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Minor Miracles: Supporting Characters & The Lesson of Hannibal Lecter

“Less is more.” Or so we’re often told at least. It generally seems to be used in a polite way to limit our exposure to things we don’t like. However, I can’t help but wonder if it is true of supporting characters. After all, those interesting side characters in movies that happen to capture our imaginations with a relatively minor roles. Indeed, I reckon that I could probably name more supporting characters I took a shine to, rather than iconic lead characters. While we undoubtedly relish every moment they appear on-screen, and perhaps lament that we only get so limited an exposure to them, I can’t help but wonder of that somewhat restricted presence might be precisely what makes them so appealing in the first place.

Bloody brilliant…

There are quite a few characters who have evolved from relatively minor appearances over the years, seeing their roles expand in sequels of spin-offs from original films where they were tangential at best. Russell Brand’s sex-mad rock star from Forgetting Sarah Marshall got his own feature film in Get Him To The Greek. Reception to the film was fairly lukewarm, especially compared to its predecessor, and I can’t help but wonder if the character worked much better in small doses. Similarly, I can’t help but wonder if Tom Cruise’s epic scene-stealing performance in Tropic Thunder might be best left without a Les-Grossman-centred spin-off.

Boba Fett has evolved from a bounty hunter with a handful of lines in The Empire Strikes Back to a badass in Return of the Jedi to a celebrated part of the Star Wars expanded universe. There are literally series of novels devoted to the bounty hunter’s adventures, and he was even resurrected from his fairly explicit on-screen death to continue after the franchise. Hell, George Lucas even wrote the character’s origin into Attack of the Clones. And yet all of that stems back to the fact he caught the imagination of the viewing public despite having a few scenes and the odd line of (mostly expository) dialogue.

You look good enough to eat…

I think that Hannibal Lecter perhaps serves as the best example of a compelling supporting character who lost a lot of what made him so interesting in the first place when attempts were made to capitalise on his popularity. The character himself originally appeared as a minor character in Thomas Harris’ rather compelling Red Dragon. He appeared briefly to consult the main character and then to leak the main character’s home address to a serial killer to set up the novel’s climax. The scenes between the pair worked well, but there was no real focus on Lecter. There was no depth or reasoning or explanation for his actions.

Indeed, on going back to film that first book after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, the studio would actually give Lecter a much more significant role in the film. The opening scene documents Lecter’s capture by FBI Agent Will Graham, a scene never included in the book. Indeed, sensing the appeal of the character, Harris himself would offer several revisions to Lecter’s character when he wrote The Silence of the Lambs, increasing the character’s page-time and offering a romanticised version of the villain, a far cry from the man willing to point a serial killer at the Graham family.

Don’t lecture me, Lecter…

The success of Hannibal Lecter in the screen adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is the stuff of legends. After all, Anthony Hopkins would take home the Best Actor Oscar for his work in the role. And yet, despite how much Lecter might seem to dominate the film, it’s worth noting that he remains a relatively minor character. He only appears for sixteen minutes of screentime, about 10% of the film. It’s among the shortest screen performances to win a leading acting Oscar. That’s not to say that Hopkins didn’t deserve the award for his performance, but to illustrate how much of an impact the character made in so little time.

Of course, the studios were relatively quick to capitalise on the success of the performance and the pop culture impact of the character. Although they did wait for Thomas to release Hannibal before filming an adaptation, the sequel to the movie featured the cannibal in a very definite leading role. In fact, Jodie Foster herself proved more expendable to the project than Hopkins, being replaced by Julianne Moore in the role of Clarice Starling. The film and the book were very much intended to offer more of Hannibal Lecter to an audience desperate to eat him up. So to speak.

Flogging a dead horse…

I am considerably fonder of both the film and the book than most film pundits, but I will concede that both the movie and novel have some very serious flaws. The book has a rather weird ending that completely undermines Starling’s character in order to pair her off with Hannibal, while the film feels too disconnected from Hannibal to ever really embrace him as a leading man. In both cases, the audience loses a bit of interest in Hannibal because Thomas Harris revises the character again. This time, he imagines Hannibal as something of a grim anti-hero. He’s still completely sociopathic, but his victims seem far more deserving than the innocent Graham family.

There’s also the fact that, to be honest, a lot of the mystery around the character is lost. As with a lot of supporting characters, the Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs was a mysterious character skirting at the edge of the story. Despite the fact we knew next to nothing about him, he seemed to perfectly undermine and attack our hero. Like Boba Fett to Han Solo, or Aldous Snow to Peter Bretter, Hannibal Lecter seemed to know how to catch Clarice off guard and how to give her pause. He was a mystery to her, but he knew everything about her.

Still sharp…

I think that element of mystery is very compelling, and – to a large extent – it makes these supporting characters stand out. After all, Darth Maul works so well in The Phantom Menace because he’s not saddled with too much of George Lucas’ awkward dialogue. Even in Scream, the psychotic killers seem to think that Lecter’s impenetrability makes him such a scary bad guy. “Did Norman Bates have a motive? Did they ever really find out why Hannibal Lecter like to eat people? Don’t think so.” The viewer themselves is left to fill in the blanks, and that makes for a rather compelling character – he can literally be different things to different people, everything to everybody.

And I think that Lecter ultimately succumbed to the problems that face any supporting character elevated to a lead role. In order to fulfil a central role in a story, rather than existing at the edge, the character needs to be pegged down and defined somewhat. That means filling in the blanks and making them a lot less mysterious. It removes a lot of the exotic and ambiguous qualities that made them stand out in the first place.

Tightening the noose around the character’s neck…

In the case of Hannibal, it meant giving him a motive for his cannibalism. In Hannibal, Thomas Harris explained that a bunch of Russian soldiers had eaten Hannibal’s sister when he was younger. It’s a passable freudian excuse, but it’s not especially exotic or unpredictable. It makes sense, but it also ties the character down. Even though Ridley Scott would wisely omit the motive from his adaptation of the novel, it was a central plot point in the much-maligned Hannibal Rising, the first film featuring the character to be made without Anthony Hopkins and a film that ended up straight in the bargain basement bins alongside dreck like Freddie vs. Jason.

In many ways, Lecter serves as a cautionary tale, an illustration of what works and (ultimately) what doesn’t work when crafting an interesting supporting character. It’s a deft balancing act, to create enough interest to make the character compelling, without removing the more exotic air of mystery that surrounds them. I think that any studio looking to spin-off a popular character into their own film could do well to learn from Hannibal Lecter.


20 Responses

  1. Great article! That Len Grossman spin-off is bound to be a bad move. Hannibal has become less and less interesting the more movies he’s in. Get Him to the Greek was ok. There’s no need to even mention a film like Elektra.

    • I’d almost forgotten about Elektra! I still have to see the Director’s Cut of Daredevil, which I hear is a huge improvement on the dreck that was released.

  2. I loved Get Him to the Greek, although even in that Russell Brand was still a supporting character to Jonah Hill. We’re never asked to necesarily completely root or relate to the Aldous Snow character in the same way we do for Hill. Despite being in the same universe, the two versions of Snow are fairly different. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he was more of a stereotypical rock star played for laughs than a character with much depth. In Get Him to the Greek, he was at times more sympathetic, and yet more reprehensible. More heroic, but also more tragic. While his performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be funnier, his role in Get Him to the Greek was more compelling, IMO.

    • You make a fair point. Jonah Hill was the protagonist. Still, I think Aldous had a much clearer arc in Get Him to the Greek. Okay, maybe it’s not an arc – after all, Hannibal has an arc in Silence of the Lambs plotting his escape. I think it’s development. Hannibal starts and ends Silence of the Lambs the same way. He’s more of an anti-hero by the end of Hannibal (even if the change seems to be mostly in the background, as he doesn’t have an epiphany or anything). Snow begins and ends Sarah Marshall in the same place, character-wise, but he grows over Get Him to the Greek. I don’t see them as being inherently different, though – I think he was just as much of a cad in Sarah Marshall, with his arrogant justification for his own inability to engage in an actual relationship (“lose yourself in %$@&”) and (more than recipricated) passive-aggressiveness to Sarah and indifference to Peter, although I think we see more of it in Greek because we spend more time with him. And he seems much more pathetic, because we’re on the “inside” as it were, as opposed to looking at him as an unstoppable force of nature influencing Peter’s life.

      And, to be fair, I liked Get Him to the Greek, but I don’t think it was a patch on Sarah Marshall.

  3. Very interesting article. Hannibal Lector has indeed become less and less interesting with each movie and it’s simply a case of bad writing. He could have been Darth Vader, a character that didn’t seem to lose any mystic even though we found out more about him in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Although I guess he did lose some, if not all of his mystic when the prequels came. Hm.. Never give your characters back story… Less is more! 😀

    • Thanks Tyler. And I think Vader was still very clearly a figure of mystery. While we knew who he was, we didn’t know how he became what he was. it was the prequels that lifted that cloud of mystery, and I think a lot of people were fairly disappointed.

  4. Great article! Less IS more. I think mention needs to be made of The Dark Knight though. Heath Ledger’s Joker chewed up every scene he was in. I believe it was only 8 scenes for a total of less than 30 minutes! Great character and definately left a huge impact on the movie. He was mysterious (how DID he get those scars?) and there was no clue as to how he became a villain in the first place. The Dark Knight went beyond a normal comic-book movie in not believing it had to tell a origin story on it’s main villain. It makes you wonder though that had not for Ledger’s death would they have expanded more into The Joker’s backstory.

  5. I think your main premise is right on. Another thing that hurt in moving Lecter from supporting character to lead is that as a supporting character he was caged. He was all potential. We got a taste of what he could to in a cage and had to imagine what he would do out of the cage. Once he’s out though, he’s just Anthony Hopkins and that’s not so scary!=)

  6. Excellent take. To me, the definitve movie psycho of all-time may very well be Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet) and not simply because he radiates pure evil. We first see him shrouded in mystery and he’s still shrouded in mystery when the movie ends. David Lynch doesn’t try to go for any of the Freudian pop psychology BS that’s severely undermined Hannibal as pointed out above.

  7. Love your work. Big fan of SOTL and it’s to entirely down to Sir Hopkins that the most terrifying character in the film is the one who’s behind bars (for most of it, anyway). I’d never done the maths on any of the other characters though – points well made.

  8. It sounds like you’re unaware of the ulterior movies behind Hannibal. Thomas Harris hated Jodie Foster and her portrayal of Starling. He wrote Hannibal specifically to be a story she would never be a part of when the movie was made. It is nothing but a misogynist fever dream to try to erase the power of the character Hollywood created and put her back in her place. Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way and the merit of the original remains and will remain, the miserable attempt to diminish it was ineffective and soon forgoten.

    • I did not know that. Thanks for that – though I can’t understand how he would hate the performance. Especially since the book ending is so… incredibly disturbing and wrong on so many levels. The book is pretty much “Hannibal is awesome and always right even when he’s a serial killer” and ends up with him hooking up with his sister surrogate, having actually eaten some of his sister when he was a kid. This sounds like it could be a brutal deconstruction of the cult of Hannibal Lecter, but I remember that Harris wrote it so earnestly.

  9. What about Anton Chigurh?? Like the Joker in TDK we know next to nothing about him, a fact that makes him one of the most chilling movie villains in the history of film.

  10. Good article. I have been using Hannibal Lecter as an example of this phenomenon for a long time because he exemplifies it so well. I bring it up whenever someone advocates the idea of basing a larger story on a compelling minor character. When people lamented Darth Maul getting killed off so quickly, I argued that it was a good thing, especially with Lucas at the helm. What he did with Boba Fett was just poor work.

    Interestingly, there are examples of it working. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an example, although it’s a play really. Also, it can work in television. There are numerous shows spun off of other shows that work well (The Jeffersons or Frasier, for example). It’s probably easier to do with comedy for a variety of reasons.

    • That’s actually a great example of where it did work, although Tom Stoppard can do no wrong. And Fraiser is a good example as well. Maybe it’s just films that lean towards these characters.

  11. One thing you seem to have missed is that Anthony Hopkins was not the first actor to play Hannibal Lector. Brian Cox played him in Manhunter.

    • Thanks Brian! I like Brian Cox, but he didn’t seem too relevent. I enjoyed his portrayal (“You want the scent? Smell yourself!”), but I think that Lecter only really grabbed the mainstream’s attention when Anthony Hopkins played the role. It’s a shame, because I feel like Cox never really got the mainstream attention he truly deserved, though I was glad he had a massive revival in the 2000s with X-Men 2 and the Bourne Supremacy.

  12. Hannibal wasn’t killer of college girls, it was Garrett Jacob Hobbs.

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