“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” With those words Hannibal Lecter became a legend. Anthony Hopkins portrayal of the psychiatric psychopath won him a leading man Oscar for a grand total of eighteen minutes of screen time. Hopkins would reprise the role twice more but he was neither the first nor the last to bring Hannibal the Cannibal to life. In fact there are some who would argue that Mads Mikkelsen’s take on the character on television’s take on Thomas Harris’ novels. With that show having ended its spectacular run last Saturday (if you haven’t watched it you really should) I thought it would be the perfect time to look back and examine just what is so compelling about this eater of men. So in this month’s edition of Character Study I dissect that most cultured of killers Hannibal Lecter.
So what is it that so fascinates us about this character. Is it his intelligence? His air of refinement? Or is it the killer? The sick horror of cannibalism? I think it’s the amalgamation of the two that draws us in. The monster lying in wait beneath the veneer of polite society. Now this is hardly an original observation but it’s interesting to note that before Lecter there were very few serial killers with his particular brand of panache in literature or film but there were a great many who fit his mold in the real world. H.H Holmes widely held up as America’s first serial killer was thought to be quite the slick fellow by his peers and often used his charm to lure his victims into his house of horrors. Dahmer and Manson will not exactly opera goers both exuded a certain hypnotic sway over a portion of the populace. While Brian Cox’s Lektor (I don’t know why they changed the “c” to a “k” but they did.) in Manhunter is a fine performance and worthy of praise it was not until Anthony Hopkins portrayal in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs that we see Lector become a part of the public consciousness and we see a surge in serial killer movies in the 90’s and 00’s. While there are a slew of other examples it’s safe to say the two most notable are Seven and Dexter both of which count the Hannibal Lector series as a direct ancestor.
The character lost some of his luster following the release of Hannibal and nearly all of the rest of it following Hannibal Rising. This is for two very specific reasons. Red Dragon/Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs feature Hannibal in a cage. This creates a mystique about Hannibal. Everything he has or will do is inferred. There is an old saying about torture. That what people imagine you will do is always far worse than what you actually do. It the fear and anxiety that drive people mad. In Hannibal’s case the characters that inhabit his world are so terrified of him and handle him with such respect and caution that the audience can only imagine what he is truly capable of. This aura is furthered for the audience by presenting him as a grandmaster capable of manipulating events to his favor even from a cell. Once he is released the audience expects to see him act and are either inevitably disappointed when his ghoulishness does not measure up to their imagination or become horrified at the visceral gore that had been merely an intellectual exercise only minutes before. Either way the mystery is gone and with it the anxiety and fear that kept the audience coming back for more.
Interestingly it was only the television series that managed to have its cake and eat it too. By showing a Hannibal before he has been outed the show keeps him in a cage of sorts as he must keep his actions covert as to avoid being found out. He is free to act on his desires but again the show tends to infer more than show allowing the anxiety and the mystery to remain. This discretion finds its release valve in the manipulation of others which harkens back to another of the things that made the character so engaging in the first place.
In the end whatever it is that makes him tick there can be little doubt that Hannibal Lecter is one of the more influential and compelling fictional characters ever to enter the zeitgeist. That’s all for this edition of Character Study. So long and please don’t eat anyone.