Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (1981), Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002)
Something unexpected happened between the publication of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon in 1981 and Brett Ratner’s 2002 adaptation of the book: Dr. Hannibal Lecter became a superstar.
Lecter was introduced in a pivotal but small role in Dragon and upgraded in stature in the sequel The Silence Of The Lambs. He didn’t become a phenomenon until Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed adaptation of that book in 1991. For all of Harris’ skill in creating the monster—a genius killer of erudite, um, taste—much of Lecter’s fame and popularity can be credited to Anthony Hopkins, whose Oscar-winning performance in Lambs defines the character for most. The success of Lambs—likely the movie as much as the book—led to Hannibal, a Lecter-centric sequel that was published and adapted years later, and the commercial success of that led to the producers completing their series with Red Dragon, a Hopkins-starring prequel to a film that had come out more than 10 years before.
Hopkins is not the only actor to play the killer, of course. Brian Cox played him—or rather, Hannibal Lecktor, as the character was named—in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, the first adaptation of Red Dragon, and Mads Mikkelsen plays him in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a series based on Harris characters that is only now—in its third and final season—getting to Red Dragon’s main storyline. (There was also Gaspard Ulliel in the awful pre-prequel Hannibal Rising, but we’ll ignore that.) Both give strong performances, though comparisons are uneven given the differences in screen time between the various iterations, but for most the character is identified with Hopkins.
You can see the gravitational pull of Hopkins’ Lecter in the different versions of Red Dragon. In the book, the character is in a mere two scenes, appearing on about a dozen of the 400-plus pages, though he’s referenced in other scenes, driving the plot by corresponding with the titular maniac. In Manhunter, Lecktor has three scenes and about nine minutes of screen time. Ratner’s version, on the other hand, has at least nine scenes with him—depending on how you count—and roughly 25 on-screen minutes. That’s more screen time than Hopkins got in Lambs, where the character plays a far more active role. (Admittedly book pages and movie minutes are different, so take this as more illustrative than a direct comparison.)
There are a lot of differences between the book and film of Red Dragon—and even bigger tonal and narrative changes between both and Manhunter—but the biggest one is how the film uses Lecter. By Hopkins’ final turn in the role, the cannibal had eaten the franchise alive.
Both films have first acts that track the book closely. All three focus on Will Graham, a spiritually and physically wounded refugee from the FBI, renowned for his ability to see crimes through the perpetrator’s point of view and find insights into their psyches. The book and TV show explain this as a kind of extreme empathy, explicitly positioning Graham as the antithesis of Lecter, but in the films, Graham’s ability is less new age and more acute perceptiveness. (The character is played by William Petersen in Manhunter and Edward Norton in Red Dragon.)
Graham left the agency following the Lecter case, which Ratner opens his film by dramatizing. There’s an extended sequence where Lector attends a philharmonic performance and kills the orchestra’s worst musician, serving him at a dinner for the organization’s board. In this period, which is also the focus of the first season of Hannibal, Lecter is a consultant to the FBI; Graham uses him to help develop psychological profiles of killers. After the dinner scene, Graham shows up to talk about the latest case, hypothesizing that the killer takes organs from his victims not because they’re trophies, but because they’re ingredients. Of course, Lecter is the killer in question, and Graham’s hunch proves accurate within a minute of his arrival, when he happens upon a book in which Lecter has “sweetbreads” noted in the margin. Lecter attacks Graham, nearly killing him, but Graham fights him off by stabbing him with a bunch of hunting arrows before shooting him several times. This is not a subtle film.
Both the book and Manhunter start in the aftermath of that attack, with Graham’s former boss Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina in Manhunter and Harvey Keitel in Red Dragon) visiting Graham in the wake of two families being slaughtered by what is clearly the same man. We’ll learn the murders are the work of one Francis Dolarhyde, a.k.a. The Tooth Fairy (because he bites his victims with a distinct tooth mark), a.k.a. the The Great Red Dragon, for reasons we’ll get into later. Graham is initially reluctant to leave his safe, quiet life, but photos of the victims affect him, and soon he’s traipsing about crime scenes.
The book and Manhunter both reference the backstory with Lecter, but comparatively briefly. In fact, Lecktor’s history is so tangential in Manhunter that Mann’s film never even mentions cannibalism. Despite that, both take pains to indicate Graham suffers from PTSD; the book alludes to stress-related drinking problems while Petersen’s take on the character has him zoned out a lot of the time, zombified, only to snap into moments of violence and anger when the case triggers something. (There’s a lot of “That’s what you did, isn’t it, you son of a bitch?!”-style yelling at every new revelation.) In addition to Lecter’s attack and betrayal, Graham is haunted by investigating so many brutal crimes, in particular his shooting of Garret Jacob Hobbs, the killer he took down before Lecter. Guilt over this event is perhaps the defining characteristic of Hugh Dancy’s Graham in Hannibal; Norton’s seems comparatively well adjusted, even with our seeing what he went through with Lecter.
Graham’s inability to make investigative headway leads him back to Lecter, one more psychological profile for the road. This is as good a place as any to discuss Mann’s take on the material, which is clinical and heavily stylized, the scenes filled with pastel colors and synth music. A cult has grown around the film, championed as a forgotten masterpiece by those who like it when style supersedes story; it’s almost abstract compared to Red Dragon or Mann’s later procedural Heat, which is similarly concerned with the mood surrounding cops and criminals but does a better job marrying those vibes to story. The film is pared down to the point where many scenes take place in blank white rooms that would feel more in place in a 1970s sci-fi drama. Were no pictures hung in the 1980s, not in any house, office, or cell?
The blankness is deliberate, a mirror of Graham’s own cloudiness, but as an artistic choice it’s more distracting than effective, especially as Dolarhyde’s scenes are flooded with red and green, putting too fine a point on the yin-yang between cop and criminal.
While it’s difficult to imagine a director like Mann bowing in the service of source material, it’s worth noting how far that washed-out look is from Harris’ book, which is lurid even by trashy crime-fiction standards. The book is absolutely saturated with sin and despair, down to a two-sentence character who makes a obscene gesture at a woman leaving a funeral, prompting his girlfriend to strike him. Violence and warped sex are everywhere, and Mann’s antiseptic approach doesn’t capture any of that.
Here, in Lecktor’s first appearance, the brightness of the set serves as an ironic counterpoint to the darkness of the character, but Hannibal is just scarier in shadows. Evil has so permeated this world that the dark jail of Red Dragon (it’s really more of a dungeon) feels more appropriate. The ramps that Graham runs down at the end of the below clip implies Lecktor has the prison’s penthouse cell, another artistic choice that subconsciously relieves tension: A subterranean pen has more ominous connotations than one in the sky. While Manhunter was an influence on CSI-type shows, none of those programs emulate Mann’s stylistic remove, and while TV’s Hannibal is similarly more concerned with mood than plot, its color palette has far more in common with the Hopkins trilogy.
The equivalent scene in Red Dragon doesn’t seem to be online (at least not in a version that doesn’t include farts), but the dialogue is similar in both, arriving fairly intact from the book. To compare the different styles, here’s the first interrogation from The Silence Of The Lambs, to which Ratner’s version is heavily indebted; Demme is basically Red Dragon’s co-director, so much did his film set this one’s tone.
Both films underline that Hannibal is not your average murderer, which Harris conveys through prose, describing him in present tense and everyone else in past: “Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light redly in tiny points. Graham felt each hair bristle on his nape.” By positioning Lecter outside of time, Harris fuels the idea that Lecter is eternal and incapable of defeat, even in jail.
Cox’s performance is closer to the character as written. His Lecktor, though saddled with a fake-sounding British accent, is believably brilliant and devoid of wit or charm. That befits the limited role he plays in the book; it’s hard to imagine this Lecktor manipulating people the way he would later in the series, to say nothing of a franchise spinning off this performance.
Hopkins—a Brit downplaying his normal voice—on the other hand, plays him as someone who relishes another bout with his old sparring partner. Where Cox is intense and internal, Hopkins suggests madness through choices like rarely blinking and an offbeat speech pattern. (He was famously inspired by snakes and 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL, while Cox was told to emulate a petulant British school boy.) These tics, which were truly unnerving in Lambs, curdled into caricature by Hopkins’ third go-round, but they do give the scene more charge and energy, and—thanks to some contextual spillover from the opening sequence—the history between Lecter and Graham hits harder with him.
One problem with Hopkins doing the first entry in a series last is that his performance is informed by things that haven’t yet been established in the timeline. Because of the warped respect we’ve seen him have for Clarice Starling—like Graham, another adversary he considers an equal of sorts—it feels like a breach of his code when he schemes to sic Dolarhyde on Graham’s family. Harris would continue to evolve the character in subsequent books; viewing him within the context of the entire franchise, it feels out of character and petty when book-Lecter contemplates sending Graham an enema bag as a dickish reminder of his post-attack hospital recovery. Compare that to Lambs, where he talks a fellow inmate into suicide as punishment for harassing Starling, who will later say she doesn’t worry about an escaped Lecter coming after her because “He would consider that rude.”
The films continue to track the book closely as far as Graham is concerned, though Red Dragon invents some return trips to Lecter so it can get Hopkins on-screen at regular intervals, while Manhunter spends more time underlining the existential weight involved in the investigation, often framing Graham so he’s surrounded by emptiness. Both include a sting operation with a slimy tabloid reporter (Stephen Lang in Manhunter; in Red Dragon Philip Seymour Hoffman, demonstrating the texture he could bring even to small parts), the failure of which compounds Graham’s general guilt and trauma, though Norton’s version gets over it quickly.
Manhunter’s focus on Graham leads to it adapting a scene from the book that Ratner’s version drops, where he tells his son how he suffered under Lecktor, not just with the attack, but by approximating his mindset: “After my body got okay I still had his thoughts going around my head.” Norton, perhaps following the lead of Red Dragon’s target audience, never seems to view his visits to Lecter as burdens. (Small changes: it’s Graham’s stepson in the book; their non-familial relationship adds to the kid’s—who is, sometimes confusingly, named Willy—skepticism over what Graham does for a living. Ratner’s film renames him Josh and makes him Graham’s biological son, and it’s implied that Manhunter does the same, though the boy pointedly takes after his mother in hair color. The kid, named Kevin, does call Graham “Dad.”)
The investigations in all three versions end when Graham realizes the killer works for a film processing company, choosing his victims and plotting his attacks by viewing the home movies they submit to be transferred to video. (Ratner’s film is a subtle period piece to preserve this now-extinct job.) The actual climaxes, though, differ quite substantially given their different treatments of Dolarhyde. In the book, the killer is a substantial character, given almost as much weight as Graham. While he’s seen as a threat, the book builds a certain amount of sympathy for him, making him more troubled than disturbed. Midway through the book, Harris gives a miniature biography of Dolarhyde’s miserable life, starting with a mother who abandoned him and a grandmother who abused him, poisoning his view of sexuality by threatening to cut off his genitals in punishment for an innocent childhood game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Dolarhyde has a minor deformity—a cleft palate resulting in a speech impediment—and the mockery of this, in addition to his abusive childhood, fuels the humiliation and fear that expresses itself as violence when he’s an adult.
Self-hatred leads to the character becoming fixated on the idea of transformation, and he seeks to emulate the strength he sees in one of William Blake’s “Red Dragon” paintings. In his obsession he tattoos the image on his body and finds the original watercolor so he can eat it and, he believes, absorb its power. The dragon even appears as a character in the form of a sinister voice in his head. (Similar to what he did with Lecter’s present tense, Harris ignores rules of capitalization in conversations with the dragon to capture Dolarhyde’s fluctuating sense of self-worth.)
In the final third of the book, Dolarhyde meets a blind woman named Reba McClane, the only untroubled character in the story, a playful and sympathetic woman who is a relief to be around after all the nastiness (played by an intentionally bland Joan Allen in Manhunter, while Emily Watson gives a more vulnerable performance in Red Dragon). The two embark on a tentative romance, including one of the most bad-ass dates ever, where he takes her to pet a sedated tiger (as well as one of the creepiest dates ever, where he silently watches footage of his victims in front of her). She’s moved by his shyness, and he by her acceptance of his “deformity.” The relationship—perhaps the first gentle one in his life—causes Dolarhyde to question his allegiance to the dragon and at one point he contemplates suicide for her safety.
Toward the end of the story, Dolarhyde thinks he sees McClane with another man (it’s actually an asshole colleague) and kidnaps her to his house. After fighting with the dragon, he starts a fire and appears to shoot himself. McClane escapes the blaze and confirms the “death” to Graham, having stuck her hand on a body with its head blown off. Had this actually been the case, with Dolarhyde going out as a tragic figure, it would have been a powerful resolution, albeit unconventional as it would retroactively render Graham unnecessary.
Alas, that’s not the case. The whole fire/suicide gambit turns out to be an ambitious escape plan; the blind woman placed her hand on someone else’s body (a disrespectful gas station attendant Dolarhyde murdered, though in both films the body belongs to the colleague) while Dolarhyde fled to kill Graham. When he attempts to (having been provided the address by Lecter), he severely wounds him but is shot dead by Graham’s wife.
This ending isn’t terribly satisfying. Not only does the escape plan simplify Dolarhyde as a character (leaving McClane to feel her way out of a burning house diminishes the feelings he had for her), it condemns Graham’s wife to the same guilt that plagued her husband after killing Hobbs. Harris deserves some credit for ending the book with Graham’s PTSD intact (something that is all-too unacknowledged in stories of violence), but thematically, this ending doesn’t work.
Ratner’s film keeps the painting-eating and the fake-suicide twist, and nods to Dolarhyde’s Norman Bates-esque childhood with a brief bit of abusive grandmother voiceover (rather than being horrifying, it’s so obvious that it winds up as perversely funny). The biggest deviation comes at the end, with Graham getting a few shots in before taking a few himself. While wounded, his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) delivers the kill shot to Dolarhyde. Cut to Lecter sending Graham a get-well card and learning that some young FBI woman wants to meet him. (In his Run The Series on the Lecter franchise, A.A. Dowd adroitly describes this as a Marvel-style credit cookie.)
Before that, though, there’s a moment when Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes, quite good) takes Graham’s son hostage and the kid pees out of fear. Graham, knowing Dolarhyde’s brutal upbringing, strategically berates the kid for being a coward, calls him a gay slur and, yes, threatens to scissor the boy’s penis off. This terrible parenting triggers Dolarhyde’s anxieties, and Graham attacks in amid his resultant distraction. It’s tasteless, but the instinct to return to Dolarhyde’s tragic elements is a good one.
Manhunter ditches almost all of this. There’s no grandmother, no watercolor consumption, and actually very little dragon. There’s still a sleepy kitty, but its appearance is almost dreamlike given how much Mann cuts of the courtship between Dolarhyde and McClane. (The tiger scene is very evocative, but it does come out of nowhere.) As Dolarhyde, actor Tom Noonan is basically the inverse of Hopkins in Dragon, getting far less screen time than his equivalents in the other versions. As a result, the character is supremely underdeveloped, and losing what makes him complex also loses what makes him interesting. Manhunter’s Dolarhyde isn’t terribly conflicted about his “mission” after meeting McClane, and he’s all set to kill her after her “dalliance” until Graham leaps in through a window at the last moment and shoots him dead to the tune of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” curing his PTSD. Turns out, this is not a subtle film either.
Start with: Let’s put it this way: This is the book cover and two movie posters. They all highlight the character who is the real focus of that version of the story.
If you want the focus on the cop, go with Manhunter. If you can’t get enough Hannibal Lecter, that choice is easy. Ultimately I’d put the book first and Manhunter last, as I missed the complexity of Dolarhyde in Mann’s version and couldn’t get past the very ’80s style. Ratner’s version, in comparison, is filmed in a perfunctory way, but it’s generally faithful and basically gets the job done.