Hannibal Lecter, The Number One Villain of All Time

J. C. Oleson
J. C. Oleson

The public venerates the character of Hannibal Lecter as a celebrity, as an icon, as a cult hero, and indeed, the public appears to love Hannibal Lecter. But why do we love him? Lanchester has suggested that Hannibal Lecter “is attractive because we are repulsive: the more people like Lecter, the worse the news about human nature.” It does seem strange that the public would embrace a villain in such a way. One journalist astutely asked, “How can one make a murderous psychopath who not only kills his victims but eats them, sometimes alive, into a cult hero? What kind of civilisation celebrates such a creation?” This is an important question. Indeed, the veneration of a cannibal killer may imply that something has gone horribly awry within our culture. But perhaps Hannibal Lecter resonates in the public imagination for some other, more profound reason.

Why do we love Hannibal Lecter? Perhaps because he is the “perfect gothic hero” or because he is the perfect gothic antihero. Perhaps it is because the heroic and the villainous co-exist within him. Because he is Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader rolled into one, because he is Darth Vader and Superman rolled into one, or because he is Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty rolled into one. Why do we love Hannibal Lecter? Dery attempted to answer the question, writing: “Why do we love him? […] He is cool, in the same way that Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat is: He has all the best lines, great bone structure, an I.Q. measureless to man, Draculinian dominion over wild animals (in Hannibal, feral pigs obey his commands), is ‘size for size […] as strong as an ant,” drives a supercharged black Jaguar, is richer than God, and gets the babe. Coolest of all, his pulse does not top 85, even when he is tearing out your tongue and eating it.”

Whether Hannibal Lecter is a hero, anti-hero, or the terrible Hegelian synthesis of the two, there is no question that he has struck a profound chord with the public. We love Hannibal Lecter. He is the paragon of serial killers. There is something about this character that resonates in the popular imagination, and that lures audiences back to the novels and the films in order to spend their time with Hannibal Lecter. It is this fascination with the character that has made the books and movies into such a profitable franchise.

William Thomas Harris III novels have been phenomenally successful — ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and sold more than twelve million copies. As a global literary franchise, the Hannibal Lecter trilogy has sold tens of millions of books. ‘Red Dragon’ has been translated into twelve other languages, and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ has been translated into twenty-two other languages. Indeed, the success of ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ made a household name of its author, and permitted Thomas Harris to negotiate a lucrative two-book deal for 5.2 million dollars, publishing ‘Hannibal,’ the first of these two books, years after its deadline, in 1999. Publisher Random House was so confident in the success of ‘Hannibal’ that it printed 1.2 million copies of the book in its initial print run, more than double the 500,000 planned initially. ‘Hannibal’ debuted at number one, held that spot for six weeks, and sold more than 1.7 million hardcover copies through nine print runs, looming as the second best-selling hardback book in the United States of America during 1999. Although Entertainment Weekly panned it as one of the ten worst books of the year, Dell Books launched the mass market paperback printing of ‘Hannibal’ with 2.4 million copies.

The Hannibal Lecter movies have been even more high-stakes than William Thomas Harris III’s novels. The intensely atmospheric ‘Manhunter’ (1986) introduced the movie-going world to Hannibal Lecter and grossed more than 8.6 million dollars in domestic box office revenue. But this limited commercial success of ‘Manhunter’ was modest compared to the runaway sales of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), which grossed three times its cost at the box office, earning more than 130 million dollars at the domestic box office, and making another 142 million in foreign receipts. ‘Hannibal’ (2001) was another very successful movie. Philip Anthony Hopkins was paid 24 million dollars for revisiting the role of Hannibal Lecter in the film, which shattered February opening records, earned more money in its opening weekend than any other R-rated movie, and had grossed more than 350 million dollars in worldwide earnings before being released to video. But ‘Hannibal’ was not the last installation in the Hannibal Lecter series. Anthony Hopkins received 7.5% of the box office receipts — with an 8 million dollar advance— for reprising his role in ‘Red Dragon’ (2002). ‘Red Dragon’ earned 36.5 million dollars in its opening weekend, and more than 206 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts. Together, the four Hannibal Lecter films have earned more than 838 million dollars. The release of ‘Young Hannibal’ will almost certainly catapult the Hannibal Lecter films over the one billion dollar mark.

The films have been enjoyed critical, as well as commercial, success. ‘Manhunter’ was nominated for a 1987 Edgar Allan Poe Award and won the Cognac Festival du Film Policier Critics Award. In 1992, the film adaptation of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ became the third movie in Academy Awards history to sweep the Oscars in all five of the major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also garnered more than a dozen other prestigious film awards. ‘Hannibal’ earned a 2002 ASCAP award and a 2002 Saturn for Best Make-Up, and ‘Red Dragon’ received a 2003 London Critics Film Circle Award and the 2003 World Stunt Award for Best Fire Stunt.

However, the success of Hannibal Lecter’s character transcends the successes of the individual films. In ranking the screen’s one hundred greatest heroes and villains, the American Film Institute (AFI) selected ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter as the number one villain of all time, beating out baddies such as Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West, and 2001’s HAL 9000. More recently, Hannibal Lecter’s quotation — “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” — was selected by the AFI as the number twenty-one film quote of all time, beating out classic lines such as “Bond. James Bond” and “Houston, we have a problem.”

Hannibal Lecter is our number one villain. We are fascinated with serial killers, in part, because we are fascinated by him. Indeed, the character of Hannibal Lecter is so skillfully-drawn that numerous journalists have written about him as if he was a real figure, blurring the boundaries between fiction and fact. Jenkins notes: “Case studies of serial killers frequently refer to Harris’ work as if it were the definitive account of a true-life phenomenon. The fictional Hannibal became a villain as well known as any authentic offender and was even cited in journalistic statements as if he were a real figure.”

Even criminal justice professionals have sometimes written about Hannibal Lecter as if he was a real offender. Egger, for example, criticised the “FBI agents [who] continue to ride the wave of publicity that surrounds a serial murder investigation. […] Some of these agents even have the audacity to characterise the movie ‘Silence of the Lambs’ as an accurate portrayal of a typical FBI investigation into a serial murder.”

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