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Who is Hannibal Lecter?

Hannibal Lecter first appeared in Red Dragon (1981), a novel by Thomas Harris, as a secondary character in the story. He was locked in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and acted as an advisor for an FBI agent, Will Graham, who was trying to catch a serial killer. However, what started as a mere cameo in someone else’s story, soon became a renowned character that tightly captured everyone’s attention and transformed into one of the most famous villains in pop culture.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

To fully understand a character there are two main things to keep in mind: their motivation (why do they do what they do) and their origin (what happened to them that made them so). It works for both heroes and villains, Batman’s origins (tragic death of his parents) and motivation (save Gotham) make him the character that he is, and the same happens with the Xenomorph in Alien, an invasive extraterrestrial species that tries to propagate to the rest of the universe. However, Hannibal Lecter’s case is a bit different. As explained above, he came into the picture as a secondary character in Red Dragon. The reader only had access to Dr. Lecter through Graham’s interviews with him. Therefore, what the reader knows about Hannibal is what the other characters know about him, which is very little.

With the first two novels written by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the reader becomes familiar with the character and what he is capable of, without any specific details on his origin. It isn’t until the third book, Hannibal (1999), that the reader gets some insight into Dr. Lecter’s past: “We know Hannibal Lecter was born in Lithuania. His father was a count, […] his mother high-born Italian, a Visconti. During the German retreat from Russia, some passing Nazi panzers shelled their estate near Vilnius from the high road and killed both parents and most of the servants.” (Harris, 1999, p. 304). There are also allusions to his sister, Mischa, who was murdered and cannibalized during the war. Still, this information comes only in the form of flashbacks and dreams. And not only is his past surrounded by mystery, his motivations are also obscure.

Killing people and eating human flesh, are the characteristics that make Hannibal famous, or rather infamous. However, one is not the consequence of the other, meaning that he does not kill people to consume them. Not even once is Hannibal found deciding whose liver would taste better, or looking for a victim to kill just because he craves human flesh. Furthermore, and unlike other serial killers, sex or sadistic pleasure are of no interest to Hannibal Lecter, and he does not suffer from any kind of obsessive behaviour. The apparent reasons behind Dr. Lecter’s killings can be separated into three groups: necessity, public service, and revenge.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) visits Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

When talking about killing for necessity, there are many examples. In The Silence of the Lambs (1988), for instance, when he is escaping from the police, he killed two correction officers, a nurse, and an ambulance driver. These were rushed killings, and collateral damage in his escape. However, when he can take his time with the act of killing, he resorts to what he himself describes as poetic deaths. He will kill detective Rinaldo Pazzi by hanging and disemboweling him, the same death his ancestor suffered; he murders a bowhunter in the style of the medieval painting the Wounded Man, and another victim was killed following a supposed Viking execution, the Bloody Eagle. Hannibal’s refined taste and love for culture are reflected even in the way he kills.

There is also the concept of killing as some sort of public service. Hannibal’s ninth (known) victim, Benjamin Raspail, was a musician at the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as Hannibal’s patient. Dr. Lecter admits that he killed Raspail because he grew tired of him complaining all the time, but he also hinted that it was mainly because he was actually a terrible musician and was diminishing the quality of the Orchestra. Hannibal, as the great philanthropist he is, could not let that happen and solved the problem by killing Raspail and serving his organs at a dinner party he organised for the Orchestra’s board of directors. This is also related to killing for revenge as he did with Miggs, a patient in the hospital where he was kept. After the first encounter between FBI agent Clarice Starling and Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs, Miggs flings semen on her, which deeply disturbed Dr. Lecter. The next thing Clarice heard of the man was that he had committed suicide by biting his tongue after a whole night chatting with Hannibal.

Dinner at Dr Lecter's, with Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal.

This fog of mystery surrounding Hannibal Lecter’s origin and motivation was lifted in the last installment, Hannibal Rising (2007), where Thomas Harris provided the reader with a whole novel dedicated to Hannibal Lecter’s childhood and teenage years. It seemed an attempt to explain Dr. Lecter’s cannibalistic instincts with the tragic death of his sister. However, it left a bitter taste in the readers’ mouths, by providing an explanation for his behaviour, “he is no longer fascinating as an avatar of absolute evil” (Poole, 2006). After the publication of this last novel, critics argued that even though his sister’s death may have ignited the idea of cannibalism in Hannibal’s mind, it was still not enough to justify the artistic and careful deaths that he planned for some of his victims. The intricacies of his mind are still a wonder since the reader is not closer to understanding the character. Hannibal Rising does not succeed in providing an explanation for Dr. Lecter’s behaviour, “nor is there any notion of what makes Hannibal diabolically clever — beyond his rooting for Mephistopheles while watching “Faust” at the Paris Opera” (Maslin, 2006).

The reader is therefore presented with a type of villain that has no clear origin nor motivation that explains his behaviour. However, it is this mystery and the feeling of not knowing what is coming that makes the character of Hannibal Lecter this popular and revolutionary in pop culture. The movie adaptations followed the line of the books, and Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Dr. Lecter captivated the audience. It is particularly relevant how the most famous and critically acclaimed movie was The Silence of the Lambs, where Lecter’s origins and motivation were still a mystery to all. And it seemed that the producers of the TV show Hannibal (2013-2015) noticed that, since the show revolves around the relationship between Dr. Lecter and detective Will Graham, and no origin nor justification is given for Hanninal’s behaviour. He seems to kill to provoke Graham, to see how much Will is able to take, how long it will take to break him.

Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy as Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham in Hannibal (2013-2015).

Who is Hannibal Lecter? He is the son of a high-class family that tragically died during World War II, he is a cultured man with exquisite taste, he is a cannibal and a murderer. The reasoning behind his killings makes sense only to his peculiar mind, the same with the people he cannibalizes since to a normal human being his choices are rather arbitrary. Four books, four movies, and thirty-nine episodes seem to point to the same conclusion, who is Hannibal Lecter is a question best left unanswered.


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Isabel Panadero

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