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The Hannibal Lecter Serial Killer Franchise

April 15, 2010

In the introduction to the omnibus of the Lloyd Hopkins novels, James Ellroy claimed that he only decided to write a second and third Hopkins book after reading Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (1981), the first novel to feature the now iconic Dr Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter:

I wrote Blood on the Moon. I read Red Dragon and realized it was a far superior book. I carried the hero of Blood on the Moon on to a second and third novel – Because the Night and Suicide Hill. I hadn’t planned to write a trilogy at first. I did not possess the long-range planning skills I possess today. I finished Blood on the Moon, read Red Dragon and wanted another shot at making Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins as great a character as Thomas Harris’ Will Graham.

Ellroy claims that he wanted to make Lloyd Hopkins as memorable a character as Will Graham in Red Dragon, but the most memorable character in Because the Night (1984) is the sinister psychiatrist John Havilland. And Havilland is at least partly modelled on the serial killer character Hannibal Lecter.

With Harris’ four novels featuring Hannibal Lecter, Lecter becomes increasingly the focus with each  novel. But even in the early novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (1988) it is Lecter, rather than the leading characters of Will Graham and Clarice Starling respectively, that sticks in the reader’s mind. Lecter is a bizarre and fascinating character, an intellectually brilliant psychiatrist who is also a psychopathic cannibal. In the first two novels, he is a prominent supporting character: he is an inmate at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane after having being declared mentally unfit to stand trial for his killing spree. After his elaborate escape in The Silence of the Lambs, he becomes the main focus in the third novel Hannibal (1999). And in the fourth novel Hannibal Rising (2006), a prequel to the series, the novel follows Hannibal’s  traumatic childhood in Lithuania during the Second World War and gradually tells the story of how he became a cannibal. One of the greatest achievements of Harris’ novels is how he makes Lecter an attractive character. He is capable of committing horrific acts one moment but is emotionally controlled and dignified in the next. However, this strength became the series’ fatal weakness. Harris gave up on presenting Lecter as a character with any nuance or ambiguity in the later novels and practically turned him into a hero. The reader is expected to cheer as Lecter foils both the law and his criminal enemies in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. Lecter despatches his victims in increasingly grisly ways, and Harris seems to justify this by making the victims more morally repugnant than Lecter is, for example Mason Verger. Or in some cases, Lecter’s enemies (who inevitably become his victims) are just obnoxious and rude, such as Dr. Frederick Chilton and Paul Krendler. By contrast, Lecter is impeccably polite. Perhaps this decline in quality was inevitable. Once Harris took Lecter out of his asylum cell he had two choices: try to justify Lecter by rationalising his actions, which would make him implausible, or go over the top with the character by making him the hero, which becomes ludicrous. Harris seems to go for something in the middle, and the result is not good. Serial killers are not brilliant intellectuals, and Harris’ coup as a writer was he created a character that made some people believe otherwise. It did not last, and it is rather morally dubious that Lecter becomes increasingly the hero of the series.  Serial killers are unquestionably morally repugnant people, but there is still room for nuance and sympathy in how we regard them without resorting to the easy sterotype of absolute evil (or in Lecter’s case heroism). As Ellroy says of serial killers in his introduction to Murder and Mayhem (1991):

Fear the killers; pray for their victims; extend sympathy toward murderers’ childhoods. Think of the line between us and them as fragile and in need of jealous guarding.

Below is a clip from one the most famous scenes of the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. The Lecter films followed the same trajectory as the books. Good at first, but increasingly violent and ludicrous:

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