He's an orphaned immigrant who ascended to the top of the psychiatric profession. An accomplished author, gourmet and patron of the arts, he's a true Renaissance man. And he kills and eats people.
Hannibal Lecter is the American dream on Thorazine.
He started as a minor character in Thomas Harris' novel "Red Dragon," garnering about five minutes of screen time in the 1986 film adaptation, "Manhunter." He earned more exposure in Harris' subsequent novel "The Silence of the Lambs" (and about 16 minutes in the 1991 movie), worked his way into the main role in "Hannibal" and its 2001 screen adaptation, and even saw his presence in "Red Dragon" expanded in a second, 2002 film version.
And now it's all him.
The newest installment, "Hannibal Rising," opens today and focuses on the character's formative years.
"He's knowledgeable, artistic — in a sense, all that's best about being human," said director Peter Webber. "By the same token, he is ruthless, vicious, vindictive, psychopathic. The hideous, hideous, hideous things he does to people. Incredible depths of savagery. He's like an exaggerated version of everything that is good and everything that is terrible about being human."
"Silence" alone has grossed more than a quarter-billion dollars worldwide and won five Oscars (including one for Anthony Hopkins), and Lecter landed in the No. 1 spot in a recent AFI poll of favorite villains.
Storied Italian filmmaker Dino De Laurentiis, who has more than 150 production credits, including all the Lecter movies except "Lambs," pushed for the new story. "When I did the promotional tour for 'Hannibal,' everybody asked me, 'Dino, we'd like to see when Hannibal Lecter starts to be a cannibal, when he starts to be a killer.' ... I [tried] to convince Thomas Harris. Little by little, I convinced him to do it," he said.
He was convincing enough to get the less-than-prolific Harris not only to write the new novel but, for the first time, to write the screenplay.
"It's the creation of a monster. Usually in all the movies, the audience hates the serial killer," De Laurentiis said in heavily accented English during a promotional stop at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. "Here, they love it. He kills the people the audience wants to kill."
British filmmaker Webber ("Girl With a Pearl Earring," about a young maid and painter Johannes Vermeer) said "Hannibal Rising" is "the anti-'Pearl' in a way. I got so many scripts that were about dead painters ... then scripts about young women falling in love with older men. I just thought, 'My God, I've only made my first movie and already they've typecast me.'
"So when this came along, apart from the incredible surprise of someone like Dino, who had such an incredible history — he's worked with everyone from Fellini to David Lynch ... the script had everything from these epic battles to these incredibly graphic murders. They just seemed to be flexing a whole different series of muscles."
The key ingredient still missing was the actor who could take up the role's bloody mantle.
"We did so many tests to find Hannibal," said De Laurentiis. "One day I met Gaspard Ulliel.... I said, 'You were born to be Hannibal.' I was sure.... It's the mystery in his eyes. Hannibal Lecter must have some mystery in his face."
At 22, Ulliel has already worked with the likes of Audrey Tautou and Gong Li (who plays Lecter's aunt, Lady Murasaki). Resembling a sort of suave Crispin Glover, Ulliel aspires to be a filmmaker. Still, his knowledge of film history didn't lessen the pressure of taking over a character as wildly popular in Ulliel's native France as in America.
"This was tricky because, obviously, I knew most of the audience would look for some similarity between Anthony Hopkins and my character," he said, "so I knew that I had to just plant some seeds in my character to show that later he would become the one we know.
"I watched him a lot in 'Silence of the Lambs' — the idea was to pick a few details in his performance and then mix it into my own recipe."
Lecter connoisseurs should expect a distinctly different presentation and bouquet. Not only is "Hannibal Rising" a personal look at the man and the monster, but it takes place in Lithuania and France during and following World War II.
"It's a Gothic western. In terms of stylistic influences, there's as much Sergio Leone as anyone else," said Webber. "It's a revenge story. The other films are more psychological thrillers, police procedurals. I know that some people will say, 'How dare you?' as if we've sinned against the Church of Lecter."
If that makes Harris the pope of this grisly denomination, high priest De Laurentiis foresees more chapters for its good book:
"Of course, we [could] see the way Hannibal Lecter becomes a doctor in the United States ... maybe in Korea [during] the war, then he meets Gong Li there, sure," he said. "The story goes on."