The Big Picture
- Anthony Hopkins’ role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs defines his legacy as an actor, showcasing his ability to slip into the skin of any character.
- The film’s genius lies in its ability to balance the extremes of the genre, seamlessly blending a detailed procedural with grand set pieces and a heightened sense of reality.
- Hopkins drew inspiration for his portrayal of Lecter from iconic figures like HAL 9000 and Truman Capote, creating a character who is both inhumane and intriguingly manipulative.
Anthony Hopkins is a pillar of acting history, as sturdy and dependable as they come. For over 60 years and counting, he’s been one of the most quietly versatile actors in the business; while nobody would ever claim he’s a chameleon, his ability to slip into the skin of almost any type of person and imbue them with his rhythmic diction and inquisitive stare is a sight to behold. While his unprecedented second Oscar win for The Father made him the oldest person in history to win a competitive Oscar, it’s his first win as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that will forever be the role that most defines Hopkins’ legacy. It’s a somewhat ironic gesture, as this is one of the few roles in his entire career defined largely by how, well, unlike Hopkins it is. As an actor who thrived mostly on script memorization and instinctive reactions, this is one of the few roles that he built largely out of outside cultural influences, two major ones in particular – HAL 9000 and Truman Capote.
What Is Genius About Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter?
Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer, a certified criminal genius, and a master manipulator. He’s locked up, in a perfect square cell evoking a stage, when Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) comes to his cell, asking him for information on another serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Hannibal could give her this information, but ever the playful scamp, he won’t just give her this information. He will give her what he knows only if she first plays his game and she tells him more about herself and her own traumas. While an obviously daunting task, Clarice is driven enough in her mission and secure enough in her identity that she will plunge into the depths of their shared psyche in spite of her fear. In this warped bubble they’ve invented, he is both her tormentor and her therapist, exhibiting genuine interest in her mental makeup while extracting it through odious means.
The genius of the film, and by extension Anthony Hopkins’ performance, is how comfortable the extremes of the genre nestle next to each other. It’s at once a rigorously detailed procedural with an accurate depiction of how the FBI worked years before Mindhunter existed, and also an exercise in genre excess that underlines its “movie” nature with grand set-pieces and drastic staging of otherwise standard scenarios. Every scene involving Lecter takes the film from the dull horror of true crime and vaults it into the realm of a waking nightmare, where being in the presence of pure evil dictates the rules of reality as Clarice knows them. Especially when compared to other versions of Hannibal Lecter, like the more mundanely irritable Brian Cox in Manhunter or the high culture connoisseur of Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal, Hopkins’ version stands out for being arguably the most exaggerated and behaviorally inhumane, which fits this film in its aim to make Lecter’s presence feel like it alters the way the world should normally work. Given the nature of this approach, it makes sense that when Hopkins first had to make sense of this character, he immediately went to figures known for their heightened states of being.
How Is Hannibal Lecter Inspired by HAL 9000 and Truman Capote?
In June 1991, Empire Magazine published a feature in the midst of the film’s then-just-beginning Oscar campaign, in which director Jonathan Demme, Hopkins, and Foster were all interviewed. In this feature, Hopkins drops nuggets on his thought process when approaching the character. He said that his first inclination was to go right to a voice that he attributed as a combination of “Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL from 2001″, and suggested having Hannibal wear “a very tight prison uniform. That would suggest total control.”
Decades later, in September 2021, in a GQ profile, Hopkins provided a slightly different perspective. He actively downplayed the Katharine Hepburn influence, and he attributed his approach more to how you shouldn’t look gorillas in the eyes because they perceive it as a threat, “so when Lecter doesn’t take his eyes off you, that’s frightening. And Charles Manson did stare like that. You think that’s a disturbed person because they have no reference point, they have no pity.” Furthermore, that same year, he and Foster had a discussion published by Variety to honor the 30th anniversary of the film. Hopkins mentions the HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) influence once again, and he said that during the first reading, “He’s like a machine. He’s like HAL, the computer in ‘2001’: ‘Good evening, Dave.’” He just comes in like a silent shark.”
How Does Anthony Hopkins’ Inspiration Manifest in Hannibal Lecter?
For context, HAL 9000 is a supercomputer that operates a spaceship. He is not truly robotic, and yet he is more than anything cold and precise. Douglas Rain’s voice gives him a Zen quality, as if he has transcended the need to worry about messy emotions, but has small traces of them, rather than discarded them altogether. If any particular element of HAL has had the most direct influence on Lecter, it is the notion that Lecter is a simulation of a human, with faint traces of emotion and humanity that he can draw upon for his own purposes of manipulation. He is perhaps not simply inhumane as he has transcended humanity, a heightened form we cannot fully grasp.
From the jump, Hannibal asserts his dominance with no effort. As Clarice walks into his cell space, the camera adopts her POV as she first sees his area, and Lecter is already perfectly matching her eyeline, staring at her directly before he can truly see her. When he notices her FBI ID will expire in a week, he immediately pounces, taking wicked glee in knowing she’s still in training. Once he gets a taste for her accent, he latches onto it, ruthlessly calling her a “rube” with “cheap shoes”, desperate to escape the coal mines. The dismissal with which he tells her to “fly back” to the FBI is crushing, in large part because it’s somehow so not personal. Much like HAL murdering crew mates simply because they threatened his mission, Hannibal’s conduct is so nauseating because it’s just part of his nature, and he doesn’t even hold it against you that strongly. Like a clinical doctor, like a computer doing what’s best, Hannibal’s default state of one of clipped courtesy masking a rueful distaste for things not going according to plan.
In regard to the Truman Capote influence, it’s somewhat there, debatably. There is a certain light feyness to Hannibal’s accent, somewhat in line with Capote’s signature drawl. But it has none of the high nasality or sharp highs that Capote so eloquently weaponized. Considering that Hopkins has been asked about his influences multiple times over decades and always brings up HAL but never Capote or Hepburn more than once, I’m inclined to believe he used the Capote and Hepburn references as a way to make himself appealing to American audiences; at the time, they weren’t as familiar with Hopkins, since he was more known for British theater and cinema like The Elephant Man. By the time he got older and became a two-time Oscar-winning legend with a firm position in Hollywood history, he dropped those claims but stuck hardcore to HAL. It goes to show how sharp Anthony Hopkins’ instincts are for slipping into just the right state of mind he needs to be in to make the best impression.