The frightening but also entertaining Hannibal Lecter character played by Anthony Hopkins in the now famous Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Films (plus Red Dragon), may commonly be colloquially referred to as a “psychopath”. The character certainly does some horrible and terrifying things to others, but is the depiction of a psychopath actually realistic and accurate? Would you see real life psychopathic killers actually behave like Hannibal Lecter, do the things that Hannibal Lecter does? Could you accurately class Hannibal Lecter as a psychopath?
The depiction of Hannibal Lecter as a psychopath is not accurate and is designed primarily for entertainment, not factual correctness. Despite accurately portraying some psychopathic tendencies, the entire premise of Hannibal Lecter as an artistic, refined, yet psychopathic character as based on a fundamental misconception of psychopathy.
One of the criteria that specifically distinguishes psychopaths from ordinary human beings is that they have no creativity or inner life. A psychopath could never have artistic and creative yearnings; it is solely about domination and manipulation of others for them.
That should not stop anyone enjoying what are very entertaining and for the most part well acted films. Films are after all meant to be a work of fiction where we suspend our disbelief, and whilst the portrayal of Hannibal Lecter as a psychopath does not fit with what you will see in real life (other than the violence), the films are still enjoyable pieces of work with some pop psychology thrown in there.
A Killer With An Artistic Streak?
One of the main themes of The Silence of the Lambs in particular is that Hannibal Lecter is a murderous psychopath who also has an interest in refined culture, literature and art. He is incarcerated in this film, having been convicted for viciously murdering and attacking multiple people including prison staff.
However the character still yearns for creative expression and has paintings and works of literature in his cell. He pines for a cell with a view of nature and is always articulate and well spoken, throwing in references to literature across all the films that many people wouldn’t know about.
This theme is carried through to the second film where he has escaped and is on the run. Las Vegas is touted as the possible location for him but quickly dismissed by Julianne Moore’s Clarice Starling character “(Las Vegas) is the last place he’d be. It would be an assault on his sense of taste.” Sure enough he is eventually tracked down in Florence enjoying fine wines and great paintings, playing up to the typical “cultured and artistic” stereotype again.
However the notion that a murderous psychopath could even have these character traits is a total myth. Psychopaths are empty and fake inside and have no creativity and inner life. Far from creating their own artistic expressions, psychopaths are the very people who start become very anxious as soon as outer stimulation stops. They are looking for the world to turn them on and are incapable of giving meaning to their own existence.
In fact one of the very criteria people should look out for when trying to identify psychopaths in their life is the complete lack of creative or vocational aspects. You will find these qualities completely absent from all psychopaths, even in later stages of life.
A Psychopath With a Crush?
Another thread that runs through the first two films is a fascination Lecter has with Clarice Starling, a rookie agent sent to interview and investigate him. He initially sees her as an innocent, someone to be played with and manipulated but over the films Lector grows fond of her and continues to write to her when on the run.
He will seemingly never cross the line of physically harming her that he is happy to cross with others. He will happily murder and brutalize other people but seemingly Clarice is off limits for him. In Hannibal he rescues her after she is shot while trying to pursue him and tends to her wounds, and later he has the choice between harming her or himself in order to escape and chooses the latter. If only real psychopaths were this altruistic….
Again these parts of the plot make for entertaining viewing but are based on a misconception as far as psychopaths are concerned. The idea that any one person could matter more to them than anyone else is a myth. It is true the Clarice is shot while rescuing Lecter himself from being tortured to death, but the idea this would matter to a psychopath and make them feel they must repay the favour is a total myth.
Even when they do appear to care for someone this care only remains in place because it serves a purpose for them. If this situation were to change and the relationship suddenly no longer serves this purpose you will find them gone in an instant. They don’t value people for themselves. They certainly don’t value people who are actively trying to pursue and recapture them as Starling is.
Similarly murderous psychopaths have no trouble killing people of either sex; just because it is a women will not stop a psychopath killing, particularly if they have done it before. It is also true though that not all psychopaths express their evil in this way, some prefer psychological abuse and mind games to actual physical violence and murder.
Lecter initially see Agent Clarice Starling as an innocent to be played and toyed with psychologically; however he develops and admiration and affection for her over the course of two of the movies.
A Tendency For Mind Games
On the mind games front the Hannibal Lecter character is superbly played by Hopkins. He never answers questions directly, with constant obfuscation, misdirection and complicated prose and references to literature. There is a constant distance and indirectness kept between him and the people interviewing him so getting information out of him is never straightforward.
Similarly he also uses the interrogations to try and prise information out about the detectives’ lives and history. In Silence of the Lambs he regularly asks Clarice Starling about her childhood. After being warned about this she initially deflects the questions quite well, giving only little snippets, but Lector later uses her desperation to find a missing person to open her up psychologically and reveal how her past trauma drives her current life.
It is true that psychopaths often set about manipulating their captors and interrogators when in custody, though it can never be said that the Hannibal Lecter character tries to charm his way into people’s good books to manipulate them better. There is a constant disdain and withholding of information as he tries to play cat and mouse with his captors to get something he can later use against them.
He also toys with the Will Graham character in Red Dragon, giving deliberately vague answers to questions he has and withholding information that would help him catch a serial killer on the loose. He later corresponds with the killer in question and provides information that would help him to find and kill Graham and his family.
The plot is later foiled but it displays a scheming aspect to Lecter’s character that does accurately portray the mindset of psychopaths. He is always prying for weaknesses and ways to escape and otherwise cause carnage and would not hesitate to kill even those he (eventually) converses with. He appears to make an exception for Starling on this front but this is just creative license from the filmmakers and would not characterize a real psychopath.
What Does The Inner World Of A Violent Psychopath Really Look Like?
Now we’ve debunked the myth of the Hannibal Lecter style “creative”, artistic violent psychopath, let’s give some bottom line descriptions and adjectives to describe what’s actually going on in the inner world of a violent psychopath:
- Shallow or zero emotions
- What emotions are there are “baser” ones like anger, envy, resentment.
- Often driven by baser or hedonistic impulses like a need for sex or other forms of stimulation (not artistic or “refined”).
- A constant craving and compulsion to inflict harm on others
- A fixation on dominating and controlling others
- Lack of normal restraint or impulse control.
- Unless they gain total control of others and/or their environment, their inner world is a barren, stormy, disordered mess. Not calm or composed as Hannibal Lecter portrays.
See our article on the Psychopathy Checklist Traits for a more complete overview of typical psychopaths.
As on YouTuber expert on personality disorders recently put it, there are actually few things MORE bland and boring that the mind/inner world of a violent psychopath:
“There’s much less going on (in the inner world of) psychopaths, which is why I’m always surprised when people love watching stuff about serial killers and criminals and (have the desire to) ‘delve into the mind of (the psychopath)’.
Delve into what? There’s nothing here. Is there anything more shallow than the mind of a violent psychopath. People are like ‘oh my god, it’s so mysterious’. What’s the mystery?……
…Let’s just forget about these people, they’re nothing. They are just slabs of evil. And there’s nothing interesting about them. So the Anti-social psychopathy issue is interesting not from a structural point of view because there’s nothing there. They’re like robots, they’re like the Terminator”
I like this take on violent murderous psychopaths, and it’s very true the “mainstream” attaches far too much importance and “mystery” to a personality type that’s actually very shallow, bland and basically “nothing” at the core. The creative license used to bring alive the Hannibal Lecter psychopath character is pure fantasy and you’d never find a psychopathic killer actually resembling him in real life.
The Hannibal Lecter films offer an interesting take on the deranged life and worldview of a psychopath, with several notable performance of dark and disturbed characters alongside the headline performance of Anthony Hopkins as Lecter in three of the films.
Some of the analysis in the films is pop psychology and way off the mark; some of it is right on the money as far as psychopathy and corruption is concerned. Filmmakers will obviously use creative license as their main aim is to entertain their viewers not be an academic reference.
We have linked to the different films featuring the Hannibal Lecter character. Hopkins is probably the best known actor to take on the role, but the Lecter character actually began with Brian Cox’s performance in the film Manhunter, which was released several years before The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal followed ten years later 2001, followed by Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising.
For sure some films are better reviewed by critics than others; some critics actually consider the lesser known performance of Cox in Manhunter to be superior to the main films. However, all the films feature some level of psychological study into pathological personality types, however shallow or “pop”, and are worth watching for entertainment value alone.
Most of the Hannibal Lecter films are available on Amazon Video, which comes with Amazon Prime, but not for free. There is an extra charge to watch them. Click here to try Prime for 30 days if you haven’t already.
The original film in the series Manhunter is contained within the trilogy pack linked above. See also the Hannibal TV series starring Mads Mikkelsen. The chronological order of the films is as follows:
- Manhunter – 1986
- Silence of the Lambs – 1991
- Hannibal – 2001
- Red Dragon – 2002
- Hannibal Rising – 2007
- Hannibal TV series – 2013 – 2015
The four main films from Silence of the Lambs through to Hannibal Rising are actually loosely based on a series of novels of the same name by Thomas Harris. The full collection of all four can be found on Amazon here, or else they are also available individually.