The Red Dragon (2002) vs. Hannibal

The Red Dragon vs Hannibal

Bryan Fuller has managed to take A tiny snippet, from a three decades old book, and spin magic from it. The result is one of the most visually, emotionally, and intellectually stunning achievements ever seen  on television.

I enjoy  the movies and the book, but given a choice between a thirty-nine hour version, and a version that has to wrap up its entire plotline in two hours, I’m going to choose Hannibal the series, over the movie, The Red Dragon. Despite its all star cast, and the efficiency of its plot, the movie suffers a severe deficiency in the two areas in which television excels: depth of plot, and character progression.

This  is largely about season three of Hannibal, as that is when Fuller begins the Red Dragon arc, along with some elements of the book, Hannibal.  I’m going to focus on the major characters from the third season. But I’m also including the two other seasons as well, because the Red Dragon arc couldn’t be told without the  previous character development.


Anthony Hopkins vs. Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter:

Anthony Hopkins is an exemplary actor and I have absolutely no problems with his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, across the three films in which he stars, although as the movies progressed, he became  more comedic. However, because he has more time in which to do it, and the writing is much better overall, its  Mads Mikkelsen who steals this category for me. The movie definitely uses lines from the book, but the show is capable of taking Hannibal’s lines and using them to better effect.

Yes, Hopkin’s version is still arrogant, malicious, and slippery, but his performance, because of the time limitations of movies, lacks the depth of Mikkelsen’s, whose character is much more nuanced. Mads gives us a portrait of a deeply lonely man, who doesn’t realize this until he meets his match in Will Graham, a meeting that profoundly changes him. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is given tastes and skills that are only hinted about in the films. We know that Lecter is a food connoisseur, but don’t see much evidence of that in the movies, and it is only passingly mentioned in the books. Since we don’t meet Lecter, in the movies, until after his incarceration, we’re not privy to much of  his tastes in clothing or music. We don’t have much idea what his life was on the outside, so Fuller had to spin Hannibal’s lifestyle from whole cloth. In the series he has hobbies and opinions outside of killing, while still maintaining a surprising amount of mystery.

Just as in the books, (except for Hannibal Rising) we are not given a clear reason for why Hannibal is the way he is. In the series, when he is asked what happened to him, he responds by saying nothing happened to him. He happened on his own.

Bryan Fuller has the unusual skill of taking a wholly unsympathetic character, and humanizing him to where you are actually rooting for Hannibal’s happiness, while still having that character be pantshittingly scary.

And then there is his relationship with Will Graham. From the books, we know from time to time, Hannibal will take an inexplicable  interest in certain people. In Silence of the Lambs it was Clarice Starling, but Will Graham came before her. In the Red Dragon movie, Hannibal is mostly fascinated by Graham’s capture of him. His attitude towards Graham isn’t much different from Chilton who only wishes to study  Graham.  In the movie Hannibal says the things he says out of resentment towards Will, but in the series there’s a much deeper motivation. In the series, Hannibal’s fascination is very deliberately coded by Fuller as a romance. So yeah, all of that homoerotic “subtext” you kept seeing… Fuller meant to do that.



Edward Norton  vs. Hugh Dancy as Will Graham:

I have a couple of  problems with Edward Norton’s version of Will Graham. Norton is an incredible actor, saddled with a lackluster character, where all the personality has been removed. Norton plays him as serious, earnest, and determined. He will forge ahead and get his man no matter what. One could make the argument that that is a deliberate choice on the part of the writers, and actors, to pare down Will Graham’s character, as much as possible, to highlight how traumatized he is, and to illustrate how he does his job, or just to streamline the movie, but its not a very successful attempt, as Will just comes across as rather dull and plodding.

Hugh Dancy manages to imbue Will Graham with a voracious, prodigious intelligence, and an  acute vulnerability, that is entirely lacking in Norton’s workmanlike character, although this has the unintended side effect of making the series version look a little superhuman, as the viewer isn’t always certain how Graham is reaching his conclusions. One of the unintended side effects of Norton’s Graham being so lackluster, though, is that he comes across as kind of slow. It takes over half the movie for him to figure out how the Red Dragon is choosing his victims. It doesn’t help that he is  saddled with some truly horrible dialogue, as the director didn’t feel confident enough in the audience’s ability to understand what Graham’s job entails, and has the character explain, out loud, his rather slow thought processes. All of his discoveries are played as  huge “Eureka” moments , when they really shouldn’t be. I can’t help but believe that the dialogue was written by a person who isn’t very smart, trying to write how smart people think, and failing.

In  the series, we are shown how Graham’s process works, how fast it is, and that its mostly not magic. Admittedly, it is much more difficult, to convey such a character’s very different mindset, in the space of two hours. The movie version isn’t helped by Graham’s spouting of the cliched “The killer isn’t going to quit on his own. He’s got a taste for it.” dialogue.Will Graham’s signature phrase from the series is, “This is my design.” And is much more eloquent, deepening the character considerably, as the phrase becomes conflated , not only with Will Graham’s mental state, but that of the killers he investigates.

On the other hand, Norton’s rude discomfort with Hannibal’s interest in his character is well captured, especially in their initial meeting. Throughout the movie, Norton looks distinctly uncomfortable with Hannibal’s assertions about him. He never becomes completely comfortable with Hannibal’s fascination, which makes for an interesting dynamic between the two.

In the series, Will first rebuffs Hannibal’s overture but then comes to accept what Hannibal thinks of him. We know that Hannibal’s signature motto is “Eat the rude!”, so its a lot of fun watching Will Graham be very rude to him, while Hannibal smiles indulgently. (Its highly amusing for Fannibals to think of Will as Hannibal’s precious cinnamon bun.)

And yeah, Hugh Dancy is just waaay cuter.


Mary Louise Parker vs. Nina Arianda as Molly:  

   I think this one is a no-brainer. Parker’s version of Molly mostly comes across as a sexy, whiny, floor lamp, despite her action lady street-cred at the end of the film. Bryan Fuller stated he made a deliberate effort to NOT write his version to be like the movie version. The movie version fulfills the cliche of the selfish wife who prioritizes her feelings over the deaths of other human beings, deaths that her husband has the ability to stop, but she would rather he stayed home with her.

Now, to be fair, when you really listen to the dialogue in the film, what Molly is worried about is the same thing that Alana Bloom, much more successfully, conveys within the series, that Will Graham is too fragile to be allowed in the field as an agent. In Red Dragon, some combination of Parker’s acting, and the writing, just makes her whiny, and unlikable.

Molly doesn’t want Jack putting Will in the field because of the  danger, and Arianda makes this clear in one of  the season three opening episodes, just without the whining. Arianda’s version is specifically written to buck this trope, by having her be as supportive of Will as she can, under the circumstances. At no point does she nag Will for not being home, and when Dollarhyde comes for her and her child, she saves herself. In the movie, killing Dollarhyde is a whole family affair, but I still hated the writing for those scenes, which felt trite.

Arianda doesn’t have a huge role in the series, but what she manages to do with Molly, is still wonderfully played, and much less annoying than Parker.


Harvey Keitel vs. Lawrence Fishburne as Jack Crawford:

Okay, television has a leg up on the characterization, nevertheless,  though I am desperately in love with Lawrence Fishburne, I still prefer  Keitel’s Crawford. Jack Crawford isn’t very fleshed out in the movie at all,  although, Keitel’s performance is, at all times, excellent. He manages to brings a no-nonsense, world weary, and humorous quality to the character, that I just enjoy. I’m overjoyed Fuller got Fishburne for the role in Hannibal, but I’m still curious how Keitel would’ve approached the series.

Television is capable of giving whole new lives to characters who are merely sidekicks in the source narrative. I haven’t read the books in some time but I’m pretty sure that Jack’s wife is barely mentioned in them, (Fishburne’s real world wife, Gina Torres, was a wonderful addition to the show.) It is mentioned in one of the books about how Jack sat at his wife’s bedside while she lay dying, though.(Jack gets most of his mentions in Silence of the Lambs, which Fuller doesn’t have the rights to, so a lot of Jack was made up out of whole cloth.) Fishburne himself stated that he was delighted to step into the role, as it was played by one of his  “actor-father’s”, who mentored him at the beginning of his career,  Scott Glenn. (Glenn played Jack Crawford in the 1991  Silence of the Lambs.)

At one point in the series first season, Jack declares, in no uncertain terms, that he is a rock. That he is immovable. He is correct, as he is the series unfailing moral center. Even when he’s operating outside the law,  Lawrence’s Crawford acts from a centered and righteous resolve, that makes Jack one of my favorite characters. He is, in every instance, the opposite of Hannibal’s , and sometimes Will’s, moral liquidity.

Ralph Fiennes vs. Richard Armitage as Francis Dollarhyde:

I don’t even know which one of these to choose. I loved both performances. Armitage’s performance really deepens this character but its hard to find any fault with Fiennes’s pathetic, and tragic, Dollarhyde. Both performances cover the same ground, and this is a testament to the high level of acting we’re  dealing with,  their performances are both markedly different, but in a very subtle manner.

Armitage has an opportunity to flesh his version out more, but its not just that. He imbues Dollarhyde with a level of competence, strength, and intelligence, that is much more subtly engaged by Fiennes, who adds just a touch of resentment, and shame, at a world that’s treated him so badly. Armitage’s version also manages to be deeply, disturbingly, sexy, and frightening, as well. Armitage says he made a point of not watching any of the films, so as not to pick up any mannerisms of the other two actors who played Dollarhyde, in both Red Dragon and Manhunter.

Yeah okay, Armitage has a better butt, too.

Philip Seymour Hoffman vs. Lara Jean Chorostecki as Freddie Lounds:

It is difficult to top Hoffman as Freddie Lounds, and Chorostecki, for the most part doesn’t try. I actually really love the film version of this character, although I do not object to Fuller’s  genderswapping, at all.  I think the series version makes Freddie too sympathetic a character, and Chorostecki’s version has a tendency  to be too  calculating, and sharply intelligent, although her performance is excellent.

Hoffman’s version of Lounds is dirty, messy, disgusting, and horribly rude. He is an opportunistic vulture, who isn’t too bright. You love to hate him, and almost applaud his horrific death, at Dollarhyde’s hands.

In all fairness though, only Chorostecki’s version would ever refer to Will and Hannibal as “Murder Husbands”, so we love her just for that. Sorry, but  I can’t choose either one of  these, as my absolute favorite.


Anthony Heald vs Raul Esparza as Frederick Chilton:

Of the two, I prefer the movie version. Anthony Heald manages to capture just the right amount of sleaze for this character. The movie version of Chilton is cheesy and not too bright, but not sleazy. Movie Chilton tries, unsuccessfully, to put the make on Starling, and when she politely turns him down, he acts subtly pissy afterwards, which I found hilarious, as if he thinks she wouldn’t notice.

Heald’s Chilton had a quality of obliviousness about him, whereas Esparza’s version seems just a bit too aware. In The Red Dragon, he  showed an interest in interviewing Will Graham, but only as regards Will’s capture and insight into Hannibal.When Raul’s version shows an interest in studying Will Graham, it comes across as extremely distasteful. I like that Heald’s Chilton thinks of Hannibal as his intellectual equal and rival, when we all know he is anything but. In the series he was just a little too cozy with Hannibal’s company, as if he were trying to impress Hannibal.

I love Raul as an actor but I didn’t really like him as Chilton. Chilton was just a little too intentionally comedic, whereas the movie version was more gruesomely funny, with little effort from Heald. Raul’s Chilton is really just too smart for his own good, and had a pathological inability to keep his mouth shut around Hannibal, which made him deeply annoying. This is not the fault of Raul, whose acting is top notch, but the writers.

But really, at this level of acting, whichever one you like, is  really just a matter of personal taste. Both the movie and the series deeply mined the source material, and Raul Esparza said he made a point of copying some of Heald’s mannerisms from the films.


Emily Watson  vs. Rutina Wesley as Reba McClane:

This is where Fuller really did a wonderful job in his choice of actors. In changing Reba’s race, he really deepened this character, who is operating under multiple axis of oppression, as a black woman with a disability, who is in an interracial relationship. When Dollarhyde imagines her as The Woman Clothed In the Sun, its a very powerful image of a black woman as  being worshiped by this severely damaged man.

Fuller did state that part of the reason he chose Rutina is for the scene where  Dollarhyde takes her to visit a sedated tiger at the local zoo. Its a gorgeously shot scene. The brilliance of the tiger’s skin, Reba’s behavior, and Dollarhyde’s reaction make it an emotionally intense, and deeply erotic moment. Fuller takes full advantage of the contrast in skin tones between Reba and Dollarhyde. I’ve never seen an interracial love scene look so beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with Emily Watson’s performance, and I really like that actress, just not as Reba. Watson’s Reba comes across as innocent, fragile, and delicate. She hits all the correct acting points, but its Rutina who really stands out, and not just because she has more screen time. Rutina simply has more force of personality and is  more memorable. Rutina gets several opportunities to about her character’s disability, how people treat her, and how she prefers to be treated.

Emily Watson’s performance relies too heavily on her looks. The blonde hair and the wide blue eyes, that stare fixedly into space, give her an ethereal, and angelic quality, but Rutina’s physical approach to the role, is a warm, graceful earthiness. She is so very human next to Dollarhyde’s godlike behavior. This is exactly the type of princess who could capture a dragon’s attention.

Fuller uses his platform to have his character speak on what its like to be disabled and  make us understand that that’s not all she is. Rutina’s Reba is strong minded, knows what she wants, (Dollarhyde) and pursues it. She stands up to Dollarhyde when he angers her and makes an effort to save herself when he kidnaps her. At no time does she ever passively accept victimhood. She is a beautiful representation for disability, and I don’t like that so many of the fans ignore that she was a part of the show, in  their celebrations of the women of Hannibal.


Margot and Mason Verger:

There is so much to be said about these two characters and their depictions between the film, the books, and the shows. Mason and Margot are first introduced in the book Hannibal, and in the movie of the same name, but Fuller decided to introduce both characters late in season two, before his rendition of the Red Dragon storyline.

In Hannibal, the events at Muskrat Farm occur after The Silence of the Lambs, after Hannibal has escaped prison and traveled to Europe. In the series, he hasn’t yet escaped because he hasn’t been captured yet. In the series, he won’t be kidnapped by Mason until after his sojourn in Europe. Neither the movies, nor the books, show exactly what happened when Margot, Mason and Hannibal first met, but Fuller shows us how and why Hannibal did  to Mason what was mentioned, only in passing, in the book.


Fullers’s approach to Margot is interesting. I prefer the series version because the book version is rather problematic and has a very trans-phobic understanding of Margot. I also love Isabelle’s portrayal of Margot. She’s smart, sexy and more than a little conniving. She’s certainly smarter than the book version, who seemed to rely more on brute strength rather than brains,  and unapologetic about her Bi-sexuality. In the books, her father disowned her when she came out as a Lesbian, but in the series, her father leaves her out of his will because she is a she.(The depiction of Margot leads me to believe that in many ways Fuller is a lot smarter than Harris. He writes smarter characters.)

I also love , and love to hate, the TV version of Mason. Joe Anderson and Michael Pitt are absolutely outstanding in the role of pre- incident, and aftermath, Mason. Their performance really will make you forget about Oldman, and is so seamless, that at first I couldn’t tell that two different actors were playing this role. In the movies, and books ,we are only told about Mason’s depravity, but in the show,we get the full monty, as it were. We, unfortunately, get to see Mason emotionally abusing children and Margot, and listen to the entirely self-serving drivel he spouts in his sessions with Hannibal. Just as in the books, his predilection for children lands him on Hannibal’s couch.

Most of these characters stories hew as close to the events in the books as possible. There is no Margot Verger in the movies at all. Although in sidestepping the transphobia in the books, Fuller had Margot sleep with Will Graham to have a baby, and angered LGBTQIA fans by suggesting that Lesbians can turn their sexuality on and off just  to  get pregnant, and the stereotype that Lesbians are deceitful by tricking men into getting them pregnant.


Alana Bloom:


In the books and movies, Alana gets only a passing mention from the other characters, is and largely an entirely made up, and gender-swapped character, as a result, there’s nothing to compare between the two.

In the season one, Alana is Will’s protectoress, and a mother figure for Abigail. She goes to bat for Will, against the manipulations of Jack Crawford. She’s the one person who recognizes, in season two, that Will is sick with encephalitis, and the only friend he has left, adopting his dogs, and filing a formal complaint against Crawford, for putting Will in the field.

When Alana begins a relationship with Hannibal, she comes to his defense against Will, which damages herrelationship with Will until season three, although Will still cares deeply for her. Alana’s loyalty to a person completely blinds her to that person’s negative aspects, which is how she was able to miss what Hannibal was, despite Will’s accusations.

Having been nearly  paralyzed in the season two finale, Mizunomo, she comes back with a literal vengeance, with a new haircut and wardrobe, in season three, going so far as to help Mason Verger capture Hannibal, so he can torture him. She begins a relationship with Margot Verger, and eventually helps Margot milk her brother for his sperm before killing him, after which she  gives birth to the next Verger heir.

After Hannibal’s escape from custody, she pretty much gets to ride off into the sunset with her wife, Margot, and their child. This is really  the only successful relationship in the show.




4 thoughts on “The Red Dragon (2002) vs. Hannibal

  1. Interesting comparison, and interesting the way you came down on everyone (well, except for the Molly character–that was a no-brainer). I liked Esparza as Dr. Chilton quite a bit. He had a delicious and misguided arrogance about him. I do think you’re right about Chilton and Lounds being smarter in the series, but I think that was part of the point. When we, as viewers, were watching “Hannibal,” we were watching a world that was not our own, where creatures with super-normal (not supernatural) intelligence existed. The entire series existed in that super-normal state.

    As for Mason Verger, I actually did notice when they changed actors; I’m a Michael Pitt man all the way. But I must admit, I have purposefully never answered the “who’s a better Hannibal” question, even to myself…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a pretty good description of that world. It would be a fascinating but terrifying place to live in.

      Like I said, I love Esparza. His acting is beautiful. I just didn’t care for this particular version of Chilton, and I’m just liking the Anthony Heald version more, I guess, even though neither one is really better than the other.

      I often waffle back and forth about which Hannibal is better though. When I wrote this I was firmly in Mads court, but I get a real kick out of Hopkins too, mostly for nostalgia reasons. I remember seeing Silence of the Lambs in the theatre and being thrilled with his depiction.


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