Picking Apart the Character Hannibal


Hannibal is the main character of the television show of the same name. Hannibal is a franchise on his own, starring in Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, and other movies. Today, I’ll focus on the depiction from the most recent television series. Why is he so scary but compelling? Let’s have a look.

Who is Hannibal?

Hannibal is a serial killer. Not just any serial killer, he’s a cannibal, eating the remains of his victims. All the television series and movies focus on him being a very civilized and intelligent man, aside from the killing.

The television series starts out before Hannibal is known to be killer. Nobody even knows there is a serial killer. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) needs help to solve weird crimes and he requests the help of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will is a psychologist with a personality disorder that allows him to get inside a killer’s head.

Crawford takes him on as a special consultant, but asks another psychiatrist to keep an eye on Graham: Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

What makes Hannibal so interesting?

Hannibal is not the main character of the show – like he’s not the main character in Silence of the Lambs either. Will Graham takes the lead. Each episode is set up as a murder mystery. Will Graham and Jack Crawford solve murders together, sometimes with Hannibal’s help. The overarching plot is a reverse murder mystery: we learn in the first episode that Hannibal Lecter is a psychopath, and the overarching plot focuses on catching him.

This set up creates a very tense atmosphere. Hannibal is Will Graham’s friend, but he lures him farther and farther down a dark path. We know it’s happening, but – as viewers – we cannot stop it. The tension is ramped up further, because Hannibal keeps hosting dinner parties while we know he’s a cannibal. Finally, we’re shown Hannibal is very methodical and does nothing without reason, and then we see him do something seemingly random. He messes with some of Will Graham’s fishing lures. He warns a serial killer that he’s about to be arrested. And so on, and so forth.

Beside the tension, this all sets up Hannibal as a very very frightening man. We know he’s a serial killer and a cannibal, but all that the other characters see is a kind friend. We see him manipulating events and we know it’s for some dark end game, but we cannot see what end game. Hannibal personifies a fear we all have deep down, that somebody we trust will betray our trust and hurt us very badly. Bottom line: you can’t see Hannibal coming.

On top of that, Hannibal is a likeable, intelligent man, who seems kind. We sympathize, even though we also fear him.


The Hannibal television series puts down a very compelling Hannibal. The show is brilliantly set up and Mads Mikkelsen is as frightening, or perhaps even more frightening than Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.

I hope this post has shed some light on why that is. And if you haven’t watched it, go and watch it, right now.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands