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"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti."

  • Dr. Hannibal Lecter's most famous line.

Hannibal Lecter is an iconic fictional serial killer in a series of novels by Thomas Harris that were adapted into films and a television series. He is one of the main antagonists in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs and its 2002 prequel Red Dragon, the antagonist turned anti-hero in Hannibal, the main protagonist turned anti-hero in Hannibal Rising, and the titular main antagonist of the TV show, Hannibal.

He is a brilliant, refined psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer who delights in playing elaborate mind games with his victims and the police. In the first two novels, he is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital and helps the protagonists track down other serial killers; in the third and fourth novels, he is an anti-hero whose pathology is in part explained by the traumatic death of his beloved younger sister, Mischa.

He was first portrayed on film - as "Hannibal Lecktor" - by Brian Cox in the 1986 film Manhunter, a loose adaptation of Red Dragon. He was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in the film adaptations of Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), and Red Dragon (2002). In the 2010 film adaptation of Hannibal Rising, the young Lecter is portrayed by Gaspard Ulliel. In the TV series Hannibal, he is portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen.

Fictional Character Biography

Red Dragon

Hannibal Lecter is first introduced in Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon as an incarcerated, cannibalistic serial killer who was apprehended by FBI profiler Will Graham some years before the novel takes place.

Graham had been investigating a cannibalistic serial killer dubbed the "Chesapeake Ripper" in the press, and questioned Lecter about one of the victims, a former patient. Lecter claimed not to know anything about the murders, but Graham sensed that he is the killer after seeing the antique medical drawing "Wound Man" in Lecter's office, as the victims had suffered the exact same wounds found on the victim. At the same time, Lecter sensed that Graham was on to him. Graham excused himself to make a phone call, and Lecter sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the stomach, nearly disemboweling him. Graham survived, while Lecter was found insane and institutionalized at the Baltimore hospital for the Criminally Insane, under the care of the pompous, incompetent Dr. Frederick Chilton.

Years later, Graham comes out of retirement to help the FBI find a serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" who murders entire families on a lunar cycle. Graham reluctantly consults with Lecter about the murders, and Lecter takes the opportunity to taunt his old nemesis before offering some insight into the murders. Afterward, he sends the killer, Francis Dolarhyde, a coded message in the pages of the tabloid The National Tattler revealing Graham's home address, putting his family in danger. At the end of the novel, after Graham has killed Dolarhyde at the cost of being severely injured, Lecter sends Graham a congratulatory note in which he writes that he hopes Graham is not "too ugly".

Silence of the Lambs

In the 1988 sequel, Lecter is visited in the asylum by FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who had been sent by FBI Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford to interview him about the serial killer "Buffalo Bill", who has murdered and skinned several women. Lecter is fascinated by Starling, and the two form a strange relationship in which Lecter provides Starling with cryptic clues as to the killer's identity in return for telling him about her painful childhood. Lecter had in fact met the killer, Jame Gumb, years earlier while treating Gumb's lover (and Lecter's eventual victim) Benjamin Raspail, but remains deliberately vague so Starling can figure it out for herself,

During Starling's investigation, Lecter stages a bloody, dramatic escape by killing his guards and removing one of their faces to wear as a mask so he will be carried out in an ambulance; he then kills the ambulance crew and drives away, quickly disappearing into the night. At the end of the novel, Lecter performs plastic surgery on himself to avoid detection and writes two letters: one to Starling, wishing her well; and another to Chilton, promising gruesome revenge for the years of abuse he suffered at his hands while institutionalized. Chilton disappears soon afterward.


in the 1999 novel, set 10 years after his escape, Lecter is living in Florence, Italy, under the alias "Dr. Fell", and working as a museum curator. When Starling, now a full-fledged FBI agent, is unfairly blamed for a bungled drug raid, Lecter writes her a letter expressing sympathy, which reignites the manhunt for him. One of his surviving victims, a wealthy, sadistic pedophile named Mason Verger whom Lecter had paralyzed and mutilated during a court-ordered therapy session, bribes corrupt Italian police detective Rinaldo Pazzi to capture Lecter, planning to feed the doctor to a herd of wild boars specially bred for the purpose. Lecter kills Pazzi, however, and flees to the U.S.

Verger then bribes corrupt Justice Department official Paul Krendler to discredit Starling in hopes of drawing Lecter out. The plot works, and Verger's men kidnap Lecter and Starling. Verger prepares to feed Lecter to the boars, but Lecter manages to get free and then persuades Verger's twin sister and molestation victim Margot, who Lecter had once treated, to kill her hated brother.

After Verger's death, Lecter takes a wounded Starling to Krendler's vacation house, where he drugs and lobotomizes Krendler and shares a gourmet meal of Krendler's frontal lobe with Starling. Lecter put Starling through a regimen of mind-altering drugs and classical conditioning in an attempt to make her believe she is his long-dead sister Mischa, who was murdered and cannibalized right in front of Lecter when he was a child. Starling resists, however, telling Lecter that Mischa will have to live inside him. She then offers him her breast, and they become lovers. Lecter and Starling are last seen at an opera house in Buenos Aires by his former caretaker, Barney Matthews, who flees Argentina, in fear for his life.

Hannibal Rising

The final novel in Harris' Lecter series, published in 2006, concerns Lecter's childhood and development into a serial killer. The novel portrays Lecter as having been born in 1933 to wealthy, aristocratic Lithuanian parents. In 1944, he and his beloved younger sister Mischa are orphaned when their home is destroyed during a Nazi air raid. Lecter and Mischa are kidnapped by a group of Nazi deserters, who murder and cannibalize Mischa right in front of her brother; they also feed him Mischa's remains in a stew. The trauma robs Lecter of his ability to speak, and sparks within him an obsession with violence and cruelty, particularly cannibalism.

Lecter wanders through the wilderness until he is taken in by missionaries, who house him in a spartan orphanage where he is bullied by the other children and physically abused by the dean. As a teenager, he is adopted by his uncle and his Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki, who nurse him back to health and teach him to speak again. After his uncle dies, Murasaki raises Lecter in luxury and gives the intellectually gifted boy a first-class education, but he is still consumed with a savage obsession with avenging Mischa.

Lecter commits his first murder as a teenager, beheading a racist fishmonger who had insulted Murasaki. Over the next few months, he systematically tracks down his sister's murderers and kills them in increasingly brutal fashion, frequently involving cannibalism. In the process, he seemingly loses his humanity, and forsakes his relationship with Murasaki. The novel ends with Lecter being accepted to Johns Hopkins University.


Lecter is intellectually brilliant, sophisticated, and refined, with cultivated tastes in literature, music, art, wine, and (of course) food. He has impeccable manners, and is deeply offended by rudeness, often killing and eating people who display bad manners. He also has an eidetic memory, and can recall events, feelings, and sensations in rich detail in what he calls his "memory palace".

After his capture, he is branded a "pure sociopath" because mental health experts "didn't know what else to call him". He is devoid of conscience and remorse, and exhibited cruelty to animals as a child, but does not fit the other criteria for antisocial personality disorder; he is not callous, exploitative, or impulsive, and does not commit petty crimes. His captor, Will Graham, and jailer, Frederick Chilton, simply call him "a monster", while his nemesis, Clarice Starling, says of him, "They don't have a name for what he is."


  • Harris based Lecter on Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a convicted murderer and suspected serial killer he met in Monterrey, Mexico in the 1960s while working as a crime reporter.
  • Cox based his portrayal of the character on real-life serial killer Peter Manuel, while Hopkins based his on HAL-9000, the main antagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey and American actress Katharine Hepburn.