Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” (2001)

In the annals of silver screen monsters, few loom as terrifyingly large as one Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous cannibal, murderer, and psychopathic genius.  First introduced to film audiences by way of Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986), the character didn’t really take our collective fear hostage until Sir Anthony Hopkins stepped into the role for Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).  Arriving on the tail end of a century of cinematic spooks like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter quickly joined their high-profile ranks as one of the ultimate boogeymen, turning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS into an outright sensation that dominated both the box office and awards season.  The prospect of a sequel, then, naturally possessed an undeniable appeal for those who stood to benefit, and no person was perhaps more eager to capitalize on the opportunity than legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis.  Having served as an executive producer on MANHUNTER, he still held the screen rights to the character, but his dissatisfaction with Mann’s final product compelled him to sit out any involvement in Demme’s subsequent re-working of the property (1).  When he heard that Hannibal’s literary creator, Thomas Harris, was embarking on a sequel in 1999, De Laurentiis quite understandably jumped at the opportunity to rectify his earlier blunder, and secured the novel’s screen rights for a record $10 million (2).  

To say that a sequel to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — in both literary and cinematic form —would be highly anticipated is certainly an understatement.  Readers and audiences alike were keen to witness the carnage wrought by an unleashed Dr. Lecter, and it was arguably this eagerness that compelled Harris to take an indulgent tack in his approach.  After all, a good horror sequel should up the ante wherever possible, reveling in higher body counts and ever-more horrific behavior from its monster. However, the finished novel, titled simply “Hannibal”, didn’t quite achieve the desired effect with its intended production team— Demme echoed the sentiments of LAMBS screenwriter Ted Tally and star Jodie Foster in declaring his distaste for the new novel’s gleeful approach to bloodletting (3).  Nevertheless, they gave the project the benefit of the doubt for the time being, battling original screenwriter David Mamet and then Steven Zaillian throughout no less than fifteen drafts before their persistent misgivings caused them to finally drop out of the project altogether.  De Laurentiis felt that as long as he still had Hopkins (and he did), then he still had a movie, so he pushed on undeterred. This is when director Sir Ridley Scott entered the fray, having been approached by De Laurentiis on the set of GLADIATOR.  The two were old friends, having established a warm relationship when De Laurentiis pursued Scott to make DUNE after his success with 1979’s ALIEN (4).  Funnily enough, Scott initially turned down De Laurentiis’ offer, under the mistaken assumption that the celebrated producer wanted him to make a film about the historical figure of Hannibal, the conqueror from Carthage who took on the Roman Empire (5).  When he realized that De Laurentiis was actually proposing an $87 million sequel to one of the most successful horror films of all time, Scott was suddenly much more receptive to the prospect. While HANNIBAL met with a fairly divisive reception when it hit theaters in 2001, it nevertheless proved that, after a quarter century of making feature films, there were still cinematic avenues that Scott’s celebrated career had yet to stroll down: the gothic horror film, and the sequel.  


HANNIBAL picks up ten years after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, with Dr. Lecter living perhaps the cushiest life that an international fugitive has ever lived.  Volunteering under an assumed name as an assistant museum curator in picturesque Florence, Italy, Dr. Lecter seems to have found the fullest, most-sophisticated realization of his true self— his taste for murder and human flesh now seems more like a quirk than a defining trait.  In all this time, his toxic affection for FBI agent Clarice Starling has not diminished; the specter of unconsummated love haunting him at his core. Since their chilling encounter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Starling has gone on to an established career in the FBI, but she too is haunted by the deep psychological impression Lecter was able to make on her.  Taking over Foster’s iconic role is no easy feat, but Julianne Moore (cast here off of Hopkins’ recommendation) ably slips into Starling’s shoes. Indeed, she makes it her own, conveying the same icy determination that marked the character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, albeit bolstered by the confidence of age and experience.  Laid low after a drug raid gone horribly awry, Starling unexpectedly receives a letter of condolence from Lecter, from which she can detect a unique fragrance that an expert (Darren Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis in a brief cameo) pinpoints as only available from a boutique shop in Florence.  Unable to investigate herself, she makes contact with a local detective, Inspector Pazzi. Played with subdued intensity by Giancarlo Giannini, Pazzi is a driven cop who happens to share Lecter’s taste for the finer things in life. The desire for self-gain grows to overwhelm his duty to the law when Pazzi learns of a $3 million reward for Lecter’s capture, offered by his only living victim— a wealthy invalid named Mason Verger.  Inhabited by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman in a truly sickening performance that required him to spend six hours in the makeup chair every day (5), Verger’s obscene wealth is no match for his hideous countenance, which might go down as some of the most revolting prosthetic effects in cinematic history. With his face left a desperate mess of skin grafts and scar tissue after Lecter convinced him to disfigure himself, Verger is less a man than he is a sentient fetus, living only for the satisfaction of exacting his revenge on Lecter.  Suffice to say, Lecter is almost immediately captured by Verger’s men upon his return to America, and Starling finds herself in the strange position of having to rescue this diabolical psychopath against the orders of her superior, agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta). The result is an exhilarating rescue sequence set in Verger’s gothic mansion in rural North Carolina, followed shortly thereafter by a macabre dinner party at Krendler’s lake house that will give Lecter the intimate reunion with Starling he’s been dreaming of for a decade.  While HANNIBAL’s plot may lack the discipline and tight structure of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it nonetheless projects a very uncomfortable atmosphere by humanizing the monster at its core— indeed, we come to feel something like sympathy for Lecter, thanks to Hopkins’ intimate familiarity with — and absolute refusal to judge — a character that has come to define his career.  

Fresh off their successful collaboration with GLADIATOR, Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson roll right into HANNIBAL without skipping a beat.  The pair conjures a very different atmosphere than GLADIATOR, leaning into the story’s genre trappings with a suitably dark and frightening aesthetic.  Shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Mathieson and Scott employ a desaturated, high-contrast color palette that explores the interplay between blue and orange tones (a longtime trademark of the director’s visual style).  A heavy blue cast dominates nearly every frame, reinforcing a cold, depressive mood that reflects Lecter’s elegant inhumanity. So too does Scott’s formal camerawork, which favors butter-smooth dollies, cranes, and Kubrickian slow-zooms amidst the occasional handheld setup.  Shadows are a defining trait of HANNIBAL’s visual approach, informing Scott’s employment of signature atmospheric conceits like silhouettes, smoke, and shafts of concentrated light.  Echoing the indulgent nature of Harris’ novel, Scott repeatedly embraces the opportunity to experiment with his aesthetic, towards end both effective (like consistently obscuring Lecter’s full visage through careful placement of shadow and reflections) as well as derivative (the rendering of a fish market shootout in extreme slow-motion that immediately reminds one of THE MATRIX (1999)).  A curious expansion of Scott’s visual artistry finds him using slow shutter speeds in select “flashback” sequences, which creates a disconnected, staccato energy while evoking the “snapshot” nature of a memory recalled.  For all its visual indulgences, HANNIBAL’s stylistic cohesion is ensured through the return of established post-production collaborators like editor Pietro Scalia and composer Hans Zimmer.  Complementing a suite of classical cues (some of which made an appearance in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Zimmer’s subdued, spooky score employs conventional orchestral instruments albeit played at tonal extremes, in a bid to reflect the similarly-extreme nature of Lecter’s sophisticated inhumanity.  Driven by propulsive chimes and bellowing cellos, Zimmer’s work here is curiously under-mixed; it plays at a noticeably lower volume than expected. Whether this was a technical oversight or an intentional artistic choice, it’s objectively a shame— HANNIBAL’s score is one of Zimmer’s best; a dark, beautiful beast that beckons us with elegant mystery and baroque foreboding.  

Unless they also directed the originating installment, most directors of Scott’s caliber avoid sequels like the plague.  Though they often tend to be more successful from a financial standpoint, sequels find filmmakers starting from a place of artistic disadvantage— they have to service and subvert audience expectations at the same time, recycling the elements that made the original work so well while also delivering something new.  Scott must have intuitively known that imitating Demme’s work on THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was the road to surefire failure; he had to make it his own.  While HANNIBAL may not quite succeed as a worthy sequel, it certainly excels as an individual piece contained within the context of Scott’s filmography.  Key aspects of the narrative seem tailor-made to Scott’s unique sensibilities, beginning with a story driven by a strong heroine. The character of Clarice Starling may not be Scott’s creation, but her manifestation in HANNIBAL evidences the influence of the Scott heroines who came before her.  In Moore’s characterization, one can glimpse the tactical courage of ALIEN’s Ripley, the calculating observation of BLADE RUNNER’s Rachel, or the principled defiance against male power dynamics exhibited by the namesakes of THELMA & LOUISE.  Also like these women, Starling never has to sacrifice her own femininity in order to project strength or courage, or emulate masculine behavior to prove her resolve.  Whereas Foster’s take on Starling portrayed her femininity as a liability, inviting objectifying leers and crass sexism from her cohorts in the FBI, Moore’s performance embraces it as a source of personal strength, giving her the edge that eludes complacent colleagues like Liotta’s incompetent and misogynist superior.  

HANNIBAL’s exotic Florence backdrop no doubt held enormous appeal for Scott, promising new and challenging opportunities to create yet another highly-immersive environment.  Working once more with his BLACK RAIN (1989) and THELMA & LOUISE production designer Norris Spencer as well as Diego Loreggian, Scott achieves just that, foregoing the fantastical worldbuilding afforded by a fictional setting in favor of a “you-are-there” vibrancy.  A standout sequence in this regard finds Pazzi’s assistant stalking Hannibal through a bustling Florence bazaar, with Scott strategically employing smoke, shadows, a crowd of high-energy extras, and evocative lighting to drop the audience right in the middle of the action.  This heightened sense of “presence”, a rare quality that still manages to elude many world-class directors, can also be felt in the fish market shootout that opens the film, or even sequences set in Verger’s gothic mansion, which provide an appropriately spooky “monster movie” backdrop in which Lecter’s Dracula figure can roam.  That said, if HANNIBAL flirts with the manifestation of Lecter in the syntax of vampirism, he doesn’t necessarily draw from expected sources like Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931).  Rather, HANNIBAL’s inspiration comes from a much more intimate source— 1983’s THE HUNGER, the debut film of Scott’s younger brother, Tony.  The aesthetic similarities are undeniable, with both films sharing the same blue color cast, evoking the coldness of the undead.  While Lecter isn’t necessarily a “vampire” per se, he nonetheless assumes the elegant, worldly nihilism of THE HUNGER’s vampiric protagonists: beings who’ve lived for hundreds of years and have grown disenchanted by seeing repetitive sociological cycles play out time and time again to the same effect.  He also shares their taste for classical music, and for drawing blood with small concealed blades. While Scott’s homage to his brother’s breakout work will undoubtedly go unnoticed by most, its intensely-personal nature nonetheless causes HANNIBAL to resonate at a different emotional register than THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, making for an altogether-different beast that makes an honest attempt to justify its existence as a sequel to a story that didn’t necessarily need one. 

Despite his best intentions, Scott’s efforts may not have been enough to surmount the outsized expectations set by the original.  The prospect of once again experiencing Lecter’s darkly-magnetic charisma may have lured audiences in to the tune of a $58 million opening weekend (which in 2001, was the third-biggest debut ever (6)), but even Hopkins’ reprisal of his famous role couldn’t fully ensnare their attentions as he had done the first time around.  Reviews tended to be all over the place; there were those who really liked it, and those who really didn’t, but HANNIBAL’s true kiss of critical death lay in the critics who were simply ambivalent about it.  GLADIATOR may have marked Scott’s graduation to a world-class director of prestige films, but HANNIBAL was decidedly a middling, journeyman work.  It’s a testament to Scott’s work ethic that even his most forgettable films exhibit top-notch craftsmanship, but HANNIBAL ultimately fails because his vision doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts.  Following a career-defining work like GLADIATOR was never going to be an easy task, so one would be justified in cutting Scott a little slack if HANNIBAL falls short— after all, the consistent pivoting from wins to losses was the natural rhythm of Scott’s filmography.  HANNIBAL may have been a disappointment, but Scott thankfully had his next win up his sleeve, and his tireless work ethic meant that it was already due for release later that same year.

HANNIBAL is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via MGM.


Written by: David Mamet and Steven Zaillian

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis

Director of Photography: John Mathieson

Production Designer: Norris Spencer, Diego Loreggian

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Hans Zimmer


  • IMDB Triva Page
  • Via Wikipedia: Flynn, Gillian (11 October 2002). “Rebirth of Cruel”. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 12 June 2007.
  • Via Wikipedia: “Interview with Ridley scott”. Total Film. March 2001.
  • Via Wikipedia:  Hannibal DVD “Making of feature”