Thomas Harris’s original character Hannibal Lecter has been a staple of the horror franchise since his inception in 1981.
Born into a written series, Harris soon set him loose into the world of film and then television, as well as one tangential moment in a spoof musical endearingly named Silence! after its most famous filmic counterpart, The Silence of the Lambs.
After the recent passing of the director Jonathan Demme, it’s interesting to see how the character has developed over the years from the page to the screen – and the actors that have taken on the mantle of the charismatic cannibal.
Brian Cox: Manhunter (1986)
Brian Cox’s representation of Lecter, or rather as in Manhunter, Lecktor, is one of the lesser known deviations into the serial killer’s psyche. Basing his performance on Scottish murderer Peter Manuel, he has been lauded as the Hannibal that could live among us – the realistic interpretation of the unrealistic horror. He captures the essence of the character in a less obviously frightening way, but rather builds his discomfort and apprehension in through relatability and normalcy. A terrifying prospect in itself. The starting point for a filmic adaptation of Harris’s books, Cox’s presentation of Lecter is the original fava-bean frightener; and an excellent one at that.
Anthony Hopkins: The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002)
Arguably most poignant in the saga of Hannibal is Demme’s addition to the franchise.
Catapulting the antagonist into the iconic status he inhabits now as well as making impeccable casting choices, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs rightly won five Oscars for its representation of Harris’s creation.
Anthony Hopkins’s infamous portrayal of a measured, eloquent, and downright disturbingly charming mass-murderer is one of the most celebrated performances of cinematic villains out there. He takes on the role with equal emphasis on Hannibal’s dangerously endearing personality and his psychotic sadism, delivering an uneasy appreciation for a man who could easily cut you open and eat your insides.
A world away from the expected crazed serial killer and a little too likable for comfort, Hopkins settled into fine-dining-with-stomach-lining with eerie ease. Less subtle than Cox but in the right places, he acts as a fair advancement in the creation of Hannibal, building on previous work brilliantly.
Gaspard Ulliel: Hannibal Rising (2006)
Delving into the recesses of Hannibal’s younger mind, Ulliel is a killer in the making – an exploration of the effects that made the cannibal who we know him as today. A step backward in time but potentially in representation also, Ulliel’s performance is debated by critics and audiences alike.
Some claim him to be not deft enough with the character, others think the writing gave him little to expand on – but one thing is certain: taking away the mysterious back story of one of the most famed villains in both writing and film is a bad idea. Young Hannibal is an interesting idea in theory, but one that pans out to an unfortunate lack of nuance that can be found in previous films.
Mads Mikkelsen: Hannibal (TV Series 2013-2015)
Taking a break after the previous, less successful venture into the mindset of Lecter, Mads Mikkelsen reinvigorated the role in 2013 for a NBC television series.
Utilising a sleek, sophisticated, and cultured guise for the antagonist, Mikkelsen’s interpretation of the character is the most interesting one to date. With the series shooting achingly beautiful shots of food preparation and middle-upper class living, the dark underbelly of murder in contrast with the sanitised and white world of psychiatry clashes more so than ever before.
The Danish actor claimed to be channelling Lecter as not a serial killer, but the devil himself, bringing a whole new world of malicious torment and careful disguise to the role that had never been seen before. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal stands strong against the hard hitting names of Cox and Hopkins, transforming to suit a contemporary audience and shine new light on the character simultaneously.
The evolution of Hannibal Lecter overall is a fascinating one to plot. Watching as he alters from the serial killer in plain sight in Cox to the more demonstrative and psychotic Hopkins works well for the directors involved, but it’s clear to see that with Hannibal Rising the subtle pushes forward on action over authenticity went a little too far.
Coming back from a hiatus on the character was the best option for the next team to helm his representation; and Mads Mikkelsen’s deeply disturbed, yet sympathetic vision of a ‘Lucifer’ Lecter is the perfect step in a franchise that needed a new avenue of exploration.
From plain to plain wrong, Hannibal’s representation over the years demonstrates how much room the character has for interpretation. With talks on season four for the latest Hannibal-elect, it’s comforting to know we haven’t seen the last of culinary cannibal just yet.
This article was originally posted on The National Student.