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The Hannibal Lecterverse Is Obsessed With the Human Mind—and How to Crack It Open

The films and TV shows based on Thomas Harris’s books may seem to center around serial killers, but really they’re an exploration into the mind. And the series’ directors each have their own ways of showcasing it.

Jaya Nicely

With CBS debuting Clarice on Thursday night—and the 30th anniversary of The Silence of the Lambs arriving just three days later—The Ringer is spending a day celebrating Hannibal Lecter and his strangely intoxicating universe.

Shortly before Hannibal Lecter makes his first appearance in The Silence of the Lambs, FBI special agent Jack Crawford delivers specific instructions to his protégé, Clarice Starling: “You’re to tell him nothing personal, Starling. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.”

Four novels written by Thomas Harris, adapted into five feature films and two network TV shows, have made Hannibal Lecter into one of the scariest and most indelible characters in contemporary American fiction. We’ve seen him tear off a policeman’s face and wear it as a disguise, feed a man a portion of his own brain, and change an entire generation’s perception of fava beans. But Crawford’s warning distills the essence of what makes Lecter so scary. It’s not the threat of physical violence—Lecter is a small man with thinning hair and a high-pitched, nasally voice; he’s not even the most physically imposing serial killer in his own movie. And in Silence, Starling talks to Lecter through bars, or a plexiglass wall, or a telephone. At no point is she in physical danger.

But there are worse things than being eaten.

The challenge—across Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter, Red Dragon, and the NBC TV series Hannibal—is for the hero to understand the killer without cracking under the weight of that understanding. To learn from the murderous Hannibal without getting close enough to let him inflict further damage.

The Lecterverse, if you will, comprises a series of appallingly gory and violent films and TV shows, but the physical action comes only in short bursts. These are fairly talky movies, in which most of the drama comes not from running, jumping, and shooting, but from characters sitting around and thinking.

The interior machinations of an unsound or traumatized mind are a tough thing for a director to capture. The task tripped up no less skilled a filmmaker than Ridley Scott, whose 2001 film Hannibal was one of the most forgettable offerings for both the series and director. But this stage also offers tremendous potential. 1986’s Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Harris’s books, was only moderately successful on first release but is now viewed as Michael Mann’s first masterwork. NBC’s Hannibal might be the most visually striking network TV show of the past decade, and despite its short three-season run, it has reemerged as a cult classic. And of course there’s The Silence of the Lambs, one of just three films to sweep the big five categories at the Academy Awards, including a Best Director win for Jonathan Demme.

On Thursday, the Lecterverse’s latest offering debuts on CBS: Clarice. Set a year after the events of Silence, Clarice centers on the titular Agent Starling and faces a bigger challenge than any other title in the series. Because of the same kind of IP balkanization that kept Spider-Man out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for years, Clarice cannot legally mention Hannibal Lecter.

In the opening minutes of the pilot, an FBI therapist muses that Starling’s “last therapist was an inmate in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane and ate his patients.” That Lecter can be invoked so clearly without using his name speaks to the enormous challenge the show faces. Not only does Australian actress Rebecca Breeds have to pick up where one of the half-dozen or so greatest living actresses left off, she has to do so without most of the series’ other memorable characters: Lecter, Crawford, Will Graham, Dr. Chilton, and so on.

The mind on display in Clarice will not be that of Hannibal Lecter, or another serial killer like Buffalo Bill or the Tooth Fairy. Instead, it will be Clarice’s own. But how does a director get inside, as such esteemed filmmakers as Demme and Mann once did?

“It was about portraying her duality with the way that we shot it,” Maja Vrvilo, who directed the Clarice pilot, told me over Zoom. “The scene with the therapist is a good example because it’s shot in two ways. It’s regular footage that shows Clarice the way she presents herself to the world. And then there are all those macro shots and flashes to Buffalo Bill’s basement that explain the state of her inner mind.”

Anyone who’s seen The Silence of the Lambs even once will recognize these flashes: the stone-lined well, Buffalo Bill at his sewing machine, Precious the dog, and moths flurrying around an overhead lamp—all accompanied by a bar or two of Q Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses.”

“At this point, Buffalo Bill’s elements are not flashbacks, because she did not witness any of it,” Vrvilo said. “It’s really trauma caused by the whole experience that comes back to her in her dreams, and it’s haunting her.”

Stories about heroic cops and serial killers often gloss over the mental toll that witnessing violence and depravity can cause, but Harris’s stories look that cost straight in the face. In fact, some of the very first lines uttered in the Lecterverse films are about trauma. In Manhunter, Crawford (played by Dennis Farina) has to coax Graham (William Petersen) out of retirement—a retirement necessitated by Graham’s inability to cope with the weight of previous cases, not least among them his own near death at Hannibal’s hands.

Later in the film, Petersen’s Graham tries to articulate why his gift of being able to think like a serial killer is also a curse. “I tried to build feelings in my imagination like the killer had, so that I would know why he did what he did. Because that would help me find him,” he said, before going on to describe the encounter in which Lecktor (as it was spelled in Manhunter) attacked him. “After my body got OK, I still had his thoughts going around in my head. …They’re the ugliest thoughts in the world.”

No two people experience trauma the same way, even people who have been through similar events, and there are many ways a director can portray it. The conversation in Manhunter takes place in a brightly lit grocery store, in one of the quietest and calmest scenes of any of the Lecterverse films. Vrvilo, on the other hand, focused on sights and sounds that might be triggering to Clarice. One of the shots showcased in the opening scene is set on the steps of the Department of Justice building as Clarice faces the press after the Buffalo Bill case. This sequence, Vrvilo said, was inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.

“He loves all those slow-motion shots and close-ups and black-and-white details,” she said. “That’s the imagery that, to me, represented Clarice’s trauma. The loud sound effects, the popping flashes of the cameras. That’s what the scene was about.”

Even when we see Clarice projecting a calm demeanor externally, Vrvilo wanted to emphasize her isolation. “Even though she is a part of the team, I tried to keep her either surrounded or just a little away from the rest of the team,” Vrvilo said. “Inside the bullpen, often it’s her against everybody else. At the crime scene by the river, it’s her against everybody else. There’s also a little bit of male gaze that Jonathan Demme did wonderfully in the movie—every time she walks by you see men looking after her, and the camera stays on them just a touch too long.”

That extends to emphasizing Clarice’s smallness—another detail Vrvilo carried over from The Silence of the Lambs. The film has multiple scenes in which Starling is the only woman in a room full of tall, imposing men. Vrvilo pointed out one shot in particular, in which Jodie Foster boards an elevator full of older, bigger FBI agents. Breeds, the new Clarice Starling, is almost a foot shorter than Michael Cudlitz, who plays Paul Krendler, Starling’s boss. (Krendler is one of the few legacy characters Clarice gets to play with; moviegoing audiences last saw him in Hannibal, played by an open-skulled Ray Liotta.) Rather than try to close the distance between the characters, Vrvilo emphasized it, dressing Breeds in flats rather than heels and shooting point-of-view shots from extremely high or low angles to show Starling’s physical vulnerability and isolation.

What Vrvilo didn’t do is ape Demme’s most famous directorial technique. When Clarice and Lecter have their famous first meeting in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, both Foster and Anthony Hopkins deliver their lines directly to camera. Demme used this shot in other films, like Philadelphia and The Manchurian Candidate, but it’s become synonymous with The Silence of the Lambs.

Demme, who died in 2017, explained the logic behind the shot to Rob Feld in a 2015 interview for DGA Quarterly:

“The most powerful shot of all is when you put the viewer right in the shoes of one of the characters so that they are seeing exactly what the character is seeing and, ideally, having the same response that the character is having because they’re so identified with them. Of course, you don’t want your audience to realize your actors are staring into the camera. You want them to be so immersed in the moment that it’s their reality, so you need that tight, tight over the shoulder to get in and out of the subjective camera. We felt like that shot was made for The Silence of the Lambs because, in their confrontations with each other, Dr. Lecter and Clarice are going deep inside each other’s heads. The more you back off and loosen the over-the-shoulders, you’re just moving away from the goal of the intensity of the sequence, becoming more and more objective. I love pushing the subjective side of things whenever possible for the viewer.”

Vrvilo used that type of framing only briefly, at the very end of the pilot.

“I wanted to do this at the end of the pilot as she finds her confidence,” Vrvilo said. “As she stands up to the press for the first time, and this time the flashbulbs do not make her walk away. That’s really the only time I shot her looking straight to camera being very calm. … But any other time it just felt inappropriate. It felt like an hour imitating Silence just wasn’t the right thing to do.”

It’s also not necessary. Harris’s works offer a fascinating variety of avenues into characters’ complex and tortured psyches. NBC’s Hannibal, for instance, is known for its rich, deep color palette and its time spent inside Will Graham’s imagination. Clarice is shot with somewhat more conventional colors and offers only fleeting glances into its heroine’s mind.

The first two films of the series, Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs, could not have taken more different routes through similar terrain. Manhunter, set in the Southeastern U.S. and directed by Mann at his Miami Vice–iest, looks like Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” sounds—it’s quiet and slow-developing, but with bright white and neon background coloration. The Silence of the Lambs is darker, with colder, earthier colors appropriate for its mid-Atlantic winter setting.

One could explain those distinctions away by noting the changing fashions of the times: Even between 1986 and 1991, design and artistic sensibilities changed, and Manhunter looked a little dated even five years after its release. But it’s also illustrative of the points of view of the films’ respective heroes. Starling is afraid because she’s traveling into uncharted territory; Will Graham is afraid—probably even more so than Starling—because he knows exactly what he’s getting into.

Red Dragon, the 2002 Silence of the Lambs prequel, offers another interesting visual contrast to Manhunter. Red Dragon replaced Demme with Brett Ratner but brought back Hopkins and Silence screenwriter Ted Tally. The film adopted a similar visual style to Silence, but some of its scenes and dialogue are almost identical to Manhunter. Through this, we’re offered the opportunity to see Manhunter’s Graham and Hannibal in an austere, stark-white prison facility, with Petersen and Brian Cox playing the conversation fairly down-the-middle:

Versus the same scene in the dark, earthen Silence of the Lambs–style set of Red Dragon, with Hopkins dialing his cannibalistic menace up to 11.

Both approaches are effective, but I’d argue Manhunter is more so, because the primary focus is not on Hannibal, but on Graham.

Ever since Manhunter debuted in 1986, the actors who’ve donned Hannibal Lecter’s white prison jumpsuit or bespoke European suits—whether it’s Cox, Hopkins, or Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen—have spent most of their screen time throwing 100 mph heat. And why not? Hannibal is a terrifying, weird, cool character who owns every room he’s in and gets all the best lines. Hopkins in particular turned Lecter from a memorable secondary character into a national nightmare. That Hopkins won Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs despite having just 16 minutes of screen time has become a legendary bit of movie trivia.

Clarice is a direct sequel to Silence, and as a network drama, it will inevitably draw comparisons to Hannibal. Yet I’ve devoted a lot of space in this story to Manhunter, the oldest and by far lowest-grossing movie in the series. Manhunter has zero character overlap with Clarice and not much more in common stylistically. But it’s the closest thing to a spiritual progenitor to Clarice because it’s the only other work in the series that isn’t mostly about a serial killer. Cox gets even less screen time in Manhunter than Hopkins does in Silence. Francis Dollarhyde, the film’s proximate villain, doesn’t get much more. Manhunter’s focus is mostly on Will Graham’s struggle to work through his own emotional trauma; the serial killers are little more than plot machinations.

The drama in Clarice is similarly internalized; as viewers, we’re not gawking at the derangement of a murderer but rather empathizing with a person who narrowly escaped one. Clarice won’t try to replace Hannibal Lecter with another similarly sinister nemesis; which is probably smart, since any Lecter proxy would draw unflattering comparisons to the genuine article.

But it’s also part of a deliberate shift in focus. Starling’s big speech at the end of the pilot comes after she’s just apprehended her bad guy, and when reporters ask about the killer, she responds by listing the names of his victims. In this show, the killer’s mind is not the one most worthy of exploration.

“Serial killers became celebrities through movies and television,” said Vrvilo, who cited that monologue as one of the highlights of her time on set. “Movies are made about them, television shows are made about them, and it’s exciting. The audience craves that. But Clarice is not about that. It’s not a story about Hannibal Lecter. It’s not a story about the new serial killer. It’s a story about her, and she doesn’t need any of those people.”

Nor does the series. For 35 years, filmmakers have used Harris’s books as a way to explore the human mind, and what happens when it’s strained, damaged, or pan-fried to be served with a dollop of caviar. That exploration—and the creative opportunities it presents—is the true draw of the Hannibal Lecter films.