Last month, I read all four of the Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris. I admit that I have seen most of the movies before I read the books, and recently, I watched the first season of the show Hannibal. The reason I decided to read these is that I was wondering why Hannibal is such a popular villain. I have seen allusions to him in other novels, in comic books, and various TV shows.
After reading the books, I get it. He’s a really well written bad guy. He is just evil for the sake of being evil… or is he? After I finished the series I saw him a bit differently.
WARNING: SPOILERS COMING
Let me begin by describing my general thoughts about the series of books. My strongest reaction to these books is that they seem to be written by different people. Stylistically, they are very different. And, even though they are considered a 4 book series, I wouldn’t even classify them as the same genre.
The four books I think should be read in the order they were written.
- Red Dragon
- Silence of the Lambs
- Hannibal Rising
The reason I say they don’t fit into the same genre is that the first two books are what I would consider crime thrillers. Both stories are about the FBI tracking a serial killer, and in their hour of desperation, they consult with Hannibal Lecter because he has unique insight into killers.
As a reader, you learn a lot about Lecter in these two books. He is depicted as pure evil, and he likes to manipulate people. He is kind of humorous in a dark, grotesque kind of way. I think readers like him because in the first two books at least, he is a very well written villain, and he is also smart and often finds ways to manipulate the very people who have him locked up. In the first book, he toys with Graham, an FBI agent who has trouble with crime scenes because he experiences pure empathy. In the second book, Lecter meets Agent Starling.
These two books are fairly typical for crime dramas. There is a clear bad guy, clear good guys, and in the end, the bad guy is taken down by the hero or because of the hero’s actions. However, how these books differ from the normal crime thriller is that the character of Lecter is presented in a way that you want him to escape, even though he is a known serial killer. And unlike the TV show Dexter, Lecter is not a serial killer who hunts down “bad guys.” Lecter likes to kill people who he finds rude, which is most people. He really is evil but you will be rooting for him anyway.
After the first two books, I expected the third, Hannibal, to be similar — it’s not. The third book is about Hannibal on the run and Starling trying to find him and a man named Mason trying to get his revenge on Lecter. Again in this book, we are made to feel sympathetic to Lecter. We don’t want him to get killed by Mason and his man-eating pigs. We want Lecter to be free, and I personally couldn’t wait for him to “get” Agent Krendler who is determined to bring down Starling simply because he’s a chauvinist.
This book is not a crime thriller like the rest. I would call it a thriller, but it is not necessarily about crime. It’s about revenge and some very crazy people.
By the end of the book, I was beginning to doubt Starling’s sanity as well. The biggest surprise to me was that in the end, Starling decides to “love” Lecter. I seriously thought, “What the hell?” I feel like the author thought that would be a really twisted ending after everything that Lecter has done and so Harris changed Starling to fit that role. It annoyed me a little because I felt like she was suddenly a different character.
This brings me to the fourth book, which is a prequel to the entire series. Of all the books, I liked this one the least. Just as Harris rewrote the character of Starling in the third book, the last book provides “justification” for why Lecter is the way he is. I didn’t like it. I thought he was a much stronger character when he was just evil for the sake of being evil. Instead, the fourth book tells the story of his childhood and how he becomes evil because he witnesses some Nazis eating his sister. Anyone would be crazy after that.
Another reason I didn’t like this book as much as the others was that it’s not a thriller like the others. I guess I would call it a psychological drama or something like that. There are still “bad guys.” And again we are made to sympathize with Lecter, but I felt like Harris was forcing it. He was forcing me to feel sorry for Lecter, and I enjoyed reading about him more when I didn’t feel sorry for him.
Overall, they are still page turners. I finished each one in a day. I get why people read them when they were originally published, and I get why they turned them into movies. (Especially the third book. It reads like a script at times rather than a novel).
And my final conclusion about the Lecter series, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, is that I like the movies and the TV show better. I very rarely say that about novels vs. their big and little screen counterparts, but in this case, I would say, watch the movie. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal is fantastic and really creepy. And I’ve only seen the first season of the TV show Hannibal, but so far, it’s really great. I can’t wait to see where they go with it.