Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character created by novelist Thomas Harris. Lecter is a serial killer who eats his victims. Before his capture, he was a respected forensic psychiatrist; after his incarceration, he is consulted by FBI agents Will Graham and Clarice Starling to help them find other serial killers.
Lecter first appeared in a small role as a villain in Harris' 1981 thriller novel Red Dragon. The novel was adapted into the film Manhunter (1986), with Brian Cox as Lecter (spelled "Lecktor"). Lecter had a larger role in The Silence of the Lambs (1988); the 1991 film adaptation starred Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Hopkins reprised the role for the 2001 adaptation of the 1999 novel Hannibal, which sees Lecter evading recapture, and for a second adaptation of Red Dragon in 2002.
The fourth novel, Hannibal Rising (2006), explores Lecter's childhood and development into a serial killer. He was played in the 2007 film adaptation by Gaspard Ulliel. In the NBC television series Hannibal (2013–2015), which focuses on Lecter's relationship with Graham, Lecter was played by Mads Mikkelsen, who won the Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television for his performance.
In 2003, Lecter, as portrayed by Hopkins, was named the greatest villain in American cinema by the American Film Institute. In 2010, Entertainment Weekly named him one of the 100 greatest characters of the preceding 20 years. In 2019, Lecter, as portrayed by Mikkelsen, was named the 18th greatest villain in television history by Rolling Stone.
In the backstory of the 1981 novel Red Dragon, FBI profiler Will Graham interviews Lecter about one of his patients who was murdered by a serial killer, before intuiting that Lecter is the culprit; he sees the antique medical diagram "Wound Man" in Lecter’s office, and remembers that the victim suffered the same injuries depicted in the drawing. Realizing that Graham is on to him, Lecter creeps up behind Graham and stabs him with a linoleum knife, nearly disemboweling him.
Graham survives, but is so traumatized by the incident that he takes early retirement from the FBI. Lecter is charged with a series of nine murders, but is found not guilty by reason of insanity. He is institutionalized in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane under the care of Dr. Frederick Chilton, a pompous, incompetent psychiatrist whom he despises, and who subjects him to a series of petty cruelties.
Some years later, Graham comes out of retirement and consults Lecter in order to catch another serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, known by the nickname "the Tooth Fairy". Through the classifieds of a tabloid called The National Tattler, Lecter provides Dolarhyde with Graham's home address; Dolarhyde later uses this information to break into Graham’s home, stab him in the face, and threaten his family before Graham’s wife Molly shoots him dead. At the end of the novel, Lecter sends Graham a letter, saying that he hopes Graham "won’t be very ugly".
The Silence of the Lambs
In the 1988 sequel The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter assists FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling in catching a serial killer, Jame Gumb, known by the nickname "Buffalo Bill". Lecter is fascinated by Starling, and they form an unusual relationship in which he provides her with a profile of the killer and his modus operandi in exchange for details about her unhappy childhood.
Lecter had previously met Gumb, the former lover of his patient (and eventual victim) Benjamin Raspail. He does not reveal this information directly, instead giving Starling vague clues to help her figure it out for herself. In return for Lecter's assistance, the FBI and Chilton arrange for him to be transferred to a federal institution with better living conditions.
Lecter escapes while in transit, however, killing and mutilating his guards and using one of their faces as a mask to fool police and paramedics before killing the latter and escaping. While in hiding, he writes one letter to Starling wishing her well, a second to Barney (his primary orderly at the asylum), thanking him for his courteous treatment, and a third to Chilton, promising gruesome revenge; Chilton disappears soon afterward.
In the third novel, 1999's Hannibal, Lecter lives in a palazzo in Florence, Italy, and works as a museum curator under the alias "Dr. Fell". One of Lecter’s two surviving victims, Mason Verger—a wealthy, sadistic pedophile whom Lecter had brutalized during a court-ordered therapy session, leaving him a horrifically disfigured quadriplegic—offers a huge reward for anyone who apprehends Lecter, whom he intends to feed to wild boars specially bred for the purpose.
Verger enlists the help of Rinaldo Pazzi, a disgraced Italian police inspector, and Paul Krendler, a corrupt Justice Department official and Starling's boss. Lecter kills Pazzi and returns to the United States to escape Verger's Sardinian henchmen, only to be captured. Starling follows them, intent on apprehending Lecter personally, and is injured in a gunfight with Verger's henchmen. Lecter escapes, thanks to Starling's help, and persuades Verger's younger sister Margot—his former patient, whom Verger had molested and raped years earlier—to kill her brother, promising to take the blame.
Lecter rescues the wounded Starling and takes her to his rented house on the Chesapeake shore to treat her, subjecting her to a regimen of psychoactive drugs in the course of therapy sessions to help her heal from her childhood trauma and her pent-up anger at the injustices of the world. He considers whether his long-dead younger sister Mischa may somehow be able to live again through Starling. One day, he invites her to a formal dinner where the guest and first course is Krendler, whose brain they consume together. On this night, Starling refuses to let her personality be subsumed, telling Lecter that Mischa's memory can live within him. She then offers him her breast, and they become lovers.
Three years later, former orderly Barney, who had treated Lecter with respect while he was incarcerated in Baltimore, sees Lecter and Starling entering the Teatro Colón opera house in Buenos Aires. Fearing for his life, Barney leaves Buenos Aires immediately, never to return.
The reader then learns that Lecter and Starling are living together in an "exquisite" Beaux Arts mansion, where they employ servants and engage in activities such as learning new languages and dancing together and building their own respective memory palaces, and is told that "Sex is a splendid structure they add to every day", that the psychoactive drugs "have had no part in their lives for a long time", and that Lecter is "satisfied" with the fact that Mischa cannot return.
Harris wrote a 2006 prequel, Hannibal Rising, after film producer Dino De Laurentiis (who owned the cinematic rights to the Lecter character) announced an intended film project depicting Lecter's childhood and development into a serial killer with or without Harris' help. Harris would also write the film's screenplay.
The novel chronicles Lecter's early life, from his birth into an aristocratic family in Lithuania in 1933, to being orphaned, along with his beloved younger sister Mischa, in 1944 when a Nazi Stuka bomber attacks a Soviet tank in front of their forest hideaway. Shortly thereafter, he and Mischa are captured by a band of Nazi collaborators, who murder and cannibalize Mischa before her brother's eyes; Lecter later learns that the collaborators also fed him Mischa's remains.
Irreparably traumatized, Lecter escapes from the deserters and wanders through the forest, dazed and unable to speak. He is found and taken back to his family's old castle, which had been converted into a Soviet orphanage, where he is bullied by the other children and abused by the dean.
He is adopted by his uncle Robert and Robert's Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki, who nurses him back to health and teaches him to speak again. Robert dies shortly after adopting Lecter, who forms a close, pseudo-romantic relationship with Murasaki. During this time he also shows great intellectual aptitude, entering medical school at a young age and distinguishing himself.
Despite his seemingly comfortable life, Lecter is consumed by a savage obsession with avenging Mischa's death. He kills for the first time as a teenager, beheading a racist fishmonger who insulted Murasaki. He then methodically tracks down, tortures, and murders each of the men who had killed his sister. In the process of taking his revenge, he forsakes his relationship with Murasaki and seemingly loses all traces of his humanity. The novel ends with Lecter being accepted to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Red Dragon was first adapted to film in 1986 as the Michael Mann film Manhunter, although the spelling of Lecter's name was changed to "Lecktor". He was played by actor Brian Cox. Cox based his performance on Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel.
In 1991, Orion Pictures produced a Jonathan Demme-directed adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, in which Lecter was played by actor Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins' Academy Award-winning performance made Lecter into a cultural icon. In 2001, Hannibal was adapted to film, with Hopkins reprising his role. In the film adaptation, the ending is revised: Starling attempts to apprehend Lecter, who escapes after cutting off his own hand to free himself from her handcuffs. In 2002, Red Dragon was adapted again, this time under its original title, with Hopkins again as Lecter and Edward Norton as Will Graham. Hopkins wrote a screenplay for another sequel, ending with Starling killing Lecter. In 2016, Hopkins said, "I made the mistake of doing two more [Hannibal Lecter movies] and I should have only done one."
In late 2006, the novel Hannibal Rising was adapted into a film, which portrayed Lecter's development into a serial killer. In the film, which was finished by 2007, eight-year-old Lecter is portrayed by Aaran Thomas, while Gaspard Ulliel portrays him as a young man. Both the novel and film, as well as Ulliel’s performance as Lecter, received generally negative reviews.
In February 2012, NBC gave a series order to Hannibal, a television adaptation of Red Dragon to be written and executive-produced by Bryan Fuller. Mads Mikkelsen plays Lecter, opposite Hugh Dancy as Will Graham.
The first season amends the series' continuity so that Graham and Lecter first work together during the hunt for Garrett Jacob Hobbs (Vladimir Jon Cubrt), the "Minnesota Shrike", a serial killer who preys on college girls. During the investigation, Lecter secretly calls Hobbs to tip him off that Graham is on to him, just to see what Hobbs will do. As a result, Hobbs turns on his own family, killing his wife and trying to kill his daughter Abigail (Kacey Rohl) as Graham charges in and shoots him dead. Killing Hobbs weighs on Graham's conscience and gives him nightmares, so his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) sends him to Lecter for counseling. Throughout the first season, Lecter acts as Graham's unofficial psychiatrist, and they form a tenuous friendship. Lecter and Graham also become father figures to Abigail, and cover for her when they discover that she was her father's unwilling accomplice.
Lecter is fascinated by Graham's ability to empathize with psychopaths, and he spends much of the series trying to undermine Graham's fragile sanity and push him into becoming a killer. To this end, Lecter prevents Graham from learning that he has advanced encephalitis, just to see how Graham would function under the circumstances. In the first season finale, Lecter reluctantly frames Graham for a series of murders that he himself committed throughout the season – including, apparently, Abigail's – but not before Graham realizes that Lecter is the "Chesapeake Ripper", the very serial killer he has been trying to catch.
Throughout the beginning of the second season, Graham, who is now institutionalized, attempts to convince his skeptical former colleagues that Lecter is the real killer and begins pulling strings from within his cell in order to expose him. Meanwhile, Lecter begins to manipulate evidence from the outside, exonerating himself after the FBI's initial investigations into Graham's claims. Eventually, Graham persuades his friend and colleague Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), a forensic scientist, to investigate Lecter in exchange for help on a case. She breaks into Lecter's house, where she finds evidence of his guilt. Lecter catches her, however, and kills her; he then sections her body vertically and displays it in tableau. Angry and vengeful, Graham convinces psychotic hospital orderly Matthew Brown (Jonathan Tucker) to try to kill Lecter, but Crawford comes to Lecter's rescue in time. Lecter retaliates by taking as his lover Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), a psychologist for whom Graham has romantic feelings. Lecter then exonerates Graham by planting forensic evidence of Graham's alleged victims at the scene of one of his own murders, resulting in Graham's release. He also frames his colleague Frederick Chilton (Raúl Esparza) by planting a mutilated corpse in his house and "influencing" his surviving victim Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) into believing that Chilton had abducted and tortured her.
Graham resumes therapy with Lecter as an attempt to entrap him. Lecter becomes aware of the ruse, but is fascinated by the experience and allows it to continue in an attempt to examine his connection with Graham. In an attempt to push Graham into becoming a killer, Lecter sends his psychotic former patient Randall Tier (Mark O'Brien) after him, and Graham kills and mutilates Tier – just as Lecter hoped he would. Later, Graham attacks tabloid reporter Fredericka "Freddy" Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki), who is investigating him and Lecter. Graham shares a meal with Lecter of what is implied to be her flesh, but it is soon revealed that Lounds is still alive and conspiring with Graham and Crawford to draw Lecter into their trap.
Lecter and Graham acquire a common enemy in Mason Verger (Michael Pitt), a wealthy sadist whom they both despise for emotionally and sexually abusing his twin sister, and Lecter’s patient, Margot (Katharine Isabelle). Verger briefly enters therapy with Lecter to find out what Margot is saying about him, but soon kidnaps Lecter and Graham, intent on feeding them both to his prize pigs. They both escape, however, and Lecter takes Verger hostage in Graham's house. Lecter gives Mason a hallucinogenic drug cocktail, and tells him to cut off pieces of his own face and feed them to Graham's dogs. With Graham's tacit approval, Lecter then breaks Verger's neck with his bare hands, paralyzing him from the neck down.
In the second-season finale, Crawford arrives at Lecter's house to arrest him. In the ensuing struggle, Lecter seriously injures Crawford, while a very much alive Abigail Hobbs pushes Bloom out of a window. Lecter then stabs Graham and cuts Abigail's throat in front of him, and flees before the police arrive. He is shown in a post-credits scene aboard a flight to France with his psychiatrist, Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson).
The third season amends the series' continuity to incorporate events from the novels Red Dragon and Hannibal. It also changes Lecter's origin story: in this continuity, Lecter's sister Mischa was murdered, cannibalized, and fed to him by a peasant in his native Lithuania; Lecter eventually made the peasant his prisoner in his ancestral home. Certain episodes also suggest that, in his youth, Lecter was the unidentified serial killer known as the "Monster of Florence".
Months after his escape, Lecter is living in Florence with Du Maurier, working as a museum curator under the alias "Dr. Fell" – having murdered the original curator and stolen his identity. Disgraced Italian detective Rinaldo Pazzi (Fortunato Cerlino) tries to apprehend him to collect a bounty placed by Mason Verger (Joe Anderson), who is also consulting with Bloom to capture Lecter. Lecter kills Pazzi and tries to flee the country, but is accosted by Crawford, who engages him in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, Graham goes looking for Lecter with the help of the doctor's family servant Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto), traveling to his adversary's home country to find out more about him.
Lecter manages to escape from Crawford and meet up with Graham when he arrives in Italy again. Graham makes peace with Lecter before pulling a knife on him, but Chiyoh shoots and wounds Graham. Lecter takes Graham back to his villa and tries to perform a craniotomy on him in front of Crawford, but is interrupted by Italian detectives on Mason’s payroll, who deliver them both to his estate in Maryland. Mason’s physician Cordell Doemling (Glenn Fleshler) tells Lecter that he will mutilate him until he dies, and prepare gourmet cuisine from his flesh for Mason to eat. Bloom frees Lecter, who suggests that Margot kill her brother, promising to take the blame. Lecter then kills Doemling, who is about to surgically remove Graham's face and graft it onto Mason's, and later instructs Margot and Bloom on how to "milk" the unconscious Mason's prostate to give Margot the sperm she needs to conceive a child and thus inherit the Verger family fortune. After Margot kills her brother, Lecter carries the wounded and unconscious Graham to the latter's house. When Graham wakes up, he allows Lecter to escape, claiming that he never wants to see him again. To spite Graham, Lecter surrenders to Crawford later that evening and is taken into custody.
Lecter is found insane at his trial, and incarcerated in the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane, under Chilton and Bloom's care. Three years later, Graham visits him at the hospital to ask for help in profiling a serial killer dubbed "the Tooth Fairy", who murders entire families. Lecter begins communicating with the killer, Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), and gives him Graham's home address. Dolarhyde attacks and wounds Graham's wife, Molly (Nina Arianda). Bloom and Crawford threaten to take away Lecter's hospital privileges unless he lets them listen in on his conversations with Dolarhyde. Lecter complies, but then suddenly tells Dolarhyde they are listening. Bloom punishes him by taking away his books and toilet seat, and confining him in a straitjacket and muzzle. Graham, in an attempt to make Dolarhyde come out of hiding, gives an interview with Chilton and Lounds in which he describes "the Tooth Fairy" as ugly, impotent, and a product of incest. Dolarhyde, enraged by the "bad review", abducts, burns and disfigures Chilton, and sends Lecter Chilton's severed lips, one of which Lecter eats.
In the series finale, "The Wrath of the Lamb", Lecter and Graham develop a plan to catch Dolarhyde, using Lecter as bait. Lecter goes with Graham on a police convoy, to be transferred to another facility in order to eventually draw the killer out. However, Graham has made a deal with Dolarhyde to free Lecter, and Dolarhyde attacks the convoy, killing the guards and letting Lecter and Graham live. Lecter then takes Graham to a secluded clifftop cottage where he previously held Abigail Hobbs and Miriam Lass. Dolarhyde tracks them down and attacks them, shooting Lecter in the back and stabbing Graham in the face. Though they are both badly wounded, Lecter and Graham manage to get the better of Dolarhyde and kill him together: Graham slices open Dolarhyde's chest, while Lecter tears out his throat with his teeth. Lecter and Graham then embrace, before Graham pushes them both off a cliff. Their ultimate fate is left ambiguous; a post-credits scene shows Du Maurier dining on her own leg at a table set for three. Series creator Bryan Fuller has said this scene is meant to suggest that Lecter and Graham survived and that Graham has become Lecter's partner in murder. Fuller has stated that Season 4 would have depicted Lecter and Graham on the run from the FBI in Argentina, mirroring Lecter and Starling's storyline from the novels.