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The Hannibal Movies: A Retrospective

I’ve spent a significant portion of my weekend watching all the Hannibal Lecter movies in a row (or almost all- I’ve yet to track down Manhunter and never plan to track down Hannibal Rising), and it’s a very strange experience.  They weren’t filmed in order, and seeing them in sequence completely changes the picture. The Silence of the Lambs takes great pains to show us Clarice’s viewpoint, but since he’s the only major recurring character with the same actor, it was Hannibal’s viewpoint I got this time.  I watched him gain revenge, fall in love, and even sacrifice a literal part of himself in the process.  And a common thought of mine- “Hi, minor character! You’re going to be killed in the next movie!”- probably wasn’t too far off from what he was thinking.

The timeline as established by Red Dragon sets up some disturbing conclusions about other characters as well.  The wounds on Will Graham’s body have barely healed when the perpetually well-intentioned but coldhearted Jack Crawford throws his next empathetic agent to Lecter, and the lonely cannibal just can’t wait to meet her. (Was Chilton right?  Had Lecter been craving female companionship for eight years, even before he got to know and admire her?) Red Dragon also establishes the downward progression of the secondary villains’ moral ambiguity; Francis Dolarhyde is a wreck who tries unsuccessfully to make himself stop killing, Jame Gumb supposedly was abused as a child but shows no sympathetic traits before our eyes, while the notorious Mason Verger is evil incarnate.

In addition, there are no longer any lambs by the time we reach Hannibal (as pointed out by critic Stephen Hunter).  We laugh when Lecter kills because his victims aren’t presented as mattering.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: while Mikkelsen’s Hannibal resembles Iago, Hopkins resembles Richard III.  He smiles at the audience, lets us in on his schemes, woos his lady while she stares at the body of his latest victim.  Really, he seems to be saying, what else did you expect of me?

(As a side note, I wonder why the good doctor caught on with so many viewers while his teenage female doppleganger, Hayley Stark from Hard Candy, arouses horror and hatred from nearly every review I’ve read?  But maybe I’m being unfair; how would Hannibal have come off to audiences if Verger had been a handsome, charming man who still did all those terrible things?)

Poor Clarice isn’t served well by the progression of the films.  She goes from heroine of the FBI to its victim, and though she does not switch sides (as I’m told she does in the book), there is little she can do to stop the Vergers and Lecters of the world.  The one power left to her is the power (spoken about long ago by Moll Flanders) to say no.  She is beguiled by the serpent, but will not eat the fruit.  She can love a man and refuse to give up who she is for him.  Perhaps I should be content with this.

Critical consensus seems to rank The Silence of the Lambs as a masterpiece,Red Dragon as decent and Hannibal as abysmal.  I won’t argue with that assessment, exactly, but I am glad I had this little marathon.  I’m also glad I’d seen The Silence of the Lambs beforehand; I may not agree with Crawford on everything, but I’d rather have Clarice’s viewpoint in my head than Hannibal’s.