Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: The Silence of the Lambs

Chosen by AFI as the #1 movie villain of all time, Hannibal Lecter has been haunting audience’s nightmares for decades. The creation of author Thomas Harris, the serial killer – and eater – has appeared in five films and one TV show. We’re taking on the cinephile’s dream task of ranking Hannibal Lecter on screen, and as one of pop culture’s most productive killers, it’s been a grisly job as well.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: Hannibal Rising

6. Hannibal Rising (2007)

Adapted by Harris from his own novel, this prequel explores Lecter’s early years and what made him into the horrifying murderer we know from The Silence of the Lambs. Though director Peter Webber (The Girl with the Pearl Earring) adds visual style, the film entirely lacks the substance that made the character so compelling in the previous incarnations. As the title character played by some of cinema’s best, young actor Gaspard Ulliel has a lot of live up to, and he fails miserably.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: Hannibal

5. Hannibal (2001)

Made a decade after The Silence of the Lambs, this sequel directed by Ridley Scott lacks more than just Jodie Foster. Julianne Moore is good as Clarice Starling, taking on a role with some huge FBI-approved footwear to fill, and of course, Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins is always perfect. Where we find fault here is with the movie’s sadistic approach while offering none of the pleasures of its predecessors. We won’t spoil it, but Ray Liotta’s big scene has stuck with us for years, and not in a good way.

Watch Hannibal free on Tubi TV through June 30.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: Red Dragon

4. Red Dragon (2002)

We never would have thought that we’d rank a movie directed by Brett Ratner above one by Ridley Scott, but here we are. Red Dragon feels formulaic after its predecessors, but it’s still effectively chilling. Since it’s a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, there’s no Starling (or Foster or Moore), with Hopkins’ Lecter facing off against Edward Norton’s Will Graham. This entry in the series also adds Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: Manhunter

3. Manhunter (1986)

Michael Mann directed Hannibal Lecter’s first onscreen appearance, even though the character name is spelled “Hannibal Lektor.” The source material gets a new name as well; Manhunter is based on Red Dragon, but the title was changed to avoid confusion with being a martial arts movie. This time, he’s played by Brian Cox, while Graham is CSI‘s William Peterson. Made while Mann’s Miami Vice was on TV, this film has a gorgeous, pure ’80s aesthetic, but remains watchable – and essential – today.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: Hannibal

2. Hannibal (2013-2015)

How the network censors allowed all of Bryan Fuller’s gory, painterly visions on NBC for three seasons, we’ll never know. Also based on Red Dragon, this brilliant drama featured Mads Mikkelsen in the title role, with Hugh Dancy playing Will Graham. Mikkelsen brings a different element to the character than either Hopkins or Cox, and Fuller’s gift with bringing dreams on screen makes this show haunt our nightmares. It’s one of the best shows in the peak TV era.

Ranking Hannibal Lecter on Screen: The Silence of the Lambs

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Exactly how good is Jonathan Demme’s thriller? It slashed through any genre biases in the Academy and won five Oscars, because the acting, directing, and writing were all perfect. It’s currently #23 on IMDb’s top 250 movies of all time. It’s a film that is good enough to compel those otherwise turned off by films this disturbing into multiple viewings. This single movie is the reason why Lecter was ranked the top movie villain of all time, but it’s easy to miss that Foster’s Clarice Starling was the #6 hero on the same list. This film is all about balance – quid pro quo, if you will – and Hopkins and Lecter wouldn’t have been as good if he hadn’t been matched with anything less than Foster and Starling.

Watch The Silence of the Lambs free on Tubi TV through May 31.

Which Hannibal Lecter movie or show is your favorite? Read more content about the killer from our friends at Dread Central:

Bryan Fuller Discusses a Possible Return of Hannibal