Today, for the third installment of “My heroes have always been villains,” I discuss one of my favorite modern, “realistic” villains: Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Dr. Lecter has been portrayed by at least three exceptional actors of whom I’m aware, the most noteworthy being Anthony Hopkins, who performed the character brilliantly in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs,” and also creditably in “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon.” He was also played by the excellent Mads Mikkelsen in the TV series “Hannibal,” and (his first screen portrayal, to my knowledge) by the brilliant British actor Brian Cox (not to be confused with the rock star cum physicist, also brilliant in his own right).*
I am not, however, primarily interested in the portrayals of the good doctor on the large or small screen, though I have found them uniformly excellent. Here I take my cue from Thomas Harris himself, the character’s creator. He is reputed to have refused to see any of the movies based on his work, because he didn’t want his vision of his creation to be influenced by the interpretation of writers, directors, and actors who had visions of their own. I deeply respect this attitude, and I think it’s warranted. So, my discussions of Hannibal Lecter will focus, mainly or entirely, on his depiction in the books. This is not a sacrifice; Thomas Harris is one of the finest authors I’ve encountered, and I consider Hannibal, specifically, to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read, on a par with The Godfather and The Lord of the Rings.
Hannibal Lecter is a curious target of public fascination. On a superficial view, we should see him as irredeemably horrible. He’s a serial killer; he murders people, dismembers them in gruesome (though often artistic) ways, and eats parts of them, usually in elaborate gourmet meals. We should be repulsed by him, yet we aren’t. We are drawn in and beguiled by him, and many of us even find ourselves rooting for him. When, at the end of Hannibal, he “got together” with Clarice Starling, I felt a bit the way I did M.J. finally learned that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, a strange wave of romantic satisfaction, of justice and relief. I, at least, always felt that Clarice and Hannibal suited each other well, for though Clarice has a strong moral sense, she is also, as Dr. Lecter points out more than once, a warrior, capable of killing quite efficiently when necessary.
Part of what fascinates us about Dr. Lecter—and I am hardly the first to have noted this—is that he is not immoral nor even amoral. His moral precepts are different from those most of us hold, but then again, he is quite a bit smarter than we are. Maybe we are the ones who are wrong. It would, after all, be presumptuous for most of us to criticize the choices of an Albert Einstein or a John Von Neumann, for how likely is it that we’re better placed than they to know what is good for them, or for the world?
And quite honestly, it’s often easy to sympathize with Hannibal’s ethical imperatives.** For instance, his greatest pet peeve is rudeness. Discourtesy, as he says, is unspeakably ugly to him. As one who considers manners to be the motor oil of civilization, I have a hard time disagreeing with his priorities, and to sympathize too much with at least some of his victims. As a matter of wish fulfillment, there are quite a few people in real life whom I’d love to refer for “therapy” with Dr. Lecter.
But of course, Hannibal Lecter is also pragmatic, and not over-troubled by concerns of conscience if he needs to kill someone who is in his way or is instrumentally useful. I’m thinking here most specifically of the ambulance drivers who unwittingly help him escape in The Silence of the Lambs, and of the owner of the car he uses next, from an airport parking lot. Similarly, we have no reason to think ill of Dr. Lecter’s predecessor in the work he undertakes as “Dr. Fell”, in Florence. Hannibal wants the man’s job; the man is in the way, so he has to go. There’s a certain limited absolution provided by the fact that these murders don’t have the ritualistic character of those carried out against the “free-range rude.” But there’s little reason to think the doctor himself would be troubled by the crimes, even if we reprovingly called them to his attention. I don’t think his worldview could truly be called nihilistic, but it hovers somewhere in that vicinity.
Another part of Hannibal Lecter’s appeal is that he’s almost a superhero of sorts. He has unusually acute focus and evenness, and he’s not susceptible to fear in any ordinary sense of the word. Also, though he certainly seems to feel pain, he has great resources against it via his intense mental control—most vividly instantiated in the form of his mind palace, in which he stores functionally limitless amounts of information (and in which he occasionally “lives”, sometimes for years at a stretch). Thomas Harris gives us one so-wonderful example of how such a mnemonic device might be used that I can still recall, with fair fidelity, Clarice Starling’s address: 33 Tindall Avenue, Arlington, VA 22308.*** I may be mis-remembering it, but I’m not far off—and I’m no Hannibal Lecter.
We gain insight into Hannibal Lecter’s background first via flashbacks in Hannibal, and then more thoroughly in Hannibal Rising, but I feel that these events, surrounding the deaths of his parents and of his beloved younger sister Mischa, are almost red herrings. I see Dr. Lecter’s character and nature as primarily innate. The specifics of his enthusiasms—his hobbies, as he thinks of them—owe much to the way his sister died, and to what happened afterwards, but he was born different. He might not have been a serial killer if he hadn’t gone through horrors in his childhood, or maybe he would have been a different kind of serial killer; maybe he just wouldn’t have gotten caught if not for the weaknesses scarred into his mind by those formative events. But he would always have been something other than, and in a way elevated above, his fellow human beings.
The core of Dr. Lecter’s character is his competence. Whatever he chooses to do, he does extremely well. This is what makes him so very dangerous to those who happen to impede his goals or, worse, offend his sensibilities. (In this way, he might be a cautionary literary example of why we ought to be judicious in our pursuit of artificial intelligence. Something—or someone—can be extremely intelligent, even superhumanly so, and have a strong moral compass, and yet might, upon occasion, see the rest of us mainly as fodder for a fine dining experience.)
I could probably go on and on for hours about Dr. Lecter, including the exploration of his physical attributes as described by Thomas Harris. Forget the maroon eyes that reflect light redly in pinpoints at their centers; they’re interesting but distracting. I like the fact that Hannibal is presented as a smallish, slender figure. Though he’s described as having a wiry strength, that strength is not his primary tool nor the source of his threat. His power is in his awesome mind; in this he is a quintessence of the human animal. We are mid-sized, modestly muscular beasts, but our minds allow us to dominate creatures far more physically powerful than ourselves. At times we can be destructive toward other life forms, and at times we can be protective and nurturing; mostly we are functionally indifferent. As we are to other creatures, Hannibal Lecter is to us. He is no moustache-twirling, willfully perverse or evil villain, no Dark Lord of Mordor or of the Sith. He is instead, in many ways, just a superior being. As such, his priorities are not ours. We can be amusing and charming to him, like Barney; we can be mere obstacles; we can be background noise; we can be irritations worthy only of evasion or violence; and we can occasionally be worthy of his respect, or even his love. But we are never quite his equals.
Hannibal Lecter is, in many ways, a distillation of all that is both greatest and most potentially terrible in humanity, in those aspects of ourselves that set us apart from the other animals on Earth. Most crucially, at least to me, he serves as a literary argument that the great and the terrible are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it may very well be that greatness itself is, inherently, both an awesome and an awful thing.
*It’s interesting to note that none of the actors who have successfully portrayed the inimitable psychiatrist are American. I suspect this is not a mere coincidence.
**I feel that, as a doctor myself, it’s not too presumptuous for me to use Dr. Lecter’s first name casually, and I hope he wouldn’t be offended.
***I did not look this up. If I got it wrong, I’ll rely upon the reader to let me know.