Hannibal Lecter Movies in Order: How to Watch Chronologically and By Release Date (2024)

When it comes to iconic horror names, the name Hannibal Lecter likely stands as one of the most iconic. Author Thomas Harris wrote four novels about the diabolical cannibal: 1981's Red Dragon, 1988's The Silence of the Lambs, 1999's Hannibal, and 2006's Hannibal Rising. These four novels have served as the basis for five movies based on Hannibal Lecter, along with a TV series many believe to be the best Lecter adaptation.

Updated September 11, 2023: This list has been updated with additional information regarding the Hannibal Lecter film series, as well as some details about the television series for those looking to check out the franchise this Halloween season.

Red Dragon was adapted twice to the screen. First, director Michael Mann's filmManhunter was based on Harris’ Red Dragon. There were no sequels, but five years later, the next adaption, The Silence of the Lambs, was so popular with critics and audiences that the filmmakers looked to make more films featuring Anthony Hopkins in his Academy Award-winning performance, which eventually led to another adaptation of Red Dragon. For most viewers, Silence of the Lambs was their first time seeing the evil Dr. Lecter, and Anthony Hopkins has become synonymous with the role. The franchise has had an interesting history on the big screen. These are the Hannibal Lecter movies in chronological order, followed by a list in order of release date.

Hannibal Movies in Chronological Order

  • Hannibal Rising
  • Manhunter
  • Red Dragon
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Hannibal

Go to Hannibal Movies by Release Date

Hannibal Rising

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Hannibal Rising is the origin story of Hannibal Lecter and how he came to be a cannibal serial killer. In the aftermath of the Second World War, there was chaos and lawlessness across Europe. Young Hannibal and his sister are attacked by a group of militiamen thugs, including the super creepy Enrika Dortlich (played by Richard Brake, who went on to appear in several Rob Zombie movies), who has a maniacal and terrifying grin. The men realize that they need to eat to survive, and they choose Hannibal’s younger sister to butcher and eat.

Several years later, after being admitted to and excelling in a French medical school, Lecter tracks down the men responsible for his sister's death one by one. He enacts some gruesome revenge, even eating the face off of a living, screaming man. Hannibal Rising has a strong performance from the late Gaspard Ulliel as a young Hannibal, and the film is incredibly dark and disturbing, even by the standards of Hannibal Lecter movies.

Due to the lack of Anthony Hopkins's involvement, Hannibal Rising failed to draw audiences out and was a bomb grossing just $27 million domestically, which was less than what Hannibal or Red Dragon made in their opening weekend. To many audiences, the film felt like a cheap way to extend the franchise and was the final Hannibal Lecter film released in theaters. The franchise would see new life breathed into it six years later with the release of Hannibal on NBC.

Manhunter

Manhunter is completely different from the other Hannibal films. William Peterson plays the lead detective, Will Graham, and Hannibal Lecter is played by Brian Cox. While The Silence of the Lamb is the most iconic entry in the series and audiences' first exposure to Hannibal Lecter, it was Manhunter that marked the character's first on-screen appearance. The name was changed from Red Dragon to Manhunter (which director Michael Mann hated) because the producers had recently made a disastrous bomb called Year of the Dragon and wanted to distance this film from that one and other martial arts movies.

The story follows a dangerous serial killer called the Tooth Fairy Killer, who murders entire families at a time with the psychotic intention of undergoing a transformation. He identifies with a William Blake picture titled The Red Dragon. Will Graham is called out of retirement to assist in this case, promising not to get too involved, which of course, he does, with Hannibal Lecter's help. The Tooth Fairy gets involved in a relationship with a blind woman who does not judge him for his cleft palette that had to be surgically corrected and left a scar, which gives Noonan's character some emotional depth.

Manhunter is a great film, very stylish, like the director's best, and well-acted, filled with fear and tension. Tom Noonan is incredibly creepy as the Tooth Fairy, and Brian Cox offers a very different interpretation of Hannibal Lecter, which while not as iconic as Hopkins, is still an incredibly great performance.

Related: Hannibal Creator Regrets Not Exploring a Romantic Connection Between the Show’s Leads

Manhunter is an excellent thriller with a sensational, very '80s film score and a rich atmosphere, but the film was a box office bomb, barely making half of what it cost to produce, and put film studios off the idea of a Thomas Harris adaptation and resulted in producer Dino De Laurentiis lending the rights to the character to Orion Pictures for a fee to create The Silence of the Lambs.

Due to this and Red Dragon both being adapted from the same book, there is no right way to watch them in order, and essentially, both films act as branching timelines for Hannibal Rising. Manhunter also serves as a one-off story, while Red Dragon directly leads into The Silence of the Lamb.Back to Top

Red Dragon

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Red Dragon is the second film based on the book of the same title and is a direct prequel to Silence of the Lambs with essentially the same plot as Manhunter. Here, Brett Ratner directs, and Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as Hannibal, and his performance is just incredible. It is such a joy to watch the demented madman manipulate everyone in the film, all from the trappings of his cell.

Ralph Fiennes is the disfigured psychotic Tooth Fairy this time around, with Blake's Red Dragon tattooed all over the back of his body. His performance is sinister, and in one memorable scene, he glues a news reporter (played with perfect sleaze by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) to a wheelchair, which he sets on fire and sends down a busy street. It is a stunning and savage act.

Detectives, played by Ed Norton (as Will Graham) and Harvey Keitel, go to the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter to get his advice on the Tooth Fairy. The whole thing is a cat-and-mouse game for the imprisoned doctor, and he works with the FBI to catch the Tooth Fairy before he can kill his blind co-worker, played by Emma Watson. Red Dragon is based on the same novel as Manhunter, but it has a much different ending that is more thrilling and exciting, so what it lacks in style, it makes up for in substance.

It makes for an interesting case of how the same basic outline can lead to two different films with directors that have contrasting styles, as well as Red Dragon needing to bear the weight of the legacy connected to The Silence of the Lambs. The film invites this comparison and connection in the ending, which directly leads into The Silence of the Lambs, with a female detective (Clarice) coming to visit Hannibal.

The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter Movies in Order: How to Watch Chronologically and By Release Date (4)

In Silence of the Lambs, Jack Crawford of the FBI tries to get convicted cannibal Hannibal Lecter to help him find a serial killer named Buffalo Bill. He kills women and skins them, and the only way the FBI can catch him is by turning to Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in an Academy Award-winning performance. Crawford sends over an agent in training, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to extract the information and help get into Buffalo Bill's head.

Related: Best Book to Film Adaptations, Ranked

The Silence of the Lambs was a smash hit when it came out and became a cultural juggernaut, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film of 1991 at the domestic box office. It became one of only three films to sweep the five major Oscar categories and the first and only time a horror movie has won Best Picture. The film is terrifying and suspenseful, and even 31 years after its release it remains an iconic piece of horror cinema. It has inspired a wave of imitators and parodies.

The Silence of the Lambs was the first of the Anthony Hopkins Hannibal films, and it remains the best movie about the character. While its ending originally was more of an ominous open ending to scare the viewers with the idea that this killer could be anywhere, it evidently became set up for a sequel and also the beginning of an unexpected horror franchise.

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Hannibal

Hannibal Lecter Movies in Order: How to Watch Chronologically and By Release Date (5)

Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs, was released in 2001, a whole decade after the release of The Silence of the Lambs. Directed by the legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott (who lost Best Director for Thelma and Louise to Jonathan Demme's work on The Silence of The Lamb) and a screenplay written by playwright David Mamet made this film a highly anticipated event. Anthony Hopkins reprised his role as Hannibal Lecter, and while Jodie Foster bowed out, the producers brought on Julianne Moore to replace her as Clarice Starling. The plot revolves around the creepy villain, Mason Verger, played by Gary Oldman, offering a $3 million bounty for Hannibal after he escaped custody at the end of Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal is on the loose in Italy, where a local detective is on his tail, interested in the reward money offered by the loathsome surviving victim of Dr. Lecter. The good doctor had drugged the incredibly wealthy Mason Verger and convinced him to slice his own face off. The result is a face that looks more like a monster than a man. He has men training wild boars to eat humans so that he can get revenge and feed Hannibal to the animals. Meanwhile, returning to America, Hannibal develops a strange relationship with a police officer played by Ray Liotta, and after drugging and brainwashing him, Hannibal gets him to engage in shocking activities.

The film is technically told from the villain's perspective, as Hannibal is seen as the protagonist, an antihero being hunted by a rich, deformed pedophile obsessed with Lecter. The hype for the movie drove the movie to become the biggest opening weekend for a February release at the time and went on to gross $165 million domestically and $351 million worldwide. However, the reaction to Hannibal was mixed to negative compared to The Silence of the Lambs. Many of the stars of Red Dragon had to be talked into the film after their displeasure with Hannibal.

The film ended on the note of a potential sequel, but the franchise moved towards prequels and eventually the television series. Apparently, Anthony Hopkins penned his own unmade sequel script, which would have killed the character, but it has unfortunately never been made, so the future of Hannibal Lecter remains open 15 years after the last film.

Hannibal: The TV Series That Revitalized the Franchise

Hannibal Lecter Movies in Order: How to Watch Chronologically and By Release Date (6)

For fans looking for more Hannibal Lecter stories but ran out of movies, there are a few television options to choose from. While Sir Anthony Hopkins never got to return as the elusive killer, fans were delighted to have a new version of the character on TV. Hannibal is a show developed by Bryan Fuller that premiered on NBC in 2013 and ran for three seasons, airing 39 episodes until 2015. Although the show focused heavily on the dynamics between Dr. Lecter (played by the always excellent Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI Special Agent Will Graham (played by the great Hugh Dancy), it still feels familiar as the series adapted a few storylines from the books, while telling new original stories.

For a TV show on a commercial network, Hannibal was still quite gruesome, presenting a further broken Will Graham, who, this time around, is affected by Encephalitis and has questionable mental faculties at all times. However, his cunning mind can still figure out who the killer is. Despite having a weekly schedule, the show did away with the usual structure of villain of the week, focusing on telling small arcs, such as Hannibal's first streak of killings, his relationship with his colleague, Bedelia Du Maurier, and cases with several mentally disturbed individuals.

The structure of the seasons was offered with the name of fine dining dishes in multiple languages, with the first season focusing on French, the second season used Japanese, and the third season used Italian for the first half. The remarkable third season gave us a fresh take on the tales in the novels Hannibal and Red Dragon by adapting both books into six-episode halves. This led to a final confrontation between Will and Dr. Lecter that left many fans wanting more from these characters.

Then there is the series Clarice, which aired on CBS for one season from February 11 to June 24, 2021. The series is based on The Silence of the Lambs and focuses on the character of Clarice Darling, now played by Rebecca Breeds. It is set between the events of The Silence of the Lambs and the novel Hannibal. Hannibal Lecter does not appear in the series and is not mentioned. This is also because, due to complicated rights issues between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Dino de Laurentiis Company, the series could not feature or reference the character Hannibal Lecter. This is also why Hannibal could not feature the character of Clarice Darling in any capacity and, had it gone on, would have had to skip over The Silence of the Lambs storyline.

Yet for fans who want to look at the storyline that happens in the films in a new light, both Hannibal and Clarice could be viewed together as companion series and part of the same larger story. That would be 52 episodes of television that could give viewers a new perspective on the classic story.

Hannibal Movies in Order of Release Date

  • Manhunter - August 15, 1986
  • The Silence of the Lambs - February 14, 1991
  • Hannibal - February 9, 2001
  • Red Dragon - September 30, 2002
  • Hannibal Rising - February 9, 2007

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Hannibal Lecter Movies in Order: How to Watch Chronologically and By Release Date (2024)
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