“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991, adapted from the 1988 Thomas Harris novel bearing the same name) was a triumph in terms of filmmaking. It featured two immortal performances, the first being Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, FBI trainee with profiling aspirations (a role she lobbied for) and the second is the unnerving, menacing, succulent performance of Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, psychiatrist turned serial killer with a taste for his fellow man.
The movie was notable not for its general plot, about catching a serial killer dubbed “Buffalo Bill” due to his method of skinning off parts of his victims, but for Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter, and his interactions with Jodie Foster. An infamous tidbit is that, in the first meeting of these two characters, Hannibal chooses to poke fun at Clarice’s obvious West Virginian accent, which was unscripted – a testament to the brilliance of the actor and actress involved.
Come 2013, NBC launched a TV series with the title “Hannibal” which observed FBI Special-Investigator / Agent Will Graham (to appear, cinematically, in “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal” respectively; in this instance played by Hugh Dancy) and his professional and growing personal relationship with a trusted psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen.) The crux of the series involves Graham, suffering from an empathic disorder (that is repeatedly stated to be closer to autism,) using his unique yet self-abusing talents to help the FBI solve serial murder cases and navigating through dangling plot threads. Hannibal acts as a consultant, personal psychiatrist and a friend to Will Graham. Of course, Hannibal also likes to cook for his friends, and what he’s cooking is obvious to everyone but the characters.
With the success and successful approach of this series (an article outlining the series itself can be found on PlanetNews) an inevitable question is raised. Since both Hopkins and Mikkelsen are playing essentially the same psychopath, how do they compare?
This article takes into account only “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal (TV Series)” when drawing its comparisons, as these are the actual works. The movies “Red Dragon” and “Hannibal” do feature Will Graham and would be beneficial, but the current topic of interest is not how the troubled FBI profiler was portrayed, but rather how his great adversary, Hannibal Lecter is.
Subdued versus Unleashed: Two States of Existence
Mads Mikkelsen’s performance is extremely unnerving, due to several reasons, the first of which is how extremely orderly he is. He is never seen outside of one of his obviously tailor-made three-piece suits (and only once without a tie); he is never seen with his hair loose and scruffy; his office primarily but his home especially are neat and tidy to the point of being sterile; his body language always incorporates calculated, gentle, yet intent and purposeful moves; whenever he has to abandon something he is doing, he prefers to adjust the position of whatever he was fiddling with, as if setting it into the place it needs to go (often stacking books, or adjusting how his pens sit on the table vis-à-vis one another.) When he’s in the kitchen, his haven, he always wears a pure white apron, and always rolls up his shirt sleeves up to the same point. His responses to anything or his presence in any conversation is calculated, evasive while seeming sincere and open, and he measures every single word that leaves his mouth in the same way he measures every single bite that goes into it (he carries his lunch with him.) Finally, his posture is always straight-backed, silent and immovable, like a wall in the form of a man.
This is the main reason why Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is so unnerving: his mere presence stands out in a crowd. In one episode, a patient of his catches him during the intermission of a recital, and introduces to Hannibal a friend of his, Tobias. If the scene is simply observed, what becomes apparent is that Tobias and Hannibal stand out. Their surrounding is vibrant, full of socialites and high society members mingling, having conversations and making small talk, with hand gestures and laughter scattering into the air. Franklin, the one who introduces two men himself seems to be jumping out of his skin with the excitement of having done so. However, Hannibal and Tobias are extremely still. Their mere presence resembles a time lapse photography sequence where two rocks remain unchanged while the environment around them constantly shifts and moves. The room is warm, yet they are ice cold. It is this feeling of being subdued, this display of restraint that creates Mikkelsen’s unnerving air, for it is easy to see that whatever is hidden behind that extreme, constant holding back, it is perfectly monstrous. The show is never secretive about something everybody knows going in, that Hannibal is a serial killer who eats parts of his victims (“The Chesapeake Ripper” is his FBI-given name name) but Mikkelsen’s subdued performance lends credence to this by managing to disturb just by standing in a corner, looking at the scene.
Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a man who, from the outside, looks distant yet very professional. If we were to contrast this with Hopkins’ performance, Hopkins takes a different approach.
Hannibal Lecter as played by Hopkins is menacing, but not because of his general air or his carefully measured existence. Hopkins’ Hannibal is openly menacing, at large. He wears his psychopathy on his sleeve. The constant look of partial-fascination on his face, his articulate, somewhat poetic speech, the way he can read people as if they were books lends to a very disturbing, yet this time extremely fun performance. He is open about the pleasure he took and would take from killing, as well as eating those he killed, and he knows how to get under peoples’ skin. The disturbing aura of Hannibal Lecter as played by Anthony Hopkins is based on that he can read people well, and enjoys easily using this ability against them. For instance, he only surrenders information to anyone after he has successfully hurt them, emotionally.
His unfeeling nature is a staple of the character, and rarely does he openly display emotion: Doctor Chilton at the Baltimore State Psychiatric Prison relates to Clarice Starling in her first visit that, Hannibal had killed a nurse when he was transported to the medical ward for an emergency – when he killed and mutilated this nurse, however, he was still hooked up to the heart monitors, and his pulse never went above a normal 85. He is cold and calculating still, as per his genius, but is rather open about his intentions. His body language, as opposed to the stiff, almost stick-up-his-arse Mikkelsen is always casual, relaxed, his gestures graceful and soft.
Prisoners and Free Men
This stark contrast between the two performances, however, isn’t attributable to only that this is two actors playing the same role – because they aren’t. The core properties of Hannibal Lecter (genius, manipulative, profiler, cannibal, calculating, etc.) are present, but the rest of the performances are wildly different. Mikkelsen is under the surface, Hopkins is over. Mikkelsen is stiff and restrained, Hopkins is relaxed and free. Mikkelsen never, as far as we’ve seen, makes a mess, Hopkins doesn’t care about getting his hands bloody.
The main reason for this is: one is in prison, and the other is free, but not in a way that is obvious.
Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is Hannibal Lecter in the days that he was a surgeon-turned-psychiatrist. This is a time when Hannibal Lecter was a highly-functioning member of society that had no small amount of social responsibility on his shoulders due to his profession. Furthermore, he existed inside society, and as such, had to go through social engagements with both civilians and FBI members on a regular basis, and he had the unfortunate status of constantly spending time with profilers. He had to observe decorum, make sure to adjust everything (as per his living spaces) so that nothing would be out of place. His cold unfeeling nature he masked with customary gestures and going through the correct motions. This is why Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is subdued – because he has to be. He has to restrain himself and project a certain image, which is why he’s so disturbing – he’s under the surface, and it’s visible to the audience.
Hopkins’ Hannibal is Hannibal Lecter after he has been exposed as The Chesapeake Ripper and earned the name “Hannibal the Cannibal.” This is Hannibal after he has been incarcerated. He doesn’t have a cozy home, or an office, he has a cell in the Baltimore State Psychiatric Prison – a specially-made cell that was meant to contain him. He no longer exists as a part of or in society, he has been cut off from it. He no longer has to indulge social ritual, he no longer has to partake in engagements he doesn’t care for – his entire relationship with Clarice Starling flourishes from the fact that Clarice shows respect and curiosity, while also extending a professional courtesy towards him. He is fascinated by her because she does not view him as a maniac who is not to be engaged on any level, which allows Hannibal to speak to Clarice as himself, not as the lunatic other agents tried to categorize via standardized tests. Hopkins’ performance is so out there and so extroverted, because in his cell, he can simply exist as himself, owing no subterfuge to anyone (but often using it to toy with unsuspecting agents.) He can indulge in his every quirk and idiosyncrasy.
When it comes right down to it, this is the essence of their difference. Hannibal lived in a prison when he was free. A prison bound to observe the rules and regulations of society and day-to-day life, and his true self could never be shown to anyone but his victims, and even then, they didn’t see much of anything. This is Mikkelsen – he is the Hannibal that lives in a prison that governs his “freedom.” By contrast, when Hannibal is in prison, he is free. He no longer needs to act, pretend that he’s a well-meaning psychiatrist, choose his every action carefully – he can be how he wants to be, and there is no constraint on that. This is Hopkins – he is the Hannibal who is free inside his prison cell. That’s why he’s so openly menacing – the veil is removed and Hannibal is finally one with his skin. This also has to do with the uncertainty of being caught (Mikkelsen) vs. the certainty of “never being let out the cell as long as he lives.” One requires contingencies and failsafe mechanisms, the other requires only an eye for opportunity.
What can’t be removed from both performances is that they are outstanding. “The Silence of the Lambs” is a very impressive piece of cinema, and “Hannibal” is easily one of the best TV series of the recent years. Both feature very interesting and compelling villains as well as uncertain and troubled heroes, and in the end, let’s admit it – these works of fiction do not revolve around or care much for their heroes, because they exist with their villain, singular: Hannibal Lecter. The impressive part that this comparison was born from, is how perfectly in sync both performances are, depicting the Cannibal in different states of being, different periods of his life. In that, both actors need to be congratulated in bringing such a bone-chilling, and incredibly real character to the screens, be it silver or not. Thomas Harris, in turn, must be congratulated above all, to have conceived our favorite disturbing psychopath.