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Manhunter vs. Red Dragon: The Superior Hannibal Lecter Flick

Movie Reviews

Manhunter vs. Red Dragon: The Superior Hannibal Lecter Flick

With the third season of Hannibal on the horizon, AIPT’s horror experts Sean and Mark take a look at where it all began. Or both versions of where it all began: Manhunter vs. Red Dragon.



Manhunter was released in 1986, and, funny enough, it was directed by Michael Mann, executive producer of Miami Vice (getting off to a great start!). Mann also wrote the screenplay and so far as adaptations go, Manhunter sticks to the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris fairly closely. Well, save for the ending.

Red Dragon was released in 2002, and directed by Brett Ratner, who also directed the Rush Hour films and X-Men: The Last Stand (not getting off to a great start). The screenplay for Red Dragon was written by Ted Tally, who also wrote the screenplay for Silence of the Lambs. So it’s got that going for it.

Will Graham


Sean: It’s a tough call which actor, between William Peterson or Edward Norton, delivers a better performance. While I think Ed Norton is a better actor in general, William Peterson does a fantastic job bringing energy to a character which always struck me as being somewhat low key. Edward Norton does a good job too, don’t get me wrong, but there is some element that seems somewhat phoned in about Norton’s performance.

Mark: Yeah, the way I look at Manhunter and Red Dragon is that Manhunter is Will Graham’s movie and Red Dragon is Dolarhyde’s movie. Graham’s characterization in both films is that he’s an FBI profiler who gets lost in the minds of the criminals he investigates. You see so much more of that in Peterson than you do with Norton. Peterson is unkempt and gross and volatile and seems to always be on the cusp of sanity. Norton, as much as I like him — the problem is that, er, you *like* him. I don’t think you were supposed to *like* Graham, and even when Norton’s throwing a fit and clobbering Lounds, he doesn’t come off as scary or on the brink.

Sean: Yeah, Norton’s Graham is much more subdued. And, this is an interesting case of when sometimes playing a character closer to the book isn’t always the best bet. When I read Red Dragon, I pictured Graham as acting much cooler and more sly than Peterson’s portrayal. And yet, when you see Norton acting in this manner, it’s a little less exciting than Peterson’s Will Graham. That is to say, when Peterson’s Graham is shouting at no one when he connects a clue, it’s a better payoff in the film version. Stands to reason, as you can be inside Graham’s head in the book, whereas you have to start primarily external in a film adaptation.

Mark: That’s one thing I’ll have to concede: I haven’t read the book. So with that in mind, I can’t say which actor better captured the intent of Thomas Harris. But it is interesting how many scenes between the two movies are near word-for-word identical (probably because they were taken straight from the source). It does offer the viewer a more 1:1 opportunity to compare the performances and how differently the actors tackle the material. The scene you brought up of Graham sitting on the hotel room floor surrounded by evidence and trying to piece the facts together is a prime example. When the epiphany takes place, Norton’s is more “Ooh, I got it!” while Peterson’s is more “I was there! I saw it!” Likewise, when Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina in Manhunter, Harvey Keitel in Red Dragon) comes to Will’s house at the beginning to drag him into the Tooth Fairy case, you get the feeling that Norton is over his mania while Peterson is still trying to recover from it.

The Tooth Fairy/Francis Dolarhyde


Sean: Again, it’s a tough call. Tom Noonan’s Dolarhyde is not as fleshed out, but then, Manhunter had less backstory for Noonan to work with. Red Dragon on the other hand goes into Dolarhyde’s backstory (at least, it’s hinted at when we are first introduced to Ralph Fiennes’ Dolarhyde). Indeed, the saving grace of Red Dragon may just be Ralph Fiennes bat shit portrayal of an utterly bat shit character.

Mark: This was the aspect of the two versions I was most on the fence about. With Graham or Lecter or what have you, I knew pretty clearly which performance I preferred. But with Dolarhyde, both executions had their advantages. Manhunter keeps Dolarhyde out of the film until about the halfway point. This works really well in regards to the detective aspect of the film; the audience is as in the dark as the characters and we learn only as much as they do as the film progresses. It also makes him scarier for being this unknown creature. Red Dragon, though, shows us Dolarhyde right from the start and he gets as much screen time if not more than Will Graham. His history and motivations are fleshed out and he’s much more sympathetic, but also less frightening because of it.

Sean: My views are probably swayed by my memories of all the backstory given to Dolarhyde in the book, but I still prefer the Fiennes performance. Though Noonan does a great job being a creepy bastard as well, he seems to be a little more of a stock boogeyman than a real person. Fiennes’ motivations are more apparent as Dolarhyde, and Fiennes’ performance captures the conflict between Dolarhyde when he’s trying to stop killing. I still wouldn’t want to be in the same state as either Francis.

Mark: Very true. It goes back to what I said earlier about Manhunter being Will Graham’s movie and Red Dragon being Dolarhyde’s. We learn so much about Dolarhyde in Red Dragon; all that stuff about his abusive mother, more insight into his day job at the photo lab, why he’s obsessed with that painting and so on. While Noonan came off like a scary monster, Fiennes is more akin to Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs (though I do think Bill balanced sympathetic and fucking horrifying a bit better). I did enjoy the additional scenes Dolarhyde got in Red Dragon and when I watched Manhunter I kinda felt like a chunk of story was conspicuously missing (the bit where Fiennes eats the painting was a little silly, but it did illustrate his final descent into madness whereas Noonan was always crazy and rarely conflicted).

Reba McClane


Sean: My mind, there’s no contest on this one. Emily Watson as Reba is so cute, and you are absolutely terrified for her when she’s around Dolarhyde. As for Joan Allen, I barely remember her parts in Manhunter. Oh my lord, the scene where Dolarhyde is watching the home movie of a family with the sound off, and then Reba is turned on and touching him is probably the creepiest scene for me in the entirety of Red Dragon! It’s just like, no, oh girl, you just have no idea, you’re about to bang an absolute monster!

Mark: “Unless you’re into that sorta thing. Then by all means.” I don’t want to sell Joan Allen too short, but Reba had a severely diminished role in Manhunter as compared to Red Dragon. There’s just no contest. Since Red Dragon takes the time to develop Dolarhyde throughout the course of the film (whereas Manhunter saves all his characterization for the second half), Watson’s Reba feels like a legitimate character (whereas Allen’s Reba feels like a typical damsel in distress). I mean, Manhunter leaves in the scene where Dolarhyde takes her to the zoo to pet the tiger, but it cuts out the discussion he had with Reba where she talks about how a trip to the zoo was her last memory of sight.

There’s no context to that scene in Manhunter, whereas Red Dragon set it all up, so you can appreciate the impact (Dolarhyde listening to her, empathizing with her and doing something thoughtful and sweet for her). Manhunter’s Dolarhyde, his attraction to her feels much more strictly carnal, like the scene where they’re watching the home movies and he’s scanning her body as she drinks gin and tonic and trying to fight a serial killer boner. Red Dragon’s Dolarhyde, his attraction to her is genuinely a romantic and personal one.

Hannibal Lecktor/Hannibal Lecter


Sean: Brian Cox is an amazing actor. However, it’s just not even a contest. Anthony Hopkins and Hannibal Lecter are so synonymous, that sometimes when I see Anthony Hopkins I accidentally refer to him as Hannibal Lector. Brian Cox as Lecktor is great, but he has less of a presence. Let’s put it this way: Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal made him a household name, while I doubt most people even realize Brian Cox ever even played Hannibal. But, all that aside, the performance Anthony Hopkins delivers isn’t his best as Hannibal. Still, even a bad outing as Hannibal for Hopkins (which Red Dragon isn’t by the by) is still better than Brian Cox’s version of the character. It is worth watching Cox to see a slightly different translation of the character, though.

Mark: This is a “no contest,” surely, but for the sake of argument I’ll play a little Devil’s Advocate. Cox’s Hannibal isn’t loveable like Hopkins’ Hannibal. He’s smug, he’s cruel and he’s all-around detestable. Hopkins had the advantage of already appearing in two movies before this one, so audiences were familiar with his Hannibal and he almost has that sort of Freddy Krueger vibe; he’s supposed to be the bad guy but viewers love him so much they inadvertently root for him.

Take the scene where Hannibal gets the phone and sends Will Graham’s address to Dolarhyde so he can kill his family. The scene plays almost identically across both versions, but the audience’s reaction is totally opposite. With Cox, you hate him, you don’t WANT him to succeed in getting that info to Dolarhyde… because he’s the bad guy and he’s doing something horrible. With Hopkins, he’s more like an anti-hero at this point in the eyes of the audience, so instead of not wanting him to succeed, you don’t want him to get CAUGHT. Even though he’s trying to get a woman and a child killed. It’s a funny twist. That said, yeah, Hopkins is synonymous with Hannibal. He also gets more scenes to chew on in Red Dragon than in Manhunter.

Sean: I’m fairly sure in an interview, Hopkins said he plays Hannibal kind of like a cat, and a snake, with the way he speaks, the way he moves his body. This is what separates the performances. Cox doesn’t have the same kind of physical presence, and granted he’s stuck in a cell while Hopkins gets a weird track with a leash attached to him attached to the ceiling, but still. The way Hopkins will stand, and track with the eyes, and then almost pounce on someone. It is like a cat or a snake. It’s something that Mads Mikkleson is doing with the character as well on NBC’s Hannibal, though his body language is a little more elegant, and more fluid when he decides to strike.

Mark: My friends won’t stop bugging me about the NBC show; I really ought to get around to it (especially since I hear they’re about to adapt Red Dragon and I’m up for a third go at that storyline). But on topic, Hopkins brings more to his performance in all the ways you described and more, but probably because he’d had two films to practice and was sort of just slipping back into a familiar suit. He also got more material to work with than Cox, and as I understand it a good chunk of Hannibal’s scenes in Red Dragon were newly added to meet audience demand. I do kind of like that Hannibal has a smaller role in Manhunter, since the movie isn’t supposed to be about him. But on the other hand, I really enjoyed seeing how he was captured by Graham; the prologue to Red Dragon was a pretty great sequence that appeased audience’s appetites for Hannibal while also organically introducing us to Will and his backstory.

Sean: I agree with you, the prologue was great in Red Dragon.

Freddy Lounds


Sean: Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a lot like Emma Watson in the sense that they both had a little more to work with with their character’s in Red Dragon. I really barely remember Stephen Lang’s performance in Manhunter.

Mark: There isn’t too much to say on this front, though it is odd how both films have almost identical runtimes (2 hours) and yet Red Dragon seemed to pack in so much more material for the characters than Manhunter did. Both versions of Lounds were sleazy and infuriating, but Lang’s rendition felt more like the guy behind the counter at a porno shop while Hoffman’s came off more appropriately as a scummy tabloid journalist. I will say, I think the scene where Lounds has to watch Dolarhyde’s slideshow was a bit more frightening in Manhunter, but because that was the big “reveal” scene for Dolarhyde. It was scarier because it was our introduction to the villain than due to any aspect of Lang’s performance. Hoffman’s portrayal in that scene seemed more pathetic, though. And a fat guy burns longer than a skinny guy, so that’s a plus for him.

The Ending


Sean: Again, tough call. While Red Dragon is closer to the ending from the book of the same name, Manhunter ties everything up with a scene ending unique to its adaptation: Graham jumps through Dolarhyde’s window and has a shootout with the Tooth Fairy. I would say, speaking just for personal preference, I like the Manhunter ending better. Sure, it cuts out the fake out death of Dolarhyde, but ending with Graham catching his man, and not being too late is a little more satisfying than ending your movie with a fake out death of your villain (done way too much in films anyway). While it was exciting to see Graham’s family in danger, and to see Molly shoot Dolarhyde, it was an extra ending. A lot of the tension gets snatched away when you pull a Lord of the Rings and end your movie a couple of times.

Mark: The double ending was definitely tiresome, though more as a cliche we’re all sick of as audiences than as a blow to the narrative. I think both endings were tailored to their films ideally since both films ultimately wound up being so different. You look at Graham in Manhunter and he’s slowly losing his mind as he gets into the role of the killer. So by the end, he basically turns into a rampaging lunatic who jumps through a window and starts shooting at his enemy indiscriminately. This was the part where he finally “snapped” and just went bonkers. Graham in Red Dragon never felt like he was really losing his marbles, so the ending worked better with that portrayal.

When Graham and Dolarhyde have their showdown in Florida, Graham uses his knowledge of the killer’s mind more pragmatically than how Manhunter’s Graham just went plain psycho. Instead, he uses what he knew about Dolarhyde’s relationship with his mother (something Manhunter didn’t really touch on) against him. But there is one big problem with Manhunter’s ending. It undercuts Hannibal’s evil scheme to sic Dolarhyde on Graham’s family. In Manhunter, Hannibal fails. In Red Dragon, Hannibal succeeds. Though I supposed that just plays into how Red Dragon gave Hannibal more of a presence than Manhunter did.

Final Verdict


Sean: This is what I struggle with the most when thinking about Manhunter and Red Dragon. They are very different films. Manhunter annoys me with its overuse of score, being obnoxiously 80s, and I prefer Elfman’s score for Red Dragon. But, then I think of the filter they threw over Red Dragon, and that strikes me as obnoxiously early 2000. Manhunter plays like more of an action film, and Red Dragon plays more like a psychological thriller: but I like both types of films, so I can’t just pick the genre I prefer, because I like both fairly equally! I don’t even know if I can pick which film I prefer right now, you go, maybe I can decide in a bit.

Mark: When I think of the two movies, I think Manhunter has more of an identity than Red Dragon. I look at Manhunter as being the better film when watched in a vacuum; as a standalone story independent of itself. While Mann’s Miami Vice style is definitely of its time, the movie has a thumbprint all its own. Red Dragon, obviously, functions best as the first installment in a trilogy, but it still feels like pastiche work.

Perhaps the reason it’s so palatable when compared to Bret Ratner’s other output is because he is very obviously trying to crib the look and feel of Jonathan Demme’s work on Silence of the Lambs. And as well he should, because again, this film was made to work as the first part of a trilogy (let’s just do what the rest of the world has done and pretend Hannibal Rising never happened). From that angle, Hannibal is the odd man out of the series, feeling tonally off to the first two chapters (but Hannibal is a discussion for another day). So I guess I’m cheating by throwing in qualifiers for the films, but I think Manhunter is the better popcorn flick to toss in if you’re looking to kill 2 hours, while Red Dragon is the superior movie to watch as part of a more involved landscape of storytelling.

Sean: Yeah, I guess ultimately, despite the fact I love Red Dragon’s score, there is nothing inherently unique about it other than Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Dolarhyde. And, actually, his portrayal isn’t that unique, as there are similarities between his performance and Noonan’s in Manhunter. You could take Dolarhyde out of Manhunter, and I think the film would still flourish. However if you took out Dolarhyde from Red Dragon, it’d be just boring. Red Dragon just plays, as Mark stated, like the first installment in a trilogy, and I’d argue it plays like the worst of the three. Despite some good performances in Red Dragon (other than Norton’s), Manhunter is the more rewatchable of the two films. It’s more exciting, and less of an exercise in thin excuses to bring Hopkins’ Hannibal back like Red Dragon was.

Mark: Red Dragon is the more cerebral of the two films, I’ll give it that. The characters are stronger (save maybe Will Graham) and the experience is far more psychological. But Manhunter is more fun and, while I wouldn’t say lighter, it’s easier to rewatch. It’s sort of like, yeah, some days I feel like watching The Godfather, but most days I just want to throw in Predator and chill out. Manhunter’s a better film to chill out to. In a perfect world we could take both flicks, throw them into a Telepod and amalgamate them into the ideal adaptation, but we live in a sucky universe.

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