Happy birthday, Hannibal: The Silence of the Lambs turns 25

It's been a quarter of a century since Thomas Harris's cultured cannibal exploded on the thriller scene, winning fictional killers a place in our hearts for ever

Can it really be a whole quarter of a century since Hannibal Lecter took up residence in our cultural landscape with the immortal line, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti"?

Well, actually, no. It is indeed 25 years since Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs was first published, but that famous quote is from Jonathan Demme's highly rated 1991 movie adaptation of the book; Harris's original line did indeed have the sociopathic psychiatrist chowing down on the offal of a census taker who "tried to quantify me once", but in the original text the cannibalistic serial killer's wine of choice is "a big Amarone". Perhaps chianti was the preferred plonk of Anthony Hopkins, who portrayed Lecter in Demme's movie; and certainly Hopkins added the "f-f-f-f-f!" to forever enshrine it in the list of most quotable movie lines.

The Silence of the Lambs inhabits that curious cross-media territory where only classics live. Its astonishing success as a movie – it scooped the so-called "Big Five" at the Oscars (best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and best adapted screenplay) – perhaps overshadows the source material for many people. But with 11m worldwide sales since publication and a clutch of awards for both horror and crime writing in its year of publication (the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy and Anthony awards) the importance of the book's impact cannot be overestimated.

Even Random House, publishing a 25th-anniversary reprint of the book, under the Arrow imprint, is spearheading its publicity with: "Seen the film? Now read the book that launched a legend."

Harris's book already has enough cultural cachet not to be overshadowed by the (admittedly fine) movie adaptation. Big names in suspense, crime and horror were falling over themselves to praise the book. "A huge talent," said Rebus creator Ian Rankin of Harris. "The great fictional monster of our time," was how Stephen King described Lecter. "A brilliant, superbly crafted thriller," said the late James Herbert. Perhaps most incongruously, Roald Dahl (though no stranger, of course, to the grotesque and terrifying) called The Silence of the Lambs "the best book I've read in a very long time. Subtle, horrific and splendid."

The book wasn't, of course, Hannibal Lecter's first outing, but it certainly remains the most memorable of the four books that feature him. In the first book, Red Dragon, he was incarcerated (it was filmed as Manhunter, by Michael Mann, with a weirdly disturbing 80s synth soundtrack, and then again in 2002 with Harris's original title).

In book two, we meet the doctor locked in a high-security facility, where rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling is enlisting his help in the psychological profiling of serial killer Buffalo Bill. Lecter is cold, calculating, charming, lucid, highly dangerous and utterly remorseless. And therein lies the magic of his character: we're scared of him and want to hate him, but when he rather horrifically makes his bid for freedom, we're somehow rooting for him.

After Silence, the somewhat reclusive Harris wrote Hannibal, which detailed what happened next to Clarice and Lecter, and Hannibal Rising, a prequel to the series, but none seems to have achieved the same status as The Silence of the Lambs. Quite the opposite in some cases: Martin Amis, a self-confessed fan of the early books, reviewed Hannibal in the now-defunct New York magazine, savaging Harris as "a serial murderer of English sentences", and calling the book "a necropolis of prose".

Before Lecter, fictional serial killers weren't the sort of people you would want to spend much time with. But if you look past Lecter's obvious flaws – extracting people's eyes with paperclips, tearing off faces to wear over his own … that sort of thing – he is educated, erudite and even suave. You probably wouldn't mind having dinner with him, in a very public place and provided he didn't do the cooking.

We would have to go back a long way to find a literary anti-hero anywhere near Lecter's equivalent. Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin and EW Hornung's Raffles are criminals, certainly, but these gentlemen thieves were motivated by greed and thrill rather than a desire to kill. A closer fit is Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's Fantomas, a suave early 20th-century villain who took great pleasure in offing his enemies. But Fantomas – though he was successfully adapted to cinema, TV and comic books – elicits none of the reluctant admiration, and even empathy, the reader feels for Lecter.

Since The Silence of the Lambs, the trope of the charming serial killer has become entrenched in popular culture. Without Lecter, it's arguable there would be no Dexter, an insanely popular TV series currently on its eighth season, spawned from Jeff Lindsay's books. Also, NBC's Hannibal, featuring Mads Mikkelsen as a young and angular Lecter, who helps the FBI solve crimes at the same time as pursuing his own killing career.

In the 25 years since The Silence of the Lambs, fictional serial killers (the real ones are too horrific to think about) have acquired a handsome gloss. Perhaps now's the time to reopen Harris's book and remind ourselves just how terrifying they should be.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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