A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Hannibal” – The 20th Anniversary

The lush 2001 adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel “Hannibal” is the most darkly, sickly, twisted beautifully shot movie I’ve ever seen. Here we are twenty years later and it’s still one of my favorite Ridley Scott films, my favorite of the Hannibal films and one that still captivates me in so many ways. Made a decade after Jonathan Demme’s five time Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. “The Silence of the Lambs” (which also celebrates it’s 30th anniversary this month) sequel, continues the story of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling, while adding in some new supporting characters.

“Hannibal” was written by “The Silence Of The Lambs”, original author Thomas Harris and published in 1999. The novel sold out of its initial 1.6 million print run in the 1999 and went on to sell millions of copies. It is the third in his series featuring Dr. Hannibal Lecter and the second to feature FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling. The novel takes place seven years after the events of “The Silence of the Lambs”, while the film changes it’s timeline to ten years later. 

The triumph of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film adaptation set off the public’s enduring fascination with its flesh-eating psychiatrist villain, Hannibal Lecter. While Ridley Scott’s film sequel wasn’t released until ten years later, there was no doubt that the film would be a runaway hit. Sure enough, “Hannibal” was a smash and grossed more than $165 million domestically, while making more than $350 million internationally (although these numbers don’t include home video release, where it enjoyed substantial popularity).

When “Silence Of The Lambs” was released in 1991, not many knew (or even if there were any) that it was actually a continuation of an ongoing story and the second film to prominently feature Hannibal Lecter following 1986’s “Manhunter”, directed by Michael Mann (“Heat”). Quick fact: The title was renamed “Manhunter”, because the studio felt calling it “Red Dragon” would confuse people in thinking it was a martial arts film. Brian Cox (“Succession”) was cast as the psychiatrist madman and William Petersen (“CSI”) as the obsessed FBI agent Will Graham (later played by Edward Norton in the third film “Red Dragon”). 

“Manhunter” was as inspired and brilliant in its own way and has it’s own special 80’s cop thriller vibe. “Manhunter” was such a pronounced commercial failure that “SOTL” director Jonathan Demme didn’t have to worry about competing with audiences’ memories of a film few people had seen at the time. Cox’s take on Lecter, who was named Hannibal Lecktor in “Manhunter” for reasons no one seems to understand, was substantially different than Anthony Hopkins portrayal. But in the minds of moviegoers, studios and the public at large, Hopkins is the one who originated the role.

Hopkins’ incarnation of Lecter captured the public’s imagination and transformed the doctor into a household name, a legendary monster and a comic figure whose propensity for devouring human flesh “with fava beans and a nice chianti”. Movie goers loved Lecter more than it is probably healthy to and movie buffs demanded more of him. There was such a demand for more Lecter movies that the great and legendary Italian mega movie producer Dino De Laurentiis had bought the film rights for “Hannibal” for $10 million before the book was even released. 

Even horror legend, author Stephen King gave a glowing New York Times review of Thomas Harris’ novel “Hannibal”. King had stated that Lecter is “the greatest fictional monster of our time”. Harris gave “Silence Of The Lambs” fans a sequel crazier than they ever expected. While “SOTL” had its share of graphic violence, Harris’ sense of violence and subject matter in “Hannibal” is practically at insane levels compared to “SOTL”. 

For those who haven’t read the novel. I’ll give you just a sense of the levels Harris was taking it to. One of the novel’s supporting characters is a lesbian bodybuilder named Margot Verger, who works for her grotesquely disfigured, violent pedophile older brother Mason Verger (played by Gary Oldman in the film). She works for him even though he molested her as a child because she needs to procure some of his semen so she can impregnate her lover and make her claim on the Verger estate. Margot ultimately anally violates Mason with a cattle prod, then murders him by shoving his beloved pet eel down his throat. This subplot is excluded in Ridley Scott’s film adaptation. 

Keep in mind this is one of many grotesque things to happen in the sequel, that was a novel to a film adaptation that won all five major Academy Awards. A film in which the Academy themselves said that “Silence Of The Lambs” represented the pinnacle of the movie art form. It involved a locked up cannibalistic serial killer and a second serial killer named Buffalo Bill, who murdered women that was sewing their skins into a suit. Demme’s filmmaking and Harris’ writing elevated it to the level of art and when you add in those Academy Award wins and the caliber of the cast, it just gave “SOTL” tremendous prestige. Yet Harris had the guts to follow up its source material with a novel involving a subplot with a character like Margot and yet her character, was just the tip of the macrabe that lies within the story of “Hannibal”. 

The most shocking and controversial twist of the book, came in it’s ending when Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter and Clarice Starling become lovers. Lecter presents Starling with the exhumed bones of her father, which he “brings to life” by hypnotizing Starling and allowing her to say goodbye. This forges an alliance between Starling and Lecter, culminating in them becoming lovers and escaping to Argentina together. Hopkins was asked in an interview on the subject of whether or not he believed in the idea of Starling and Lecter heading off into the sunset as lovers. 

Hopkins stated: “Yes, I did. Other people found that preposterous. I suppose there’s a moral issue there. I think it would have been a very interesting thing though. I think it would have been very interesting had she gone off, because I suspected that there was that romance, attachment there, that obsession with her. I guessed that a long time ago, at the last phone call to Clarice, at the end of ‘SOTL’ when she said, ‘Dr. Lecter, Dr. Lecter…’”. The original ending of Lecter and Starling becoming romantically involved was excluded from Ridley Scott’s film and changed with Thomas Harris’ blessing.  

The novel’s ending is an awful lot to process, not just as an audience member who are fans of both the novel and film, but imagine what star Jodie Foster must have thought about Clarice’s evolution. The ending may have been the reason or at least one of the reasons as to why Foster didn’t return to her iconic role in “Hannibal”. I think it may have struck her as a bit of an odd turn and also a bizarre violation of everything her character represented as a strong, independent feminist role model. 

In 1997, Foster told Larry King regarding her involvement in a sequel to “SOTL” that she “would definitely be part of it” and that “Anthony Hopkins always talks about it. I mean, everybody wants to do it. Every time I see him, it’s like: ‘When is it going to happen? When is it going to happen?'”. Hopkins started feeling doubts that Foster would be involved in the sequel, saying he had a “hunch” she would not be returning. Foster confirmed she wouldn’t return in late December 1999.

Foster’s choosing not to return had caused problems for the two major studios Universal pictures and MGM (who originally released “SOTL”) that were releasing “Hannibal”. Jodie Foster said in December 1999, when she went public in her decision that the characterization of Starling in “Hannibal” had “negative attributes” and “betrayed” the original character. Her spokeswoman said Foster declined because actress Claire Danes had become available for a film that Jodie Foster was entering to direct called “Flora Plum”. Foster cleared the air about her involvement in “Hannibal” in an interview with Total Film in 2005. Foster said: “The official reason I didn’t do ‘Hannibal’ is because I was doing another movie, ‘Flora Plum’. So I get to say, in a nice dignified way, that I wasn’t available when that movie was being shot. Clarice meant so much to Jonathan Demme and I, she really did and I know it sounds kind of strange to say but there was no way that either of us could really trample on her”. Till this day there are still conflicting reports as to why Foster said no. Producer Dino De Laurentiis had always claimed that “she simply demanded too much money”.

When it became clear that Foster would skip “Hannibal”, the production team considered several different actresses to replace her that included Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Gillian Anderson, Hilary Swank, Ashley Judd, Helen Hunt and Julianne Moore. Hopkins asked his agent if he had any “power” over the casting process. He informed producer De Laurentiis that he knew Julianne Moore, with whom he had worked on in the film “Surviving Picasso” and thought of her as a “terrific actress”. Although Hopkins’ agent told him he had no contractual influence on casting, director Ridley Scott thought it was only right to discuss who would be Hopkins’ “leading lady”. Scott said he was “really surprised to find that he had five of the top actresses in Hollywood wanting it”.

Both Julianne Moore and Jodie Foster have similar personas. They’re both brilliant actress who can play damaged, fragile women with tremendous inner strength. That seems to make each of them perfect for the role of the conflicted Clarice Starling, although Moore’s Clarice is drier, more cynical, more closed off than the young idealist we met 10 years prior to “Hannibal”. Ridley Scott said his decision was swayed in favor of Julianne Moore, in which Ridley Scott said: “She is a true chameleon. She can be a lunatic in ‘Magnolia’, a vamp in ‘An Ideal Husband’, a porn star in ‘Boogie Nights’ and a romantic in ‘The End of the Affair’. Julianne Moore, if Jodie decided to pass, was always top of my list”. Moore talked about stepping into a role made famous by another actress: “The new Clarice would be very different. Of course people are going to compare my interpretation with that of Jodie Foster’s…but this film is going to be very different”. Very different it was indeed. 

It became apparent that the producers and the studio could do without one of it’s original stars, but if had there been a withdrawal of both Foster and Hopkins the sequel would have been terminated. Dino De Laurentiis said after the film’s release: “First and foremost, I knew we had no movie without Anthony Hopkins”. After “SOTL” it’s hard to deny that there would be no “Hannibal” film without Hopkins. Lecter is the whole franchise. While Hopkins’ appearance as Lecter in “SOTL”, stands as the second shortest appearance in a film that won an Oscar for best actor (first place goes to David Niven in “Separate Tables” from 1958). Hopkins had only appeared in the film for a total of sixteen minutes of screen time.

Hopkins’ appearance is much larger in “Hannibal”, although he still doesn’t make his first appearance until well into the films proceedings, but he once again dominates the role of Lecter to such an extent that it feels like he’s in every scene; as the character’s shadow hangs heavy over every moment, even when he’s completely absent. It’s what they call “The Poochie Effect” in Hollywood: When a films character and in this case Lecter isn’t physically onscreen, but everyone has to be talking about him or at the very least are thinking about him. Ultimately it was a no brainer to Hopkins decision to returning to the role of Lecter. 

The character of Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s two surviving victims, was introduced in “Hannibal” and originally offered to Christopher Reeve based on his work as a wheelchair-bound police officer in “Above Suspicion” (1995). Not having read the novel, Reeve showed initial interest in the role, but ultimately declined upon realizing that Verger was a quadriplegic, facially-disfigured child rapist. The part was later accepted by secondary choice Gary Oldman (“Air Force One”). Co-producer Martha De Laurentiis claimed they had a “funny situation” with Oldman wanting a prominent “credit”. She said: “Now how can you have a prominent credit with ‘Hannibal’? The characters are Hannibal and Clarice Starling. So we really couldn’t work something out (at first)”. 

Oldman was apparently “out” of the film for a while, but then came back, this time asking to go “unbilled”. Oldman would become transformed and “unrecognizable as himself” to play the part of Verger. He would have no lips, cheeks or eyelids. Make-up artist Greg Cannom said: “It’s really disgusting…I’ve been showing people pictures of Oldman as Verger and they all just say ‘Oh my God’ and walk away, which makes me very happy”. Oldman said that having his name completely removed from the billing and credits allowed him to “do it anonymously” under the heavy make-up. In home-release versions of the film, Oldman’s name is included in the closing credits.

The character of Verger is a man of infinite wealth, power and depravity, who had the misfortune of having Hannibal Lecter assigned as his court-appointed therapist. Berger’s disfigurement ones from Lecter’s prompt to take pills one debauched evening and then suggesting Verger carve off his own face with shards of broken glass and feed it to his dogs. Verger regrettably follows Lecter’s suggestion, leading him to so grotesquely disfigure himself that he now sports what appears to be a small porcelain doll head where his face should be. He’s a hideous ghoul of a man, but he retains a sense of humor about the experience, quipping to insane-asylum attendant Barney Matthews (Frankie Faison, returning from the first film) about his unfortunate exercise in homemade facial surgery, “It seemed like a good idea at the time”. 

Verger uses his connections to get Clarice back on the Lecter case in hopes that her involvement will lure him out of hiding and expose him to Verger’s minions, who want to collect on a $3 million bounty for his capture. Verger is also looking to seek his revenge on Lecter, who tends to his farm where his man eating killer boars are being raised, in order to make sure that they’re sufficiently blood-crazed. Verger’s plan is to make sure that when he finally succeeds in luring his arch-nemesis Lecter into his midst, the psychotic wild boars don’t all start cuddling with Lecter and instead tear at him, ultimately disfiguring and killing Hannibal. 

Lecter, who is hiding out in Italy, where he meets Rinaldo Pazzi (an entertaining Giancarlo Giannini), a corrupt law enforcement agent who figures out Lecter’s true identity and sets out to collect the reward for himself. Back in America Clarice’s sexist, boorish and utterly loathsome colleague Paul Krendler (played by Ray Liotta) also sets out to collect the bounty and ends up suffering an even more sinister fate for his greed in one of the films most well known scenes.

Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” is a testament to how deeply, thoroughly insane the “Hannibal” novel is that Verger wanted Lecter to be devoured by man eating boars isn’t even its pulpiest and craziest element. That belongs to a scene that I had previously mentioned, where Hannibal lobotomizes Ray Liotta’s Agent Krendler and serves him parts of his own brain. It’s astonishing that an ending where Verger is devoured by the very pigs he bred to eat Lecter and an FBI agent who eats bits of his own brain, actually represents a dramatically watered-down version of the book’s ending. An ending which entailed hot Lecter on Starling action, brainwashing and cattle-prod sodomy.

When it first started being speculated that both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins were in talks if they would return, there was talks that they would receive $15 million each to reprise their roles. Director Jonathan Demme was also in talks to return and was targeted to receive a salary between $5 million to $19 million. Demme declined the invitation to direct,as he reportedly found the material lurid and too gory. In the 2010 Biography Channel documentary “Inside Story – The Silence of the Lambs”, Demme stated: “Thomas Harris is as unpredictable as ever, who took Clarice and Dr. Lecter’s relationship in a direction that just didn’t compute for me. Clarice was drugged up, she’s eating brains with Lecter and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this’”.

Producer De Laurentiis said of Demme’s decision to decline: “When the pope dies, we create a new pope. Good luck to Jonathan Demme. Good-bye”. Demme later said that he felt his ultimate decision to not direct is that he could not make a sequel as good as “The Silence of the Lambs”. 

Replacing Jonathan Demme would be cinemas greatest filmmaker of all time Ridley Scott (“Alien”, “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator”). De Laurentiis visited Ridley Scott on the set of “Gladiator” and suggested he read “Hannibal”. Scott was in the third week before principal photography was due on “Gladiator”. De Laurentiis asked Scott if he would like to direct the film version of “Hannibal”. When approached with the project, Scott thought De Laurentiis was speaking of the general and historical figure from Carthage who nearly brought down the Roman Empire around 200 B.C. and replied: “Dino, I’m doing a Roman epic right now. I don’t wanna do elephants coming over the Alps next, old boy”. 

Scott moved from “Gladiator” straight into “Hannibal” and the year after went into production on “Black Hawk Down”. It was a busy three years for Ridley Scott, especially considering that “Gladiator” was a ginormous success that took home five Oscars. Scott read the manuscript in four sittings within a week, seeing it as a “symphony”, and expressed his desire to direct. Scott said: “I haven’t read anything so fast since ‘The Godfather’. It was so rich in all kind of ways”. Scott had reservations with the ending of the novel, in which Lecter and Starling become lovers: “I couldn’t take that quantum leap emotionally on behalf of Starling. Certainly, on behalf of Hannibal and I’m sure that’s been in the back of his mind for a number of years. But for Starling, no. I think one of the attractions about Starling to Hannibal is what a straight arrow she is”.

Ted Tally, the original screenwriter for “The Silence of the Lambs”, was another key member of the “SOTL” team to decline involvement. Tally, like Demme, had problems with the novel’s “excesses”. Acclaimed and legendary screenwriter and director David Mamet (“Glengarry Glenross”) was the first screenwriter to produce a draft, in which according to Ridley Scott and the producers, needed major revisions. A script review had described the Mamet draft as “stunningly bad” but found screenwriter Steve Zaillian’s rewrite “gripping entertainment”. Scott praised Mamet as fast and efficient, but said he passed on his draft because it needed work and he feared Mamet, who was soon directing his own film, would be too busy to redraft it. 

Steven Zaillian, writer of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, initially declined to write “Hannibal”, saying he was busy at the time and that “you can almost never win when you do a sequel”. He eventually changed his mind, as “it’s hard to say no to producer Dino De Laurentiis once and it’s almost impossible to say no to him twice”. Scott said there were “very few rewrites once I brought in Steve Zaillian and if you were to ask who were the best three screenwriters in the business, Steve Zaillian would be one of them. We discussed ‘Hannibal’ endlessly”. 

One of Zaillian’s key objectives was to revise Mamet’s script until it pleased all parties, meaning that the “love story” would be told by suggestion instead of by “assault”. Scott worked through the script with Zaillian for 28 days, making him “sweat through it with him and discuss every inch of the way with him”. The picture was filmed in 83 working days over 16 weeks. The film began production on May 8th 2000 in Florence, Italy. The film visited key locations in Florence and various locations around the United States. Martha De Laurentiis said the film has almost a hundred locations and that it was a “constant pain of moving and dressing sets. But the locations were beautiful”. Eighty million dollars and a year and a half into production were spent before Ridley Scott got his first look at “Hannibal” in the editing room. 

Make-up artist Greg Cannom was pleased to be involved in “Hannibal” as it offered him the chance to produce “incredible and original make-ups”. For Mason Verger, the make-up team would initially produce 20 different heads which looked like zombies and did not reflect the vision Scott had of the character; Scott wanted Verger to look real with hideous scarring. Scott himself would actually call up the help of expert doctors in an effort to get the look of the character as realistic as possible. Scott wanted to make Mason Verger more touching than monstrous, as he thought of Verger as being someone who hadn’t lost his sense of humour and almost sympathetic. Oldman would spend six hours a day in make-up to prepare for the role. For the film’s final and infamous scene, an exact duplicate was created of Ray Liotta’s head in a scene which blended make-up, puppet work and CGI in a way which Scott called “seamless”.

“Hannibal” is available on VHS, in both a one disc and two disc DVD. The two disc DVD contained an array of special features including: commentary by director Ridley Scott, deleted and alternate scenes, five production featurettes and a “marketing gallery” which contains trailers, production stills and unused poster concepts. While the VHS version featured the deleted scenes. A special “steel-book” edition of Hannibal was released in 2007. There are no significant changes made to the DVD itself; only the package artwork was changed.

The film was originally released as part of “The Hannibal Lecter Collection” on Blu ray in 2009. It was re-released as a stand-alone in 2011. In February 2019, it was announced that the film would be released on a two disc Ultra HD Blu-ray, in April from home video distributor Kino Lorber. The release includes a new 4K restoration supervised by cinematographer John Mathieson, as well as all special features from the previous two-disc DVD release featured on the included Blu Ray disc.

“Hannibal” grossed $58 million in the U.S. on it’s opening weekend. At the time when it was released in February of 2001, it was the third biggest debut ever and up to that time only 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” had grossed more in an opening weekend. It was also, the biggest opening box office for an R-rated film ever, until February 2004 with the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. The final domestic box office gross (U.S.) reached $165 million with a worldwide gross of $351 million. 

The film spent three weeks at number one in the U.S. box office and four weeks at number one in the UK. “Hannibal” was the tenth highest grossing film of 2001 worldwide, in a year which also saw the blockbuster releases of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”. “Hannibal” also made over $87 million in U.S. video rentals following release in August 2001. 

“Hannibal” didn’t repeat its predecessor’s triumph at the Academy Awards, but Harris’ “Hannibal” took beloved characters further than even the Oscar winning likes of star Jodie Foster, screenwriter Ted Tally, and director Jonathan Demme were willing to go. Ridley Scott’s version pulled back from its source material’s delirious extremes, but it’s still strangely affecting and unnerving. Perhaps that’s why the film doesn’t tend to get talked about too much these days, even as the Hannibal Lecter money train kept rolling right along, first with director Brett Ratner’s prequel “Red Dragon”, then with the even earlier film prequel “Hannibal Rising” and finally with NBC’s “Hannibal” TV series. 

Ridley Scott’s movie operates more like a cat and mouse caper and thriller. What remains distinctive in the transition between “The Silence Of The Lambs” and “Hannibal” is Hannibal’s knack for being so cunning and manipulative, but here Hannibal is more thoroughly investigated and not only adds just more detail to his persona, but more realism as well. We learn that the cannibalistic doctor continues to strike on unsuspecting victims, but limits his attacks to those who in one form or another, are morally corrupt individuals whom the world might not miss. It’s interesting because it makes Lecter a little more human than we had previously imagined or seen.

Ridley Scott, David Mamet and Steve Zaillian do a solid job in turning the material into a direct character study, probing all the necessary areas of the doctor’s life while giving us visuals that are stark and sinister. Ridley Scott is also able to draw very remarkable performances out of his actors; Moore remains true to the spirit of Starling and her intentions, Oldman undertakes a massive but thought-provoking emotional transformation and Hopkins again proves why there is no one other than him who can play Dr. Lecter this well.

“Hannibal” is an intriguing, fresh and attractive endeavor that neither tries to borrow nor duplicate the atmosphere of its Oscar winning predecessor. While it’s a lot more brutal and gory in its violent texture, the imagery itself is so effectively approached that the picture still manages to convey a sense of genuine terror and intrigue. That’s also where we must give it credit for the courage of its depravity; that proves if all of it’s visceral violence including of a man cutting off his face and feeding it to his dogs doesn’t get the NC-17 rating for violence, then nothing ever will after it. 

Ridley Scott has used his years of considerable talent and visual expertise to dress up “Hannibal” into an artful, visually impressive affair of a bloody, suspense driven, dark love story between good and evil. Revisiting it again after being made twenty years ago, it’s still a florid and grandiose thriller that’s an absolute no holds barred visceral assault. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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