Brian Cox in Manhunter (dir. Michael Mann, 1986)
Before the character became was catapulted into the stratosphere of popular culture to become a household name, Hannibal Lecter was first brought to life on screen by Brian Cox in the 1986 film Manhunter, which was a direct adaptation of the aforementioned novel Red Dragon. This portrayal is often the most overlooked for many reasons. The film had a quiet release, underperforming at the box office with a lukewarm critical reception. On top of that, Lecter has a very small role in the film. Cox has about ten minutes of screen time total, which he makes the most of. In retrospect, he is carrying the burden of being the first to introduce audiences to an on-screen version of the famed villain, which he carries out gracefully. He brings to light Dr. Lecter’s incomparable intelligence and wit in a way that is casual and believable. His cadence and non-verbal gestures display the control and power he has over all situations he encounters in the film. Additionally, his relationship with detective Will Graham is explored, giving Cox an opportunity to display Lecter’s innate charisma and an oddly trustworthy appeal. Cox does not have as much screen time as the subsequent actors who tackled the role, but for the character’s first appearance he honored the source material in an admirable way.
Sir. Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)
There is not much to be said about this performance that has not been said already. The de facto representation of all that Hannibal Lecter is, this film earned Hopkins an academy award for best actor. Additionally, this specific iteration of the character was ranked by the American Film Institute as the “greatest villain in American cinema”. In a change of pace from Manhunter, the plot of The Silence of the Lambs more heavily revolves around Hannibal. Hopkins brought a cold, calculating intensity to the role, somehow simultaneously rigid yet confidently fluid in his actions and dialogue. This installment showed off the character’s capability to be violent without remorse, heightened by Hopkin’s unflinching, unblinking expressions. But at the same time, Hopkins explored the character’s inclination for politeness and manners, adding a seductiveness to his demeanor.
Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal (dev. Bryan Fuller, 2013-2015)
The next time this character was seen, it was for a smaller screen in the NBC produced television series Hannibal, which once again adapted material from Red Dragon to explore an early relationship between Hannibal and Will Graham. Coming off Hopkins’ performance, Mikkelsen had large shoes to fill. He maneuvered this with aplomb by maintaining the recognizable attributes that both Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins introduced while also establishing his own refreshing take on the character. Given that the television series does not consider the canon of the films that came before it, Mikkelsen had room to portray the character in an original way. I admit, I have not seen the complete series, although I have seen enough to gauge his performance. Mikkelsen brought a more emotionally distant approach. His Hannibal feels dangerous, as if he is a predator on the constant search for prey. He expertly portrayed the character’s ability to get close to people while letting his true intentions peek through for the audience.
Based on the continued popularity of Hannibal, we can infer that the character is far from irrelevant. Surely someone new will come along to add to the legacy of Hannibal Lecter, but as it stands, that legacy is one pronounced by talent, consistency, and cultural relevance.