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The Definitive Ranking Of The Thomas Harris’ Cinematic Universe

There are few novels that manage to truly become a phenomenon. There are even fewer that manage to surpass the genre they’re delegated to and become a success in both the commercial and critical spheres. The list becomes even smaller – miniscule, perhaps – when you extend the criteria to those whose characters become seamlessly implemented into modern pop culture. Thomas Harris has not one, but four such novels in his Hannibal Lecter series which have gone on to become seminal books within both the crime and horror genres. Since Hannibal Lecter’s 1981 debut in Red Dragon, the universe he exists within has been constantly recreated for the big screen – with varying degrees of success. Yet with the third season of the Hannibal television series set to hit screens in coming days, we take a look back at the best and worst entries into the cinematic canon. Fair warning: spoilers abound.

7. Manhunter – 1986


The original, sure, but Michael Mann’s Manhunter was a hot mess. From a scenery chewing performance from William L. Peterson as Will Graham (“YOU WATCHED EM DIDN’T YA, YAW DIRRTY BASTARD! DIRRTY BAAAASTARD!”) to weirdly pretentious scenes of love making while curtains fluttered in the wind, there was little about the first cinematic adaptation of Thomas Harris’ work that resembled his book Red Dragon. Taking a step back from the source material, there’s plenty that’s aesthetically pleasing about Manhunter: the neon palette in particular gives the whole thing a neo-noir feel. But the epic miscasting of Stephen Lang as Freddy Lounds, Tom Noonan as Francis Dollarhyde, Joan Allen as Reba McCalane etc etc etc, the under utilised Brian Cox as Hannibal, jarring eighties soundtrack and attempted artistic fight scenes in slow-motion age Manhunter in a way that makes it unable to stand the test of time.

Ranking: Chinese take-away that gives you indigestion the next day because your planned meal escaped in a flaming wheelchair.

6. Hannibal Rising – 2007

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Cons: Like the book, the issues with Hannibal Rising is the character becomes less interesting the more you know about him/breakdown every trait with tragic backstory. Pros: Gaspard Ulliel as young Hannibal. Boyfriend can GET it *grunts*.

Ranking: Poorly prepared heart tartare served by a rude census worker with dimples.

5. Hannibal – 2001


When Jonathan Demme declined to return for the sequel it was Ridley Scott who leaped at the opportunity to follow up the hugely successful Silence Of The Lambs. Julianne Moore played an older Clarice Starling as the story picked up 10-years down the track with Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) having successfully been on the run in Europe while Starling’s career has gone to the dogs. The problem with adapting this particular novel for the big screen is it’s almost three self-contained stories within the same book: something that doesn’t work particularly well in movie format, with the film’s pacing and atmosphere suffering as a result. While The Silence Of The Lambs played the horror straight – therefore making it all the more terrifying – Hannibal fell into using gimmicky traps of the genre such as sudden audio jumps or lurching camera splices. Moore’s performance is also strangely emotional for a character that rarely let’s anything through her thick skin. Camera chameleon Gary Oldman is exceedingly creepy as Mason Verger, but the omission of two of the best (and strongest) female characters in Ardelia Mapp and a roided-up Margot Verger just added to the sense that there was something deeply missing from this film. Yet for all its flaws it did one major service for fans: it changed the ending dramatically. No, it fixed the ending. In Harris’ book of the same name, the conclusion was controversial to say the least, with Clarice Starling undergoing a complete moral reversal to end up becoming romantically involved with Dr. Hannibal Lecter and going on the run with him. Not only did this not fit with the character Harris spent over two decades constructing, Clarice also comes to this epiphany after essentially being mind-raped by Lecter (he keeps her in a drug-induced hallucinatory state for weeks to further probe her mind). This ending is what caused Jodie Foster to pull out of the project, allegedly, and after consultation with Harris, Scott and producers changed the ending to better suit the tone of the characters. Thank. God.

Ranking: Corrupt FBI agent brain, sautéed in a pan with shallots and served with a light white wine. 

4. Red Dragon – 2002


Brett Ratner’s best film by a country mile and as much as it disturbs us to put ‘The Rat’ ahead of Ridley Scott ever, the post-coital shrimp jerker really deserves it for his version of Harris’ first novel. Edward Norton makes a much better, nuanced version of Will Graham and is helped along by a stellar supporting cast in – obviously – Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, Mary Louise-Parker as Molly Graham, Emily Watson as a version of Reba that’s going to be hard to beat (looking at you Rutina Wesley), Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Freddy Lounds. Yet the film truly belongs – as it rightly should – to Ralph Fiennes as the Red Dragon aka Tooth Fairy aka Francis Dollarhyde. He essentially uses the role as an apprenticeship for playing Voldemort in a few years time and he brings an appealing physicality that’s much more faithful to the source material. Perhaps most importantly, he adds a vulnerability and a likability that made the character one of the most interesting in the Harris Rogues Gallery. Ratner executes the horror elements in a way that mirrors Silence Of The Lambs and is a vast improvement on Hannibal. The tension is high and the world feels authentic as Will engages in a clever cat and mouse game that gives as much time to the investigative techniques as it does the murders.

Ranking: The lips of a tabloid reporter served with sweet breads and a nice Chianti.

3. Hannibal (Season 1) – 2013


On paper, nothing about the Hannibal television series should work. In reality, it’s the very definition of a Harris’ fan’s wet dream. A twisted, nightmarish love letter to the written works. the show takes everything that was great about the novels and adds elements to make it even better. From inserting racial diversity to gender bending characters, Hannibal is timeless in it’s contemporary aesthetic. With the rich, demented minds of showrunners like Bryan Fuller and filmmakers like David Slade, Hannibal almost exists in an alternate universe where artisan serial killers are par for the course with a pre-prison Dr Lecter lobbying to standout from the crowd. Hugh Dancy gets given more to do than any other version of Will Graham with the creative team gleefully expanding upon his hinted-at backstory and throwing in additional touches with the bromance between he and Dr Lecter. Speaking of… in the same way you could never envision anyone’s Joker challenging Jack Nicholson’s performance until Heath Ledger’s blew everyone away, Mads Mikkelsen has done the near impossible and threatened Anthony Hopkins’ seminal portrayal of the erudite psychopath. Add to that some of the most beautiful cinematography currently in play, visual effects to make Marvel weep, humour as black as Lecter’s heart and a supporting cast that, frankly, swings towards the most ridiculously amazing in Laurence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Anna Chlumsky, Katharine Isabelle, Michael Pitt, every other acclaimed actor ever.

Ranking: A tailored Tom Ford three-piece suit in rich mahogany with a Burberry cravat and antique silver tiepin.

2. Hannibal (Season 2) – 2014 


After the flawless and flooring first season, topping it seemed like a somewhat impossible feat. And yet… Hannibal continues to be one of the best shows on television if not the best. The artistic direction, character development and episodic monsters were taken to the next level while the whole season arc became a masterclass in storytelling. With a relentless disregard for your favourite characters or ships, the creative team played the long game and finally began to unravel the web that Dr Lecter had so meticulously crafted. With the prequel backstories now exhausted and the narrative caught up to the months before the events of Red Dragon, it’s no wonder season three has the devoted fanbase – Fannibals – literally frothing at the mouth with anticipation.

Ranking: Goldberg variations digested over a glass of Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanee and crisp lemon calf liver.

1. The Silence Of The Lambs – 1991 


There’s a reason this became the most awarded film of its genre: it’s the same reason lines of its dialogue have become seamlessly integrated into the pop culture lexicon. The Silence Of The Lambs is a masterpiece. With a weirdly mixed filmography before it, Jonathan Demme cemented his place in the American movie landscape with this realistic and measured tale of horror. This was a filmmaker who understood the thrill is all in the chase and lovingly gave Starling and her gradual investigation the attention to detail it deserved. Unlike Michael Mann and Ridley Scott’s attempts, Demme knew that the whole is the some of its parts and gave breathing room to some of the great supporting cast – the characters of Ardelia Mapp and Barney specifically – and Howard Shore’s merciless score. He touches on the subtle themes others plowed over: the sexism, the nature of trauma, the struggle of sexual identity. He made you feel something for the victims and care about their plight (as opposed to just making them numbered corpses) and he turned Buffalo Bill into a complex villain rather than something that could have been a gimmick in the hands of a less careful filmmaker. Yet it’s the central performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins cat and mousing it for the duration of the movie that stay with you long after the credits have rolled. It’s testament to how incredible the Hannibal television series is that the top spot was constantly shifting between season two and this film, but you have to give credit to the originators in that The Silence Of The Lambs was the first cinematic entry that truly captured the horror of Harris’ vision and set the tone for everything that was to follow. It’s a classic that after nearly 25 years still spawns imitators and still provides a nail-biting watch.

Ranking: A full-course Kaiseki dinner enjoyed while Aria Da Capo plays softly in the background

Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.

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2 thoughts on “The Definitive Ranking Of The Thomas Harris’ Cinematic Universe

  1. dave chancellor


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