Did ‘Hannibal’ (2001) Cannibalise Itself?

Hannibal Lecter is almost a punchline today, but 20 years ago Hannibal was a long-awaited sequel to a film that created an icon. It was released a full ten years after its prequel, The Silence of the Lambs, which became a multi-Oscar winning sensation and laid the groundwork for the horror-thriller genre as we know it. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, instantly became one of cinema’s best known anti-heros, and that the long-gestating sequel is named after him highlights his cultural significance. The one-word title also brings with it a weight of expectation, as if the film were to be a definitive exploration of the character. There’s no doubt that Hannibal is much weaker than its predecessor, though, even with the touch of famed director Ridley Scott, as this genre-bending film is so obsessed with the image of Lecter as an evil genius that it misses everything that made his presence memorable before. Nevertheless, it still merits remembrance and serious consideration for its franchise-toppling influence.

Hannibal is bold in a respect, with an interesting structure that upends the procedural approach that came before. Instead, it moves to being a more visually extravagant, genre-literate adventure. Much of the film follows Hannibal – Hopkins returning to his Oscar-winning role – attempting to avoid detection whilst enjoying a new life in Florence, his direct opposition being a detective (Giancarlo Giannini) driven by the promise of reward to expose him to the world. The subplots follow the demotion of FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) and her eventual team up with an old enemy of Lecter, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), who are both determined to find him once more. There’s something of the novel Dracula in the plotting: a group of individuals working to try and take down a seemingly unstoppable monster. It’s not inherently a flawed approach, but one that requires a strong sense of purpose to drive it forwards.

Image is from the film 'Hannibal' (2001). Hannibal sits, masked by shades and a cap, a merry go round behind an oblivious Clarice.
Hannibal. Image Courtesy of Image Courtesy of MGM Distribution Co. / Universal Pictures

A large part of why people became attached to the franchise is the complex relationship between evergreen Clarice and the fascinated, playful Dr Lecter – but the handling of it here is bungled. The recasting of Clarice is an almost fatal flaw, as what was unmissable between the characters in the prior movie was the shifting, energetic dynamic between Jodie Foster and Hopkins. Such unforgettable acting leaves room for great expectation around how a fresh encounter might feel, and the nervous anticipation is heightened by the characters’ reunion being pushed to the film’s tail end. Inevitably it’s dissatisfying: Hopkins and Moore don’t have the frisson that would be hoped for. Indeed, the whole encounter feels something like fan service as it adds so little to the characterisation of both Clarice and Hannibal.

The movie still has, at the very least, some style. One of its best features is Florence, with the city’s historic architecture and vast spaces lending intertwined senses of theatre and threat. Italy is both perfect for a cultured character like the protagonist but also a perfect home for horror thanks to Italy’s strong tradition of cinematic terror. Everyone involved in bringing the spectacle to life is largely game, too, with Hopkins bringing fun, humour, and still enough menace to proceedings, and despite little backstory Giannini portrays the perfect worn-down cop. These positives make the film entertaining viewing for the most part, even if there’s often a nagging sense of something missing.

Image is from the film 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991). Clarice looks seriously and earnestly at the devilish face of Hannibal, reflected imposingly for the audience in the glass
The Silence of the Lambs. Image Courtesy of Orion Pictures.

The disappointing ending, however, undermines the foundations of the work, and sets in motion the trajectory for one of cinema’s most iconic characters. The end of the film has us essentially back at the status quo, with Clarice and Hannibal not having made any lasting new impression on each other’s psyches. It’s a massive contrast to the book, which leaves them both utterly changed when they meet each other again. There they become lovers who disappear into the night together. Avoiding such a controversy-stoking ending might have seemed the right decision in order to make the film palatable for audiences and, most likely, easy enough viewing that they’d be ready for more adventures. What the approach to wrapping up the story did, however, was turn Hannibal into popcorn entertainment compared to its subversive predecessor and prepared the title character for appearances in follow up films that reduced him to cliché.

Here he is something of a cliché already, belonging to the tabloid and schlocky cinema trope of the charming killer with unmatched wit and intelligence. The Silence of the Lambs and 2002’s Red Dragon tap into something more related to reality, their villains maladjusted individuals who’ve been able to murder because of single-mindedness rather than particular talent. Hannibal in those films remains behind bars, a clever figure giving advice but not necessarily suited to the outside world. The film Hannibal, in contrast, turns him into a learned character with something of a moral compass. It’s a fantastical scenario that means you can never believe in the title character, and the fact that this film’s plot revolves mostly around him means that you almost always feel at a remove from the action.

There’s little else going on in the film thematically to distract you from such failures. Clarice is one of the main characters, but her demotion and lack of career success seem a cursory continuation of The Silence of the Lambs study of sexism; it’s largely dropped as the plot manoeuvres towards the reunion with Hannibal. Mason Verger is a secondary villain who similarly has little to add beyond being a personal foil for Lecter, and otherwise harms the tale with the ableist implication that his scarred face is linked to his evil values. Hopkins’ performance as the lead impresses amidst this emptiness but, unsurprisingly, not because of a meaningful or largely memorable script, but as the result of an actor who works hard even in difficult circumstances.

Image is from the film 'Hannibal' (2001). Hannibal wields a weapon with his face curled into a mischievous snarl
Hannibal. Image Courtesy of MGM Distribution Co. / Universal Pictures

Thomas Harris’ material is a challenging starting point to work for anyone involved, with his writing having gained increasingly lurid plot points over the years. Hannibal is largely an adaptation of Harris’ novel of the same name, but it eschews some of the more controversial elements such as the harvesting of Verger’s semen and the mention of Hannibal’s sister being eaten by cannibals. Film producer Dino De Laurentiis, however, needs to take much of the blame for the books arriving on the screen as clunky, nostalgia-baiting products. The success of The Silence of the Lambs pushed him to release poorly received follow-ups with diminishing financial returns, largely recognised for the disservice done to their central character. Had the movies been created from a perspective of respect for the character and his potential then we might have seen a different series: a complex, risk-taking set of stories that explored evil in a way that engages the mind rather than lightly taps the adrenaline glands.

It is the case, of course, that Hannibal hasn’t destroyed the franchise in all its aspects. A much more grounded and better received television series – of the same name – aired in the last decade, and a new show called Clarice has just begun as an exploration of that character’s time with the FBI. However, the former show was cancelled after a mere three seasons, and the latter isn’t shaping up to be particularly well received. The franchise would likely be in a stronger position if Hannibal Lecter remained a byword for thrills and horror rather than also suggesting camp absurdity — an absurdity so unappealing it’s easy to imagine that Hannibal has been forgotten by many who saw it on release. Hannibal is not a cause but a symptom of Hollywood willing to undermine narrative integrity simply for cash, and hopefully it can act as a lesson to filmmakers of how not to stall a franchise as it starts.