am probably overstating it a bit when I say that Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is arguably a new classic of the Western canon, but I don’t care. I like the book, and this is my article. So: Red Dragon is arguably a new classic of the Western canon, a Gothic thriller-cum-detective novel that rivals the best of Stoker or Conan Doyle. When it hit bookshelves in 1981, it introduced readers to both a type of novel they’d never read before and characters like they’d never encountered: Will Graham, a criminal profiler who’s succeeded so well in his job because he can think like a serial killer without giving in to the dark urges that accompany the mindset; Francis Dolarhyde, a prolific murderer who thinks that by slaughtering entire families he is slowly transforming himself into a super-being he calls The Dragon; and, of course, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant, cannibalistic psychiatrist who has more in common with Milton’s Satan than any mortal man.
The book became a runaway bestseller and forever changed the pop-culture landscape. Uniquely for a property first released in such recent memory, it was adapted for film or television three times in 34 years — first as 1982’s Manhunter, again as 2002’s Red Dragon, and most recently in 2015 as a story arc on television’s Hannibal. It’s easy to see why: While its sequel, Silence of the Lambs, was turned into one of the greatest films ever made, none of the treatments of Dragon have fully captured the letter or the spirit of what’s arguably the best of Harris’ Lecter novels. It’s a story that deserves as good a treatment as Lambs got. Interestingly, though, while none of the adaptations have been entirely up to snuff, each one nails a certain aspect of the novel. So it is that, somewhere in the intersection between all three, there does indeed lie a perfect version. With a new Silence of the Lambs-inspired series apparently on the horizon (and it’s looking as if the Hannibal crew will, sadly, not be involved), I’d like to take a look back at what each adaptation got right, for a glimpse at what the complete, ultimate cinematic adaptation of Dragon would look like …
BEST WILL GRAHAM: WILLIAM PETERSEN in ‘MANHUNTER’
Though he’s been long overshadowed by Clarice Starling, Will Graham stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her as a brilliant, compelling protagonist. While Starling’s arc in the Harris novels finds her fighting — and ultimately giving in to — her darker nature, Graham is well-acquainted with his from page one. Vacillating between the world of cops, killers, the great outdoors, and suburban family life with an ease that disturbs even him, Graham is all things to all people, an ability that allows him to save lives even as it eats away at his own soul. It’s a meaty role, one that requires an actor to hit multiple, disparate notes in the same scene. William Petersen is the only person to have gotten that — he grasps the character’s basic spookiness, playing Graham as a decent but haunted guy who may be able to live in the world of normal people but will never be a part of it. Edward Norton’s Graham is a few steps away from a sniveling bureaucrat: When he reviews crime scene evidence and is overcome with anger, it comes across as pissy indignation, while Petersen’s is all empathic fury. Hugh Dancy, on the other hand, is too in touch with the softer aspects of Graham’s personality. The literary Will is troubled by his dark forays into the minds of monsters, but he pushes on. Dancy’s version breaks down sobbing and must be put back together. Bonus points go to Petersen for his pitch-perfect rendition of “cop.” My first job out of high school was interning for my hometown’s police department for 18 months, and as anyone who’s spent considerable time around law enforcement can tell you, they’ve known Petersen’s Will Graham. That’s the kind of authenticity you just can’t buy.
BEST FRANCIS DOLARHYDE: RALPH FIENNES in ‘RED DRAGON’
Arguably an even more difficult role than Graham, Francis Dolarhyde is further testament to Thomas Harris’ abilities as a crafter of fantastic, fully-realized characters. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s read Red Dragon that didn’t, at least for a little while, want Francis to find some sort of redemption. Through recounting his tortured backstory and his tragic love affair with blind photo lab employee Reba McClane, Harris accomplishes a seemingly impossible task: He makes the reader fall in love with a literal monster. The role requires not just excellent writing, but an actor who can find the last, masticated shreds of Francis’ humanity and bring them out at the requisite moments. Poor Tom Noonan really doesn’t have the former to work with: His Dolarhyde gets a fraction of screen time, and what’s there never even hints at his complex backstory. The first time we see him, he’s a whispery, jittery mess (the result of Noonan doing 50 pushups in between every take), and while he recovers for his scenes with Joan Allen’s Reba, the damage is already done. He only really gets to fully shine for his final confrontation, when Noonan demonstrates what a fantastic physical actor he is, but by then Francis has been reduced to a generic spook. Meanwhile, Richard Armitage’s take is literally animalistic: Borderline mute, he spends most of his time hissing and doing weird yoga. It’s unbelievable that there’s anything remotely human left in there, let alone that he’s able to manage a mask of sanity. Ralph Fiennes alone fully embodies every aspect of Francis: His reveal scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Freddie Lounds is full of booming menace and barely contained rage, while his interactions with Emily Watson are the stuff of an awkward but charming romantic comedy. He’s absolutely sympathetic and even loveable — up until the moment Fiennes’ eyes shift and he’s absolutely terrifying.
BEST HANNIBAL LECTER: MADS MIKKELSEN in ‘HANNIBAL’
Anthony Hopkins’ take on Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs will always be the standard by which future performances of the character are judged. But the Lecter of Harris’ Red Dragon is less prone to the creepy camp of the one we find making crude sex jokes at Starling’s expense in Lambs — he’s borderline demonic, some ancient creature in human form whom mankind has managed to confine but cannot destroy. That said, by the time Hopkins got around to the part in Red Dragon, both he and screenwriter Ted Tally had lost sight of the character. The Lecter of Red Dragon is almost a parody of the role in Lambs, tiredly going through the motions as though he’s an elderly Bond actor squeezing in the requisite gags and references. Meanwhile, Brian Cox, though a brilliant genre performer, is totally miscast and misdirected. True, he had the disadvantage of being the only actor to play the part before Harris developed it more fully in later books, but he brings none of the menace or eerie sophistication of the literary Lecter. He’s a mugging, jittery hillbilly, never able to sit still or keep the same facial expression for more than five seconds. Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, though, brings all the necessary grandeur and seductive evil to the part. He gets that his Hannibal will one day become Hopkins’ Hannibal, but that he hasn’t yet had enough time in solitary confinement for his brain to rot and for boredom to drive him even crazier than he already was. He also understands that, at its heart, Red Dragon is a warped hate triangle between Hannibal, Graham, and Dolarhyde, with the wronged Lecter seeking a lover’s vengeance against the man who betrayed (that is to say incarcerated) him. His Hannibal is less maniacal genius than Machiavellian ubermensch — and that’s just what the part calls for.
BEST REBA MCCLANE: EMILY WATSON in ‘RED DRAGON’
A deceptively small role, Reba serves as one of the key characters in Red Dragon’s narrative, both providing the reader with a link to Francis’ tortured soul and serving as his one last link to humanity. It’s a role that requires an actress to do a whole lot with not that much dialogue or screen time. Unfortunately, the part’s been given short shrift over the years by various directors and writers. Like Dolarhyde, Reba’s part is comically truncated in Manhunter, where Joan Allen seems to keep forgetting that she’s supposed to be blind; and, while Ms. Allen is very lovely, her performance lacks the vivacity to really sell her seduction of Francis. It’s a very sexy role, one that reverses the usual active male pursuer/passive female dynamic — unfortunately, none of that makes it to the screen. The same is true for Rutina Wesley’s turn in Hannibal: It’s hard to make a relationship seem hot when one of the participants barely says more than weird grunting noises, and as a result, her Reba proves to be one of the most forgettable iterations of any character in the Red Dragon mythos — hell, I had to look up her name and a photo of her for this article just to refresh my memory. Emily Watson stands head and shoulders above the rest, as the only actress to tackle the role who seems to have the insight necessary to bring Reba to full, sensuous life. Perhaps one of the most subtly seductive actresses of her generation, Watson is an expert at flipping the charm switch, and by the time she’s making a very bold pass at Francis in his own living room, you’ve fallen just as much under her spell as he has — and that’s perfect.
BEST STORYTELLING: ‘RED DRAGON’
Though I gave Tally a lot of grief above for his treatment of Hannibal Lecter, I must say this — his script for Red Dragon comes the closest to reaching the literary heights of the book. Michael Mann was obviously more enthralled by the idea of making a mood — rather than narrative — piece about Will Graham’s inner struggles, dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to his story at the expense of developing Francis as anything more than a bogeyman. Bryan Fuller, similarly, was more wrapped up in exploring the homoerotic possibilities of Graham and Hannibal as murder husbands than doing the book justice. His treatment is the least fleshed out, turning the events of the book into a footnote in Graham and Hannibal’s relationship. I can’t fault him for exploring a fascinating idea, but if that’s what he wanted to do, he really ought to have saved Red Dragon for another season, rather than trying to shoe-horn disparate elements of the book into his own original story. Only Ted Tally really got what made the novel such a success in the first place, as evidenced by a brilliant addition in which Graham uses his empathic abilities to psychologically manipulate Francis. While he may have hit several missteps on the letter of the book in his depiction of Graham and Lecter, he most certainly got the spirit.
BEST AMBIENCE: ‘MANHUNTER’
Tone can make or break a movie, and it’s an especially important consideration for a thriller or horror film, where an atmosphere of dread is almost a character unto itself. There’s virtually none of that atmosphere to be seen in Red Dragon, which is sunny and sun-dappled to an almost comical degree. Were the film any brighter or blander, it could be a Mr. Rogers special. It indulges in the very worst aspects of early 2000s set design, giving us an ostensibly gritty world of serial killers and detectives that’s almost entirely beige and yellow. Hannibal, meanwhile, commits the sin of excess: Its treatment of the Red Dragon arc is so darkly lit as to make the viewer adjust the picture settings on the TV, while Fuller’s stylistic flourishes — the French horns, the super-close-ups, the insufferable slow-mo intercuts — are so pretentious that Hannibal himself would be embarrassed. Manhunter, though firmly steeped in the aesthetics of the 1980s, at least has a consistent, appropriate atmosphere. The use of different lighting schemes to convey different emotions and frames of mind is a brilliant choice, one that elevates the film into the realm of sheer artistry. The proto-Miami Vice tone, meanwhile, meshes well with the book’s late ‘70s/early ‘80s setting. Sure, a lot of the music is out of place, but it comes the closest to capturing what would have been in readers’ heads when the book first hit shelves in ’81, and that’s a beautiful accomplishment. More than the other adaptations, this is what Red Dragon should look and feel like. If we could only slip Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, Watson’s Reba, and Fiennes’ Dolarhyde in here, it just might be perfect.
Preston Fassel is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has appeared in FANGORIA, Rue Morgue Magazine, Screem Magazine, and on Cinedump.com. He is the author of "Remembering Vanessa," the first published biography of British horror star Vanessa Howard, printed in the Spring 2014 issue of Screem Magazine. From 2015 to 2017, he served as the assistant editor of Cinedump.com. Since 2017, he has served as staff writer for FANGORIA magazine. His first novel, 'Our Lady of the Inferno,' was the recipient of the Independent Publisher Book Award for Horror and was named one of Bloody Disgusting's 10 Best Horror Books of 2018. Twitter: @PrestonFassel