the culprit behind the thick scar on Forensic Investigator Will Graham’s stomach (“Dr. Hannibal Lecter did that with a linoleum knife”). Then, over the course of four novels, Harris shaped his past and future mythology, back and forth from the Second World War to the Millennium.  Hannibal Lecter is noteworthy for the manner as well as the matter of his genesis, testament to the power of elaborately conceived and meticulously structured backstory.

'Red Dragon'

In the foreword to the reprint of Red Dragon, Harris says he started the process of writing with his protagonist, Will Graham, and the deaths under investigation – standard thriller stuff – unaware of the supporting cast to come.

Harris often wrote during the cool, dark hours, in an isolated house in the middle of a Rich, Mississippi cotton field, accompanied only by the pack of semi-feral dogs who came to him for food.  He enjoyed the omnipotent invisibility of the author, in the room with his characters, witnessing their moral wrangling and decision making, recording their eventual fate.  Until Dr. Lecter drifted in from the fetid Delta night, first sighted as a shadow, an unresolved, painful element of Graham’s past:

Will Graham had to ask somebody, he needed some help and he knew it. He knew where he had to go, long before he let himself think about it. I knew Graham had been severely damaged in a previous case. I knew he was terribly reluctant to consult the best source he had.

Harris came up with an address for this source (Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane), and accompanied the hesitant Graham to his appointment.

Will Graham and I, approaching Dr. Lecter's cell. Graham was tense and I could smell fear on him. I thought Dr. Lecter was asleep and I jumped when he recognized Will Graham by scent without opening his eyes.

From the very beginning, Harris suspected Lecter was different, awkward, less accommodating than the other characters spilling onto his page.

I was enjoying my usual immunity while working, my invisibility to Chilton and Graham and the staff, but I was not comfortable in the presence of Dr. Lecter, not sure at all that the doctor could not see me.

Like Graham, I found, and find, the scrutiny of Dr. Lecter uncomfortable, intrusive, like the humming in your thoughts when they x-ray your head. Graham's interview with Dr. Lecter went quickly, in real time at the speed of swordplay, me following it, my frantic notes spilling into the margin and over whatever surface was uppermost on my table.

And, when it was done, after Lecter had been delivered to this world, Harris says he was greeted by a coven of baying hounds:

I was worn out when it was over — the incidental clashes and howls of an asylum rang on in my head, and on the front porch of my cabin in Rich thirteen dogs were singing, seated with their eyes closed, faces upturned to the full moon. Most of them crooned their single vowel between O and U, a few just hummed along.

Few secondary characters can claim such a portentous entrance, or that they exerted such influence from the get-go.  Harris introduces Lecter via negatives, the things he is not, because it’s so difficult to pin down what he actually is.  Despite his body count, he’s not a sociopath (“he wasn’t a drifter, he had no history of trouble with the law. He wasn’t shallow and exploitative in small things… He’s not insensitive”), but, says Will Graham, “they don’t know what else to call him”.  Privately Graham, one of Lecter’s three surviving victims, thinks of the man in freakshow terms, at least on the inside: 

He’s a monster… one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time.  They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don’t put it on the machines and it dies. Lecter is the same way in his head, but he looks normal and nobody could tell.

Lecter makes only fleeting appearances in Red Dragon, confined to his basement cell, but his presence is felt throughout the novel.  He functions within the narrative as Mentor, albeit an unusual one, simultaneously aiding and obfuscating the investigation by advising both protagonist and antagonist how to proceed.  Within the usually comforting binary oppositions of a crime thriller, he refuses to pick sides.

We learn of his killer past only by hint and insinuation, in snippets of backstory about his reign of terror as the Chesapeake Ripper. Within the action of the novel, all he has to do is wait for Graham, and the antagonist, Francis Dolarhyde, to approach him.  Once he has them fluttering against the bars of his domain, he dispenses fragments of the insights that they ask for.  Then he pushes his supplicants’ buttons.  What they do next amuses him, but he doesn’t really care about the outcome. He knows one will destroy the other and that is enough. 

The cat-and-mouse theatrics happen without him.  At the end of Red Dragon (SPOILER ALERT) the good guy catches the bad guy, putting an end to the killing spree, and all is neat equilibrium once more in the procedural world.  Only Lecter is left hanging, an unsettling loose end.  His final act is to write a taunting letter to Graham in hospital (“I wish you a speedy convalescence and hope you won’t be very ugly”) while managing to strike a note of pathos (“Any rational society would either kill me or give me my books”).  He may not have cared which man, Dolarhyde or Graham, survived, but he wants the winner – and us, dear readers – to continue to pay homage.  His parting shot (“I think of you often”) is Lithuanian-emigré for “I’ll be back”.

'The Silence Of The Lambs'

In his second outing, Lecter blossoms into a major player, a Mentor With Benefits.  He emerges from the basement shadows and directs the action as enthusiastically as any maestro conducting his beloved Baltimore Symphony, pulling focus wholesale from the true villain of the piece, Jame Gumb.  

As Harris began writing, he found he couldn’t keep the good doctor down:

…I did not know that Dr. Lecter would return …I began with Clarice Starling and, not two pages into the novel, I found she had to go visit the doctor.  I admired Clarice Starling enormously and I think I suffered some feelings of jealousy at the ease with which Dr. Lecter saw into her, when it was so difficult for me.

This time, Lecter does more than advise from the sidelines.  He figures out the link between the Buffalo Bill killings and his former patient, Benjamin Raspail, long before anyone else.  In Lecter’s hands, this knowledge is a deadly weapon, sharp and true, like the Samurai short sword he used to kill the butcher, Paul Momund, decades earlier in post-war France.  He uses it to great effect, trading his quid pro quo with Clarice, Dr. Chilton and Senator Martin, bargaining his way out of the Baltimore basement to an elegant antebellum courthouse in Memphis, where he can stage his bloody escape.   He doesn’t care how much he disrupts the main narrative: the dead girls, the deranged killer, the kidnapped senator’s daughter are simply tools he can use.

If you can judge the morality of a civilization by the way it celebrates serial killers, is our continued veneration of the cannibal doctor disturbing or reassuring?

En route to the exit, he plays knight errant for the rookie FBI agent sent to question him, Clarice Starling.  Initially, he questions her so he can deliver a typically disparaging assessment of a “well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste… eyes like cheap birthstones… not more than one generation out of the mines”.  He’s bored beyond belief by the intellectual midgets who hold the keys to his cage and scents freedom in the autumnal highlights of her hair.

Yet, once he turns that “high-powered perception” on the nervous young woman in front of him, he can’t help tuning in to her vulnerabilities, so resonant with his own.  They’re both orphans, eternally driven scholarship students, talented individuals who fail to understand why they are so reviled for moving to the beat of an uncommon drum. She brings what’s still human in him to the surface, startling him into compassion for the institutional misogyny she faces at the FBI, and for the spattered semen she faces from Miggs.  She’s his call to action, inciting him to rise up and cast off his chains.

Through Starling, we see the noble in Hannibal.  His obligation to her begins in common courtesy, in the respect she extends that Will Graham didn’t (Graham had no qualms about telling Lecter “You’re insane”).  Unfortunately, he feels no such obligation towards the five men he slaughters during his red-in-tooth-and-claw jailbreak. These murders are the first of Lecter’s killings witnessed first-hand, and they serve as a stark reminder of what the nimble, six-fingered doctor can do – without breaking a sweat.  Then he vanishes, leaving Starling to figure out how to catch Buffalo Bill on her own.

There’s just enough of Lecter in The Silence of The Lambs.  He’s rendered as a capricious old god, dispensing grace and favor with one hand, death with the other, oscillating between charm and crudity as the mood takes him.  We admire his shadow trickster antics, but there’s no need to engage.  His brand of mythology shimmers most clearly from a distance. 


Unfortunately, paperback readers, even if they know that less is more, always seem to clamor for more.  Inevitably, Harris felt compelled to supply another installment.

The Silence of The Lambs and Red Dragon have, essentially, the same plot, and it works both times.  Harris could easily have devised a third iteration, another serial killer spree, another troubled FBI investigator seeking (a recaptured and resentful) Lecter’s help on the case.  He could have stuck to the tried-and-tested paradigm, churning out a bestselling thriller every three years. Instead, he jettisoned the formula, to extremely mixed reviews.

By the time I undertook to record the events in Hannibal, the doctor, to my surprise, had taken on a life of his own.

Hannibal is never less than outrageous and entertaining, and it’s tempting to think of it as Lecter’s lurid daydream, unfurling to fill his windowless cell.  There’s a gleeful inversion of procedural conventions; the once-sleek FBI machine is corrupt and chaotic, a long way from the sleek conglomeration of expert individuals in pursuit of Buffalo Bill and the Tooth Fairy.  Starling, instead of rising through the ranks, seems doomed to very early retirement.

Thanks to the presence of warped one-per-centers, Mason and Margot Verger, and their hired Sardinian help, the cannibal doctor is not the worst human being present within the narrative.  Mason drinks martinis made from children’s tears.  Lecter will only “eat the rude”.  It’s relatively easy to root for Lecter as he resurfaces in Florence, picking up on courtly intrigue and murder where his Borgia ancestors left off.   

The iconic shackles, manacles and hockey mask aren’t the only restraints cast aside.  Harris goes for broke with Lecter’s one-liners, and with Grand Guignol mise-en-scene for two key set pieces, the historically accurate defenestration of the unfortunate Pazzi from the Palazzo Vecchio, and the final, awful dinner party, where Lecter serves Starling her former boss’s brains.  Harris writes with elegant command of the details, as always, but it’s difficult to be this over-the-top without teetering into grotesque comedy.  Tonally, Hannibal is very different from the earlier books.

There’s also the issue of familiarity breeding contempt.  Spending time with Lecter as he pores over medieval manuscripts and enjoys – finally – a view of the Florence skyline, he seems smaller than remembered.  His nightmare in mid-Atlantic coach class offers a glimpse into the traumas of his wartime past, and makes him seem pitiable, a monster made from heartache rather than (as the gypsy pickpocket Romula suggests) born “Shaitan, Son of The Morning”. When, back in the USA, we accompany Lecter on a couple of shopping trips, turns out he’s kinda prissy.  If you like your old gods enigmatic and inexorable, skip the Saturday afternoon excursion in search of table linens and glassware.

I dreaded doing Hannibal, dreaded the personal wear and tear, dreaded the choices I would have to watch, feared for Starling.  In the end I let them go, as you must let characters go, let Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling decide events according to their natures. There is a certain amount of courtesy involved.

By stripping away some of the mystique surrounding Lecter, by presenting his flaws alongside his vaguely superhuman strengths, Harris at once reduces and expands his Byronic hero.  In keeping with the theme of transformation (both Buffalo Bill and the Tooth Fairy use murder as a method of metamorphosis), by the end of the series, Hannibal has become something else entirely, his old self faded away like his prison pallor.

Harris gives his creation a great and startling gift in the final pages of Hannibal, a Becoming more dramatic than anything conjured by the Red Dragon.  At the time, puzzled readers didn’t know that Lecter had come full circle, from damnation after being torn from the arms of his baby sister, Mischa, to redemption, in the arms of Clarice.  It wasn’t until the prequel, Hannibal Rising, published in 2006, that Harris filled in the gaps.

'Hannibal Rising'

Lecter’s origin story is another bold departure from the material that made his name.  The prequel, dealing with Lecter’s childhood in Lithuania and his adolescence in France, owes more to the Brothers’ Grimm than the usual airport thriller. The young Hannibal is introduced via a Hollywood fantasy of Europe, in a Lithuanian castle, threatened by advancing Nazi troops.  The Lecter family flee to a hunting lodge in the woods, but a passing Russian tank attracts Stuka fire, and, in the resulting battle all the adults die, then are eaten by wolves, leaving only six year old Hannibal and his baby sister cowering in the cellar.  Subsequently, a marauding gang of mercenaries invades the lodge, and, rather than starve to death in the icy, war-torn winter, chooses to eat what they find there: little Mischa.

Lecter’s baptism of fire and blood is a curious mix of twentieth century history and folkloric tradition. Harris’s storytelling never strays too far from Hansel and Gretel, yet the reader can’t help thinking of the similar horrors unfolding to the southwest.  Mischa’s death occurs in the deep winter of 1944-5, as Allied forces were breaching the gates of concentration camps across Germany and Poland and discovering the atrocities contained within.  An unnamed army medical officer reported to the world’s press that Berger-Belsen was “the most horrible, frightful place” he had ever been. His comments on the wire were succinct:

"The prison doctors tell me that cannibalism is going on," the medical officer said. "There was no flesh on the bodies; the liver, kidneys, and heart were knifed out.”

Young Hannibal’s childhood trauma, horrible though it is, pales in comparison to the experiences of children trapped in the camps.  In The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, himself a camp survivor, argues that children use the darkness of fairy tales in order to cope with the horrors of reality.  In that light, the account given by Harris of the little boy and girl preyed on by two-legged wolves has more than a whiff of metaphor about it.  The opening chapter of Hannibal Rising hints that what is to follow is a version of events, rather than the whole truth, as information is being extracted from Lecter’s Memory Palace, built long after many of the facts. Even so –

Pleas and screaming fill some places on the grounds where Hannibal himself cannot go.

Again, Harris could have taken the easy route, incarcerating young Hannibal in a camp where his stark choice was to knife out the liver, kidneys and heart of the recently deceased, or starve in the Belsen ice.  That may have been the truth in the back of his mind about the original Lecter, evil begotten of evil, the traumatized child who could never put the taste of human flesh behind him.  But, by the time author and readers had indulged the extravagant wish fulfillment of Hannibal, that truth would have seemed too cruel, too real.   Hannibal Rising permits Lecter his fairy tale beginnings, maintains his semi-mythological status, rather than crushing his humanity into the frozen Belsen mud.

'Hannibal' (2013-14)

It’s not surprising that such a richly imagined character has ended up as the central figure in a television drama. As intellectual property, Hannibal Lecter is too valuable, too resonant, to be left sitting idly on the shelf. The first season of the show was a delight, from Mads Mikkelsen’s pitch perfect interpretation of Lecter as Lucifer, the fallen angel walking among us, to gender switches for Dr. Alan (now Alana) Bloom and Freddy (now Frederica) Lounds, to the sumptuous production design to the high baroque murders (mushrooms!).  The narrative is located in the time before Red Dragon, with Lecter a free man and practicing psychiatrist advising an increasingly tormented Will Graham on his investigations into the Minnesota Shrike and the Chesapeake Ripper.  The plot details are lovingly teased from the layers and subtext in Harris’s books: meticulous construction is rewarded with equally fastidious adaptation.  The showrunner, Bryan Fuller, has indicated that the events depicted in the novels don’t enter the mix until Season Four of his version, which gives us two more delicious seasons of Hannibal’s warped mind-games – and home-cooked delicacies – before the prison house prevails.  Tonight, look out for this epic hand-to-hand combat, and the emergence of Mason Verger (pre-face consumption).

Hannibal was one of the best things on television last year, proving that Lecter still has what it takes – even post-9-11 – to be our boogeyman du jour.  If you can judge the morality of a civilization by the way it celebrates serial killers, is our continued veneration of the cannibal doctor disturbing or reassuring?  If he were real, would we dare to ask?

What are your favorite Lecter moments from the books and the films? Which actor do you think has portrayed him best?

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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