No villain is more remembered than Hannibal Lecter, the charming serial killer in Thomas Harris’ novels. Dr. Lecter is a contrast of manners and sadism… a cultured art-appreciating murderous cannibal (such is his disdain for the rest of humanity) who exploits others’ vulnerabilities for his own amusement. Dr. Lecter began as a minor character but audiences couldn’t get enough of this terrifying genius.
There are four books in the series: Hannibal Rising, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. The most disliked book by fans is Hannibal Rising, which establishes the reason for his actions as “revenge” for a childhood incident. When his little sister is killed during WWII, he tracks down those responsible and kills them. Some readers believe this lessens his impact as a villain, since it makes him a victim, thus igniting that age-old debate, “are sociopaths born or created?”
Red Dragon has him in prison after being found out as the Chesapeake Ripper. He is consulted by an FBI agent and former victim, Will Graham, on a current serial killer, but manages to come out on top when he sends the murderer after Graham.
The Silence of the Lambs introduces him to Clarice Starling, an FBI agent in training who is neither intimidated by him nor afraid to play his games. He leads her to a killer, and she unwittingly aids in his escape.
Hannibal pits him against an old adversary/victim who wants revenge and uses Clarice as bait. The novel ends with Clarice living out the rest of her life with Dr. Lecter.
Anthony Hopkins first brought the character to life in the award-winning Silence of the Lambs. It launched a film franchise that covers the rest of the books (with degrees of accuracy, although the controversial ending to Hannibal is changed). More recent is NBC’s Hannibal, a unique take that starts before Lecter’s capture. Certain aspects are changed (characters, motives, conclusions) but its brilliance lies in the gradual build-up of its leading character and his influence over the life of Will Graham. This is Dr. Lecter before he is caught – manipulating everyone to where he wants them, using subtle cruelties, taking quiet pleasure in crime scenes, and often manufacturing a “human response” that melts into a total lack of empathy as soon as someone’s back is turned. Everything is calculated, down to his responses.
The series follows his relationship with Will Graham and Abigail Hobbs. Graham is a brainy but sensitive man who feels remorse and trauma when stepping into the minds of killers. (The FBI uses him as a consultant in criminal cases.) Lecter, under the guise of his therapist, emotionally manipulates Will to the point where he doubts his own sanity. He also builds a mentor relationship with Abigail Hobbs, the daughter of a murderer. She’s enough like Lecter to figure him out before anyone else but different enough not to become what he wants her to be, a remorseless murderer. What becomes of her and how Will reacts leads to one of the most chilling confrontations in the history of television.
Mads Mikkelson plays Lecter not as “a villain but an incarnation of the devil.” It’s a brilliant interpretation a figure that enjoys torment, lets others fall into pits of their own making with a little bit of help, has no empathy, and uses people in cruel ways. This symbolism is carried on in the subtle influences of the scripts and staging. One can see similarities in Will’s struggle against Lecter to the plight of a believer falling into sin; Abigail’s victimization by Lecter is reminiscent of a life without Christ. Even the structure of Lecter’s office and his interaction with other characters smacks of symbolism… characters that start out “aloft” on his balcony “descend” into his office and realm of influence, often by taking his hand. Early scenes find Abigail or Will aloft (on the moral high ground) but as his influence over them grows we find Lecter elevated to a place of superiority and influence, coinciding with their demise.
Hannibal Lecter’s evil is terrifying because he has “no motive.” He has no reason to be cruel or manipulative except that he enjoys it and feels no remorse or empathy for his actions. His brilliance is used to destroy others. This purposelessness in evil both fascinates and disturbs us, and sets Dr. Lecter apart from other literary villains who are motivated through lust, greed, ambition, or even moral superiority. Lecter is proof that evil doesn’t need motives; it can simply exist. And that, for any reader or viewer, is the most terrifying realization of all.