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Top 10 Characters in Hannibal Lecter Movies and Shows

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cover for the Thomas Harris novels featuring Hannibal Lecter.

Cover for the Thomas Harris novels featuring Hannibal Lecter.

Welcome to the Hannibalverse

As a longtime fan of the novels of Thomas Harris and their adaptations, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing what worked and didn’t work in them. To paraphrase Coach from Left 4 Dead 2: I watched them all; even the ones that ain’t no good.

Rather than spend more time revisiting my own analysis like a jeweler who polishes the same gemstones over and over, I’m instead presenting my reasoning for the best performances for the movies and shows in the Hannibalverse, which is a term I’m coining right now.

Frakie Faison as Barney Matthews in "Silence of the Lambs," a role the actor reprised multiple times.

Frakie Faison as Barney Matthews in "Silence of the Lambs," a role the actor reprised multiple times.

10. Barney Matthews

Frankie Faison plays Barney Matthews. He’s played the small role multiple times, and in each instance, he brings a level of warmth, humanity, and nuance to what is a cameo.

The actor has bulk and physicality, making him believable as someone who works a difficult and largely thankless job in mental correction facility for criminals. However, he also displays a cheerfulness and sense of concern and compassion without ever forgetting who he’s dealing with.

Faison makes sure the audience knows the character is a decent and respectful man, which are traits often lacking among the other characters.

Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) considering the angles in the film Hannibal.

Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) considering the angles in the film Hannibal.

9. Paul Krendler

Often featuring only in minor appearances, the character of Paul Krendler is best done by Ray Liotta. He brings out the character’s authoritarian streak and sense of entitlement that comes with his position of power in the Department of Justice.

Liotta knows how to make the character seem both unpleasant and satisfied as he turns events to his own benefit. He also gets a gruesome and memorable death in the movie Hannibal.

A few actors have displayed Krendler’s grasping and authoritative demeanor, but Liotta includes a delicious layer of smarm, so the audience is shocked but not saddened when he meets his fate.

Anthony Heald (left) and Raúl Esparza (right) who both play Dr. Chilton in different adaptations of Thomas Harris novels.

Anthony Heald (left) and Raúl Esparza (right) who both play Dr. Chilton in different adaptations of Thomas Harris novels.

8. Frederick Chilton

Although Anthony Heald does a good job playing the arrogant, petty, and just-smart-enough-to-be-dangerous Dr. Frederick Chilton, the best job is done by Raúl Esparza in part because he knows how to play up the character’s vanity and theatrical phoniness.

The ostentatious and unnecessary cane he uses in season two of the Hannibal show being a prime example. He gets the most screen time as the character, giving him some room to breathe with the role. He also suffers wonderfully over the course of the show, slowly becoming as hideous on the outside as he is on the inside.

Esparza plays this torment, though, with a tragic tinge, because he’s really a foolish man in way over his head and not a monster like so many other characters. He may be a liar, coward, and general dirt bag who likes to lord his authority over his subjects, but he isn’t a psychopathic murderer.

Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) wants you to remember "nobody beats the Riz."

Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) wants you to remember "nobody beats the Riz."

7. Mason Verger

The prosthetic makeup for Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal movie is so grotesque and incredible that the audience can be forgiven for not knowing that Gary Oldman plays the character, but the actor is skilled enough to project his performance through the makeup.

Unlike other versions where Mason comes across as comically over-the-top, Oldman plays him as entitled and malevolent, carrying a grudge that even his broken body cannot withhold. The strength of his malice and the assurance of his wealth and power is expertly contrasted with his disfigured and wasted form.

Oldman, a talented actor with no shortage of experience playing villains, knows how to make the most of his role without pushing the performance into campy territory.

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The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun by William Blake, circa May 1803.

The Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun by William Blake, circa May 1803.

6. Francis Dolarhyde

Ralph Fiennes gives the most believable performance as Francis Dolarhyde aka: The Tooth Fairy, The Great Red Dragon. He’s a talented enough actor to embody both the painfully shy oddball and psychotic murderer aspects of the character.

The conflict and anguish he feels strikes the audience as real, as does his deranged megalomaniacal ranting at becoming something more than human through his killing. He is able to both command the screen and fade into the background depending on what part of the character’s personality for which the scene calls.

No, he doesn’t get to have a climactic shotgun duel set to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” but Fiennes knows when to exert more of his presence to give the Red Dragon that touch of grandiosity.

5. Freddie Lounds

In an instance where gender-swapping a character works out, Lara Jean Chorostecki is the best Freddie Lounds. She is manipulative and no-holds-barred in her pursuits, but where other performances show the character as shlubby and gross, Chorostecki portrays her as cunning and dangerous.

Freddie is always crass and invasive, no matter the adaptation. With Chorostecki, however, the character’s fame-seeking goes hand-in-hand with her tenacity as evidenced by her internet journalist role, meaning she’s even less a part of the establishment than other adaptations where he is a tabloid journalist but one with credentials.

Again, because the Hannibal show grants her more screen time, she gets to expand the character a bit, giving her more to do and making more of an impression.

Four on-screen versions of Jack Crawford (clockwise from top left): Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn, Laurence Fishburne, Harvey Keitel.

Four on-screen versions of Jack Crawford (clockwise from top left): Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn, Laurence Fishburne, Harvey Keitel.

4. Jack Crawford

It’s a close one, but Lawrence Fishburne turns in the best performance as Special Agent Jack Crawford. In Silence of the Lambs, Scott Glenn has him more as a distant but kindly mentor to Clarice.

Harvey Keitel plays the character closer to the source material as a bit more of a cold-blooded manipulator for whom the ends justify the means, and there’s a lot to be said for it.

However, Fishburne manages a lot of that while also coming across as someone who could be a genuine friend to Will Graham, and you can believe him having a long and loving relationship with his wife, Bella, played by Gina Torres.

He also carries himself as a man comfortable with command and authority, projecting with his voice and body, and wrangling the many personalities of his team into a respectable, functioning unit.

Fishburne is also clearly comfortable with the greater action sometimes required of the role in fights and chase sequences. He’s able to give the most active and layered approach to the character.

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as see in the Hannibal television series.

Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as see in the Hannibal television series.

3. Will Graham

The best Will Graham is Hugh Dancy. He comes across as a man uncomfortable with his own talents; he is guarded to the point of even trying to hide his line of vision with the frames of his glasses.

Dancy uses many subtle tricks to show Graham’s lack of comfort in many social situations without playing him as ineffectual, comic, or pathetic.

His interplay with Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, especially in season one of the show, is incredible, and as his sense of reality slips, Dancy knows how to play up his bewilderment and confusion as the “real world” is increasingly intruded upon by hallucinations and visions from is subconscious that he does not know how to decode.

As a man who is struggling to keep himself intact and not get swallowed by his work and the processes of his own mind, Graham is a fascinating character played to perfection by Dancy.

His take is preferable to William Peterson, who makes Graham out to be obsessive to the point of derangement in Manhunter, and Edward Norton, who conversely plays Graham as too comfortable and well-adjusted, given the trauma he’s endured and the nature of his own psychology.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as seen in Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as seen in Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

2. Clarice Starling

Jodie Foster is clearly the best choice for Clarice Starling. Aside from her obvious rapport with Hannibal played by Anthony Hopkins, what really helps Foster is her vulnerability. There’s plenty of times where she’s tough and can exert control (even if she’s faking it), and Julianne Moore can convey that too.

Foster, on the other hand, also plays Clarice as someone who knows that she’s a nobody from nowhere—information that Hannibal deduces and uses to confront her—which colors her humane interaction with other people, such as when conducting follow-up interviews on the Frederika Bimmel case.

Foster, additionally, is able to show Clarice as someone who is afraid but pushes on anyway as when talking to Hannibal, when investigating Your-Self-Storage, when participating in her first autopsy, and most clearly when following Jame Gumb into the psychotic warren beneath his house.

So often she has chances to stop or succumb to fear, but she persists anyway, not because she needs some “Girl Boss” moment but because Clarice has professional and personal motivations, not all of them altruistic and some of them not rational and she barely understands.

This amazing level of nuance is observable every moment that Foster is on screen, validating her fame and skill as a performer.

Mads Mikkelsen and Anthony Hopkins both played Hannibal Lecter.

Mads Mikkelsen and Anthony Hopkins both played Hannibal Lecter.

1. Hannibal Lecter

For as excellent as Mads Mikkelsen is in the role, the best performance of Hannibal Lecter goes to Anthony Hopkins. Granted, there is a sense of diminishing returns as the movies continue, especially in Red Dragon where he seems to be having fun more than anything else.

However, he earned his Academy Award with Silence of the Lambs with an absolutely magnetic performance. Every second he’s on screen, the audience is forced to content with Hannibal. At first, it’s because Hopkins plays him the opposite of how anyone would expect, given what has been said about the character to that point.

Later, the direction and framing help make Hannibal seem larger than life while Hopkins showcases Hannibal intellect, insight, and predatory playfulness. He’s always pushing against whatever constraints are placed on him, searching for the weak point that will let him escape.

His take on the character is so iconic that even people unfamiliar with Hannibal Lecter or Silence of the Lambs still know his lines and could likely recognize his image. That he’s been able to put such a successful stamp on a character is proof enough that he can and does command the role.

© 2022 Seth Tomko

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