The relevance of these two films in 2017 may just be about dead. Hannibal, the TV adaptation of the Thomas Harris novels, is opening them up for re-watches. The story of Hannibal Lecter is of course now legend, thanks to the classic 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. Yet, what is interesting is the differences between the adaptations of the first novel. Manhunter, released in 1986, was our first look at this world and its characters. Red Dragon, released in 2002, was the much more mainstream edition of the story. Together, they sit side by side as very similar but also incredibly different, down to simple stylistic abilities.
On a basic narrative level is where the films are the most similar, which makes sense considering they are taken from the same novel. There are several lines of dialogue that are clearly taken from the page as they are in both films. It’s the timings and character moments when the films move away from each other. Hannibal Lecter’s usage is one of these character moments. In Manhunter he is used pretty sparingly, with Will Graham being more at the centre. He dictates the story much less in this version and is only in the film for three short scenes. In Red Dragon Lecter is very much a vital part of the plot, and often throughout the film directs Graham in his investigation. This is due to the film having a closer relationship with The Silence of the Lambs and the success of it. The producers clearly wanted to lean on the popularity of the Lecter character and utilise Anthony Hopkins in the role. Manhunter, being released before The Silence of the Lambs was without the Hannibal Lecter legend and cult status, therefore he is used much less in the film. As well as this, in Manhunter, Lecter is played by Brian Cox in a much more low-key fashion. For me, Hopkins portrayal has always been overrated, but you cannot doubt the greater impact Hopkins has in his versions of Lecter than Cox does in his.
Lecter is not the only character in which the time spent with him is different in the two films. Our main protagonist of Will Graham has varying weight between the films. In Manhunter the camera spends more time on his silence and brooding. There is more of a mystery and damage behind the character that is only brief in Red Dragon. This is down to execution of the scenes, but also because of the different actors who play him. William Peterson stars as Graham in Manhunter, and it’s probably his biggest ever role, which means there’s an unknown to him. Consequently it creates a much more transfixed and dreamy character, thanks to the singular nature of it. Whereas in Red Dragon, he is played by Edward Norton just past his peak. The film came out post Primal Fear, Fight Club and American History X, meaning that is hard to separate the actor from the character. Norton does a fine job, like he always does, but Peterson plays Graham so closely and with much more angst that he comes across as far more intriguing. Often in Manhunter the film spends scenes really examining Graham and his thought process, which is where the timing of the narrative comes in. Both films dwell on different plotlines of the story, creating different effects. For example, they use the family of Graham to show different themes. In Manhunter it is about Graham’s relationship with his son, and that battle for masculinity over the woman in their life. And in Red Dragon it is much more about Graham’s relationship with his wife, and her ability to be strong without him. These subtle differences allow the films to have different character arcs, and what I would say is that Manhunter focuses on these more. Red Dragon is more transparent with its delivery and so Manhunter has perhaps some deeper messages hidden within it.
Style is the massive comparison between the two films. It’s easy to say that Manhunter is more artistic than Red Dragon and can stand alone as its own film; not part of some Thomas Harris – Hannibal Lecter universe. However it’s the simple things and creative control that highlight this. Manhunter is directed by Michael Mann, who shortly after went on to direct Heat, which is the definite heist film and a crime classic. As a filmmaker he has individual look and way of storytelling. Some of the shots in Manhunter are sparse and lonely, bland but full of depth. He uses a wide view in most of the scenes, yet isn’t afraid to get extremely personal with the characters. His use of colours is evident to show emotion, and there are a couple of scenes of strong blue that is prominent throughout all his work. Mann has put his stamp on this adaptation, and it also helps that he had writing control. This is a Mann written project and so his screenplay blends together with his directing. The same cannot be completely said about Red Dragon. It is not at all a badly directed film, and has moments that are pleasing on the eye, yet there is a lack of style there. The director Brett Ratner is much less acclaimed than Mann and is certainly a poppy mainstream director. He relies more on his cast and the story to keep the film going. There is seldom use of techniques that make it individual and at times it is a culprit of attempting to copy The Silence of the Lambs. This is something that Red Dragon can’t escape from, as the film has the same writer as The Silence of the Lambs. Subsequently you quickly get a film trying to desperately replicate the success of The Silence of the Lambs, but also be separate from its director. Ratner seems to be going scene by scene without really touching on the complexities of the story or characters. Overall it doesn’t make the film any less entertaining, however it does leave Manhunter the more compelling watch, due to its auteur driven nature.
So far I think I’ve made it clear that my favourite of the two is Manhunter. Despite this, I like Red Dragon for a multitude of reasons, the main being its remarkable cast. I’ve already mentioned Ed Norton, but alongside him is Harvey Keitel, who I think is slight miscast because he’s caught between the straight up nature of Jack Crawford from The Silence of the Lambs and the more laid back nature of Crawford from Manhunter. There is the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, possibly my most beloved actor, playing the slimy reporter. And then Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson in a wonderful pairing. Fiennes plays the villain with much more vivacity than Tom Noonan in Manhunter and he is the king of many scenes in the film. The Emily Watson character as the love interest of killer Fiennes is much more fleshed out and her empathy in the film is really beautiful. She does an excellent job of bringing another element to the film quite late on. This ensemble cast means that the big moments in the film are exciting, as there is Hollywood finesse to it.
To conclude all of this rambling, both films are great on different levels. Manhunter is becoming a film I love more every time I watch it, because of its nuances and its care with the source material. It is crafted stunningly together by Michael Mann, and sits almost like 70’s independent auteur film, whilst also having some 80’s romp sensibilities. The darkness and pacing is balanced so well, putting it on a must watch list. Red Dragon sits well as a follow up, yet prequel, to The Silence of the Lambs, and if you ignore the weird ageing of the recurring characters it can be brutally entertaining. It loses its shine after a couple of watches, but holds up under inspection thanks to two great performances in Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson. Summing up, no one cares about the intricacies of these films like I do; it’s just interesting to look at two films that have the same content but vastly different styles. It’s a great example of what makes a quality film, rather than just a mainstream attempt of pulling in an audience. The Silence of the Lambs will always be the classic view of this world, and the TV show is viscerally enjoyable, however you shouldn’t sleep on a great like Manhunter or a convincing tale like Red Dragon.