All 5 Hannibal Lecter Movies Ranked from Worst to Best
by Eleanor Sciolistein
Ever since he first slithered, as a secondary character, from the pages of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon, Dr. Hannibal Lecter has held the unnerving power to both frighten and fascinate audiences in equal measure.
Described by Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about the monstrous, as ‘The great literary monster of our time’ one of the most terrifying things about ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ is the fact that, despite being guilty of one our most viscerally abhorrent taboos, he also displays characteristics, talents and qualities that we find not only intriguing but often genuinely compelling and even, dare I say it, attractive.
As the noted film critic Roger Ebert put it when discussing The Silence of the Lambs, “One key to the film's appeal is that audiences like Hannibal”. Lecter is the embodiment of the car crash we can’t look away from, the wicked pleasure in the forbidden fruit. Hannibal is a monster with ‘magnetism’.
But which of the movies featuring ‘the good doctor’ are most worth your time? Which are delicious delicacies that deserve to be served with a fine wine and which should be neatly stored in that ‘circular filing cabinet’ also known as the ‘bin’?
The films themselves range from the deeply disappointing and mediocre to the decidedly above average and in at least one case ‘genuine cinematic masterpiece’. So, bang on the Goldberg variations, serve up liver and fava beans and pour yourself a nice chianti (or Ameroni, the wine is different in the novel, so pick your poison) and once you are comfortably situated, let’s dive in and examine the history of Hannibal Lecter on screen. There’s plenty to sink our teeth into…
5. Hannibal Rising (2007)
Despite the title, this is Hannibal doing anything but rising. In terms of quality, this film is more ‘Hannibal hurtling toward the ground like a bowling ball thrown from an aeroplane, or ‘Hannibal at rock bottom and showing signs of digging’.
The fact that this is the only film of the five Hannibal features to have had Hannibal’s creator Thomas Harris working on the screenplay, doesn’t help, shackled as he was to an inferior novel he had virtually been forced to write (Producer Dino De Laurentiis, who owned the rights to the Lecter character, having threatened to simply find someone else to write the prequel if Harris refused).
By far the weakest film to feature Lecter, this half-baked effort traces Hannibal’s early years and the traumas that scarred his psyche and led him to become the man-monster he became. Trust me, it sounds more compelling than it is, which is partly what makes it so tragic.
A string of righteous vengeance set pieces played out by a gurning Gaspard Ulliel who tries hard but fails to convince in a role that seems many sizes too big for him, the film has a weak plot, plodding script and unconvincing backstory.
So entirely devoid of suspense is the film that it will have you so far from the edge of your seat that you might as well be sitting in the lap of the person behind you (which would undoubtedly still be preferable and potentially far more interesting than this yawn fest could ever hope to be).
4. Hannibal (2001)
From tragedy to farce. Direct sequel to Silence of The Lambs, Hannibal suffers somewhat from its predecessors ' success.
With Lecter now being a household name and the film having become a cultural icon, Lecter became a bogeyman dragged out into the light, much of his potency as a villain diluted by overexposure and parody.
This could have been overcome (as we will see later) had the script and direction been stronger. Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s aesthetic, whilst it luxuriates in the opulent visual indulgence one might associate with Hannibal’s tastes, loses something by ditching the shadowy gothic appeal of Deme’s classic.
Whilst there are some tense and well-orchestrated scenes, particularly in the earlier portion of the film, where the confrontations between Lecter and the over-inquisitive and avaricious police inspector positively drip with dramatic irony, the suspense is fleeting before becoming entirely non-existent.
Furthermore, the dramatic irony is not the only thing that drips, as, unlike the more restrained Silence of Lambs, where much of the violence is off-camera or suggested, Scott chooses to thrust the gore and body horror front and centre. Which rather than being scary, simply diminishes the actions, making them seem juvenile and pantomime in their brash extravagance.
Whilst Sir Anthony Hopkins does his best with the flickers of dark humour that slightly enliven the script, the fact that much of his performance is played for laughs means that it lacks the menace of SOTL and the overwhelming impression is of a threat neutered by familiarity.
Hannibal is the movie equivalent of going to a restaurant and eating a napkin: it is passable, but hardly the most attractive thing on the menu.
3. Manhunter (1986)
This 1986 offering predates the Sir Tony Trilogy (Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon) and is not only the first adaptation of one of Harris’ Lecter novels but the first on-screen appearance for the good doctor.
Played with devilish relish by British actor Brian Cox, this vision of Lecter is interesting as a point of comparison, but also fascinating in its own right, as Cox imbues Hannibal’s dialogue with a rapid-fire intensity, that has a gorgeously sinister undercurrent of contempt and intent.
Undoubtedly dated, as signified by the 80’s soundtrack so synth-heavy that you half expect Hannibal to emerge from a fog of dry ice, this is a stellar effort in which retired FBI agent Will Graham is coaxed back to duty by the heinous actions of a serial killer known as ‘The Tooth Fairy’, beginning a pursuit which will ultimately require him to revisit his most famous and most damaging arrest in the shape of Hannibal himself.
Featuring some criminally underrated performances, not only from Cox as Lecter but also William Peterson ( Grisham from CSI) as Graham and Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde, the damaged and psychotic Tooth Fairy, this is an above-average thriller that is well worth your time.
2. Red Dragon (2002)
A much later adaptation of the exact same novel, it is surprising how different the two films actually are. In my opinion the superior adaptation, not only for the fact that it features Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal but also for its pacing and faithfulness to key details of the novel (for example the references to Dollarhyde’s William Blake obsession and his damaging childhood).
Resurrecting the gloomy aesthetic of Demme’s film and even replicating the same sets in order to maintain continuity between the two films, this movie also shows a much more on form Hopkins, who (perhaps benefiting from a stronger script built around a superior novel) somehow manages to capture some of the original malevolence of his first performance, bouncing off Edward Norton’s suitably reticent Graham, who seems genuinely repulsed by Hannibal and the side of him that he initially failed to see.
Even more so than Manhunter, this film is elevated by the strength the acting performances cast wide, with names like Philip Seymor Hoffman and Ralph Feines putting in excellent work in their respective roles.
A superior thriller and the prequel that Silence of Lambs deserved.
1. The Silence of The Lambs (1991)
An absolute gem of a movie, this classic thriller, which was one of the very few horror movies ever to win an Oscar (it claimed five) is simply a must-see movie.
Featuring a performance from Hopkins in which he somehow imbues simple actions like a wink or the brush of a finger with a venomous potency they have no business possessing, The Silence of Lambs instantly installed Hannibal Lecter as one of Hollywood’s most iconic and indeed most genuinely terrifying villains.
Detailing the developing relationship between FBI agent Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter as she consults him for information on the serial killer Buffalo Bill, the film is fraught with tension, filled with suspense and has more memorable moments than the first two films on this list combined.
The film’s direction echoes the sense of unwelcome attention Hannibal conveys by deliberately using direct to camera and slightly off-camera address, with the male characters, in particular, staring directly into the lens as they deliver their lines at a proximity that has an unnervingly penetrating effect.
Like Starling herself, you feel the character’s eyes upon you and when those eyes belong to Hannibal Lecter, that is a deeply uncomfortable feeling.
Demme’s entire movie crackles with energy and displays in its contrasts, the same qualities that make Hannibal Lecter such an intriguing character, for whilst some moments may have you peeking through your fingers you still can’t look away.