Psychopaths in Film – Hannibal Lecter


Hannibal Lecter

Perhaps the most well known screen psychopath is Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter character from the Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon films. Hopkins plays a deranged and violent serial killer who also has cultured artistic tastes and interests. He is the ultimate refined killer if you will, so seemingly intelligent and cultivated that you would never realise he was a killer if you met him in daily life.

Whilst Hopkins is an excellent actor and the films are entertaining in their own right, 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 Hannnibal Lecter as a psychopath does not fit with what you will see in real life, 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.

They are driven strictly by control, power, domination and hedonism, with no sense of creativity, vocation, charity or higher purpose. See the Unslaved Podcast on psychopaths for more on this.

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 initally 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.

Other Psychopaths in The Films

The main three Hannibal Lecter films also actually feature some other excellent performances of some seriously deranged, psychopathic characters as well as Hopkin’s performances.

Silence of the Lambs for instance also has a good performance by Ted Levine as the crazed “Buffalo Bill” serial killer who everyone is trying to track down. He plays an unhinged, cross dressing psychopath who has a penchant for not also killing but mutilating his victims.

He captures a Senator’s daughter and keeps her trapped at the bottom of a well under his house. Her repeated pleas for mercy go unheard and once Starling finds her way to his house he portrays that creepy “something not right” demeanor superbly. Sure enough Starling follows her gut feel and a shootout and grand finale chase ensues.

The Hannibal Film also features another excellent performance of a deranged psychopathic individual, in the form of Mason Verger, a corrupt, vengeful child molester played by Gary Oldman who is seeking revenge on Lector for disfiguring him earlier in life.

Verger is extremely wealthy and hell bent on exacting a brutal revenge on Lector. He has spent years breeding viscious pigs as part of an elaborate revenge plot he has wanted to play out for years. The fact that Lector’s disfigurement of him was in retaliation for horrendous predatory crimes he himself committed against children of course goes over Verger’s head as he projects blame and responsibility out as all psychopaths do.

His character is also extremely manipulative and predatory, but also spoilt, entitled and abusive towards his assistant Cordell, and his elaborate plot later backfires as Lector cleverly uses some seeming altruism to set Cordell free from years of Verger’s control and abuse and seal Verger’s fate (see here – spoiler alert).

The Hannibal Film also has an ongoing theme of corruption, featuring characters which may not be full blown psychopathic but are certainly corrupted and lacking in morals and integrity. Corrupt characters such as Ray Liotta’s Paul Krendler and Giancarlo Giannini’s Inspector Pazzi who have no problems breaking rules and cutting dodgy deals paying and accepting bribes are cast against the iron clad integrity of the straight-arrow Clarice Starling character.

Part of Lecter’s admiration for Starling is precisely this juxtaposition of her against the other corrupt people in the FBI and law enforcement in general. It is as though she is fighting against the corruption of her own superiors and peers as well as chasing Lecter and he recognizes this and has a sneaking respect for her integrity.

We must always remember though this is creative license on the part of the filmmakers and a real psychopath wouldn’t care one wit about corruption their pursuer has to face. Interestingly both Krendler and Pazzi’s corruption later backfires on them and in both cases Lecter is the one who dishes out the brutal karma to them, making for entertaining but gory viewing (Warning – do not watch this film if you have a weak stomach and do not like graphic violence).

The Hannibal film therefore is quite rich in subtext about characters who may not yet be full blown psychopathic as Lecter is, but are on the way to becoming so through their corruption and lack of morality. It paints corruption as a process that escalates through a series of choices, but also with a brutally delivered message that “what goes around comes around”.

The Red Dragon movie, set as an intended prequel to Silence of the Lambs, also features a frightening perfomance by Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde, another unhinged serial killing psychopath who has (so far) managed to evade detection and blend into society as a photography technician in a lab.

He has a penchant for breaking mirrors during his killings and disfiguring his victims in bizarre ways, reflecting a deep seated fear he has for how he is seen by others. He develops a fleeting romance with one his co-workers which even a blind person (spoiler alert: excuse the pun) can see is not going to end well, and converses with Lecter about the Will Graham character who has been assigned to his case.

The Ralph Fiennes performance is particularly brutal and extreme but characterizes the deeply damaged and distorted inner world of the psychopath very well. It also shows the existence of a double life and split identity very well, with a presentable, shy persona projected to the normal world but a more disturbing private character hidden from view, with a fascination with dark art and literature and murderous impulses and fetishes.

Summary

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.

Hannibal Lecter Films and Books – Click to view on your local Amazon store

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Hannibal Lecter Trilogy – Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal

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Red Dragon (2002)

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Hannibal Rising (2007)

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Hannibal Lecter and Philosophy

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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.

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