Which of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector books are worth reading?

I was very young when I found out who Hannibal lector was. I had heard that The Silence of the Lambs was the ultimate sicko film. I remember staring at the vhs box in the video shop after mass when I was kid, wondering what the butterfly had to do with lambs. I asked my very Catholic parents, and while they wouldn’t give any details about the sexual-pervert, Buffalo Bill, they didn’t have a problem telling me all about the cannibalistic doctor. I would have been in my early teens when I finally saw it, and I spent the next 10 years quoting it to my friends. It’s one of my favourite movies..

About a year ago, I started reading a bunch of books that have been made into movies. These were just comfort reading, nothing to do with this blog, but then I realised that I should read The Silence of the Lambs and the other Hannibal Lector books.

I read Red Dragon (1981) last May, and I loved every page of it. I honestly can’t think of another book that sucked me in as much as this one. I had seen the movie version once when I was a teenager, but I didn’t remember much of it. Francis Dolarhyde is perhaps the creepiest character in any of Harris’s novels. This book was absolutely brilliant.

The Silence of Lambs (1988) was also excellent, but I was so familiar with the film version that it didn’t seem quite as tense as Red Dragon. I find it hard to imagine somebody reading my blog who hasn’t seen the movie, but if you’re in that position read the book first. (The movie version is obviously excellent too.)

It seems like common knowledge that Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are masterpieces of suspense. Opinions on Hannibal (1999), the third book in the series, are more varied. It’s a bit more gory, and the ending is contraversial. I was warned by a pal to avoid it completely. I didn’t, and I actually quite enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not as good as its predecessors. The titular character doesn’t show up until a quarter of the way through the book, and he plays a very different role here than he does in the first two books. Before he shows up, the reader is introduced to Mason Verger, a mutilated child-rapist with a whole bunch of money and power. What follows is a bit of a Varney the Vampire situation in which the original bad guy turns into the hero. I suppose Hannibal isn’t really the antagonist in either Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs, but he is definitely very, very bad. In Hannibal, we’re completely rooting for him.

The ending is silly. It’s not believable. I think the ending to the movie version was a far better idea.

If you’ve read and enjoyed Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, I’d say you will probably enjoy Hannibal. It’s not as good as those books, but it’s still quite entertaining.

While opinions on Hannibal were varied, it seemed that Hannibal Rising (2006), the fourth and final entry in the series, was universally hated. Harris supposedly only wrote it because Dino De Laurentis wanted to make a prequel movie and threatened to get somebody else to write it when Harris refused. I was warned to avoid this one, but I’m not a quitter.

Honestly, it wasn’t that bad. It’s over 300 pages long, and I finished it in 2 days. I found teenage Hannibal hunting down the Nazis who ate his baby sister enjoyable. It’s a prequel, so there’s no chance of any big surprises, and it doesn’t come close to the suspense of the first two books. Also, it humanizes Hannibal too much. He’s very clearly the good guy here. All that aside, this is still an entertaining thriller. I was never bored. It felt a bit like fan-fiction written by the original author.

Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are as popular as they are for a reason. They are two of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. They’re deeply unsettling and hugely exciting. If you haven’t already, I command you to read them. Hannibal and Hannibal Rising are not as good, probably even unnecessary. In saying that, I still had a good time reading them.

“Hannibal the Cannibal” though? I only thought about this on the way home from work the other day, but that is the cheesiest name for a villain imaginable. Realistically, what are the chances that a person named Hannibal would actually end up as a devourer of human flesh?