Casting Study: Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling
Of the movie adaptations of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels that I’ve seen, Manhunter is still the one I find most interesting. Michael Mann’s film version of 1981’s Red Dragon has a moral center in its ambiguous, tightly wound-lead, William Petersen. The film also has a seductive pastel fog around it, Fassbinder-inspired blocking, and it was one of the first films to use modern forensics to drive narrative. Also: Dennis Farina-points.
Brian Cox portrayed Lecter with low key menace, almost like a heavy from a Harold Pinter play, while Anthony Hopkins, in 1991’s adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, served a curious mix of Karl Lagerfeld and Dr. Pretorius. This isn’t to detract from the technical greatness of Silence of the Lambs—it’s a grindhouse story that broke out to the mainstream thanks to director Jonathan Demme’s gothic flourishes and Ted Tally’s script, which suggests human loneliness is the most lethal pathology. Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling was a watershed moment for female leads, but the insensitive handling of the Jame Gumb character will only look increasingly offensive with age.
Given his Grand Guignol plots, Harris’s prose is surprisingly polite, empathetic, and elegant. It shows his years spent on the crime beat as a reporter. In Red Dragon though, this means there is very little description of Lecter.
Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light redly in tiny points. Lecter rose and walked over to his table. He is a small, lithe man. Very neat.
Seen through the eyes of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is fleshed out more but both are blank figures for the reader and performers to build on:
Dr. Lecter pursed his red lips…His strange maroon eyes half-closed…She came a little closer to the bars, and he looked up. For Starling every shadow in the cell flew into his eyes and widow’s peak.
By the time of 1999’s Hannibal several adaptations were already released or in development, and Lecter had become an unlikely, normalized pop figure. Harris adds to the description—what Lecter looks like in the novel is a plot point—and the author maybe even attempts to take ownership of his character away from Hopkins:
His head was sleek as an otter and his nose had an imperious arch like that of Peron.
Besides noting her fit youthfulness, Starling is not described in Silence of the Lambs. In Hannibal though, Harris writes about the changes brought on by age and failure:
FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling, thirty-two, always looked her age and she always made that age look good, even in fatigues…She saw herself clearly, saw the crinkles of age beginning in the corners of her eyes…Crawford was studying her now. “You never got that gunpowder out of your cheek.” Grains of burnt powder from the revolver of the late Jame Gumb marked her [left] cheekbone with a black spot. “Never had time,” Starling said…Her lips slightly pursed as they sometimes did on the firing range.
Then, the author alters her appearance by the end, when she is a captive/fugitive:
Her hair was a shapely platinum helmet…Muscled.
Foster, like most of the principals from Silence of the Lambs, was uncomfortable with the new novel’s tone, and detached herself from the sequel’s production, leaving the role in Ridley Scott’s film to Julianne Moore. Mads Mikkelsen is currently Hannibal Lecter in the network sleeper hit, Hannibal, a reworking of Red Dragon.