Better (capital “F”) Film: Manhunter. I mean, I have questionable taste, so just look at the Rotten Tomatoes ratings (94% for Manhunter vs. 69% for Red Dragon). Red Dragon is still pretty good, but that’s mostly because the source material is so good—I’m not sure it really adds anything to it. Manhunter, on the other hand, takes the source material and develops its own distinct atmosphere; it’s interesting in light of NBC’s Hannibal, because both Hannibal and Manhunter are artsy and stylized takes on the (great, but relatively straightforward in terms of style) Thomas Harris books, but employ such different styles. Hannibal is very ornate and baroque and kind of feels out of time/timeless; like, you see people using smartphones and laptops, but you can’t quite imagine them existing in the same world as modern pop culture and it’s a little jarring when they do drop cultural references that are less than, say, 50 years old (Will’s “one of these things is not like the others” moment in season 2, for example). Manhunter, on the other hand, is so firmly of its time, in terms of aesthetics (so much neon), music (so much synthesizer), technology (so many faxes), etc., to the point that it would almost seem like parody of ’80s thrillers if it weren’t actually made in the ’80s. The most memorable scenes for me—and I could probably safely speak for the general population and even call them “iconic,” since these are also the top two results from the YouTube search for “manhunter”—were:
- Will running out of his interview with Lecter and through the sort of maze-like structure of the hospital (here), because it’s a great emotional moment and the cinematography is just very cool.
- The moment of ultimate cool, where Will crashes through Dolarhyde’s window (here). Also interesting since that’s a moment that Hannibal cannibalizes and recontextualizes in season 2 (I can’t find a decent clip of it, but have some GIFs)—in this case, Randall Tier, who, somewhat similar to Francis Dolarhyde, is motivated to kill to achieve a form of Becoming/self-actualization through transformation, comes crashing through Will’s window.
Not sure any of the scenes in Red Dragon reach that level of iconicity, although the initial reveal of Dolarhyde’s tattoo (here) is certainly effective.
Better adaptation of Red Dragon, the book: Red Dragon. If you just look at the scripts, Red Dragon certainly includes much more of the book than Manhunter. The book places approximately equal importance on Will Graham and Francis Dolarhyde’s character arcs so that it ends up being this delightful combination of:
- a detailed portrayal of investigative techniques under time pressure and the emotional burdens of trying to understand a murderer
- the ~inspirational~ story of a man attempting to overcome his traumatic childhood and deeply held insecurities through Art and murder.
And Manhunter certainly succeeds at (1), but doesn’t even try to do (2). We’ll get to that more later, but consider: Francis Dolarhyde first appears about 23% of the way into the book, 34% of the way into Red Dragon, and 46% of the way into Manhunter. Red Dragon’s take on (1) is perhaps not as effective as Manhunter’s, but at least it attempts to do both.
Better Will Graham: Manhunter.
First, let’s look at some essential excerpts from Red Dragon (book):
He could see and hear better afraid; he could not speak as concisely, and fear sometimes made him rude.
Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved.
He viewed his own mentality as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers1. There was nothing he could do about it.
And obviously, we’re trying very hard to only compare the movie Will Grahams to the book’s Will Graham and not to the show’s Will Graham, because the TV show has taken this character who only appears in one book and developed him over 3 seasons—at least the character of Hannibal Lecter has four books worth of “canon” to work from, even if Hannibal Rising is largely considered trash. But right, the combination of Red Dragon’s script and Edward Norton’s performance ends up making Will a sort of blandly likable guy who just happens to be really good at his job; any angst he has about what does the ability to empathize with serial killers say about me feels more like lip service to the genre than a serious emotional struggle—you certainly wouldn’t buy that this character had spent time in the psychiatric wing of a hospital after killing Garret Jacob Hobbs (and I don’t think the movie even goes there). William Petersen’s Will in Manhunter captures that man-on-the-edge feeling much better; he’s not really pleasant, and he shouldn’t be. He gets all of these good bursts of anger, resentment, fear, etc.—for example, the moment where he throws Freddy Lounds on a car and tells him to “keep the fuck away from [him],” or the aforementioned scene of him running out of his interview with Lecter.
Better Francis Dolarhyde: Red Dragon. Oh my god, Red Dragon. Man, where do I even begin?
So, okay, in the book, most of Dolarhyde’s character development comes in the form of flashbacks to his childhood and internal monologues with Significant Capitalization. Those are difficult things to translate to the screen—Manhunter didn’t use flashbacks in any context, while Red Dragon started with some Hannibal Lecter flashbacks (probably to reassure the viewers that yes, Anthony Hopkins is still in this, you are getting your money’s worth) but didn’t use any visual flashbacks on Dolarhyde. Instead, Red Dragon introduced Dolarhyde reliving his childhood abuse through the disembodied voices of his child self and his grandmother—pretty cheesy, but it gets the point across. Manhunter only hints at this abuse through Will’s reaction to Dolarhyde’s files. We get some sense of the internal monologue from both movies, with the note to Lecter and the speech to Freddie Lounds, but neither quite captures the impact of the writing style in the book and the concept of Becoming.
BUT: Red Dragon features Dolarhyde eating the William Blake painting and Manhunter does not, and that probably says enough. Although to expand on that a bit, Manhunter really doesn’t do much with the William Blake at all; Dolarhyde shows the painting to Lounds in his “Do you see?” slideshow, but we never see his tattoo (if he even has one) and I don’t think the connection is explored further. Manhunter’s Dolarhyde is kind of just a generic creepy dude with some major insecurities w.r.t. his appearance and sexuality, rather than one with this weird and specific affinity for that one William Blake painting (and also major insecurities w.r.t. his appearance and sexuality). The art connection is almost definitely what makes Dolarhyde more interesting than a serial killer in any given episode of, say, Law and Order or Elementary or whatever, so to lose that is…not great.
Also, casting: Dolarhyde was born with a cleft lip and he still thinks of himself as disfigured, even after corrective surgery. This is totally key to his character, but the thing is—there’s at least one scene in the book that makes it clear that the women at his workplace find him attractive, and I think the disconnect between his own perception of his appearance and others’ perception of him is also key? And that’s not really a thing with Tom Noonan who is legitimately unattractive in Manhunter (no idea what he looks life in real life), but it totally is a thing with Ralph Fiennes, who probably would not have his current career if not for his particular brand of sinister handsomeness.
Better Jack Crawford: maybe Manhunter, but who really cares? Jack is probably only interesting in NBC’s Hannibal because Laurence Fishburne is awesome, and even then…I don’t care all that much about the character. But Crawford in the books and movies is just whatever.
Better Hannibal Lecter: it’s complicated. I mean, I started watching NBC’s Hannibal before ever seeing The Silence of the Lambs or reading the books, and Mads Mikkelsen has such a unique vibe that I can’t really buy any other version of the character. Plus, the original book version has, like, maroon eyes and pointed teeth and six fingers on one (or both?) of his hands, and that’s just kind of absurd. I guess Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins both give reasonable and probably even good performances, but they’re just not my Hannibal Lecter. Since Hopkins had at this point already won an Oscar for his performance The Silence of the Lambs, it makes sense that Red Dragon would put more emphasis on the character than either Manhunter or the book, but I’m not sure how I feel about this choice and whether or not it actually affects the story. Lecter is used more sparingly in Manhunter and that feels fine, although the changed ending means there isn’t as much pay-off from Lecter giving Dolarhyde Will’s address and that kind of reduces his importance as a character.
Better Freddy Lounds: Manhunter. Stephen Lang is so delightfully sleazy as Freddy Lounds. Philip Seymour Hoffman is decent in Red Dragon, because PSH is (was) always decent, but his Freddy Lounds doesn’t feel quite as…specific? And that may be on the script rather than the actor; Manhunter just really nails the loathsome charm of Freddy Lounds—kind of like the appeal of Pete Campbell in Mad Men, I think? Where the dude just sucks so much that his suckiness becomes its own lovable trait. Plus, Lang’s styling and costumes in Manhunter are amazing, and I can’t even remember what PSH was wearing in Red Dragon.
Better Reba McClane: tie? I have a sort of irrational irritation with Emily Watson’s face, but if we push past that, she was perfectly fine as Reba in Red Dragon. But Joan Allen was also solid in Manhunter, and her smile was adorable. Because Red Dragon spends more time on Dolarhyde in general, it also spends more time on the relationship between him and Reba, so it does feel more fleshed out—it’s more substantial than “he’s insecure about his appearance and she’s blind,” which is about all we get from Manhunter, although Allen is still super charming. The Red Dragon script gives us a clearer sense of Reba’s independence and confidence, so it sells that Dolarhyde would want to change for her (not even really a plot point in Manhunter), because she has in a way reached the self-actualization that Dolarhyde has been aiming for—it’s clearer still in the book, but Reba knows who she is and what she wants and doesn’t really apologize for that. This exchange in Red Dragon (the movie) may be the most essential, albeit not especially subtle, in establishing their dynamic:
REBA: If there’s anything I hate worse than pity, it’s fake pity. Especially from a walking hard-on like Ralph Mandy.
DOLARHYDE: I have no pity.
Plus, Red Dragon lets us have the excellent scene where Will comforts Reba after Dolarhyde is (presumed to be) killed:
WILL: You know, whatever part of him was still human…was only kept alive because of you. You probably saved some lives. You didn’t draw a freak. Okay? You drew a man with a freak on his back.
REBA: I should have known.
WILL: No, sometimes you don’t. Trust me, l’ve been there. Listen to me. There was plenty wrong with Dolarhyde…but there’s nothing wrong with you.
(Also, so excited to potentially see some version of this conversation in NBC’s Hannibal when they tackle Red Dragon later this season, because it would carry a much different emotional weight due to all of that Hannigram shit.)
So actually, fuck it, I’ve talked myself into Red Dragon for the better Reba McClane.
Better Graham family (Molly Graham and kid, who may be named Willy, Kevin, or Josh, depending on the source): tie, in that they’re super thinly drawn in both movies. Neither Molly Graham really makes it beyond the generically pretty and supportive wife type, although at least in Red Dragon Molly gets to shoot Dolarhyde. The character in the book is somewhat more well-developed, I think; she’s more vocal about her mixed feelings about Will’s work and has her own backstory (for example, the kid is actually from her first marriage and there is a little bit of tension there, which neither movie even hints at).
Although maybe that’s unfair of me. Certainly, the book has more scenes between Will and Molly than either movie, but let’s make an actual comparison of a scene that occurs in all three:
Red Dragon (book)
“All right, Molly. Crawford thinks I have a knack for the monsters. It’s like a superstition with him.”
“Do you believe it?”
Graham watched three pelicans fly in line across the tidal flats. “Molly, an intelligent psychopath—particularly a sadist—is hard to catch for several reasons. First, there’s no traceable motive. So you can’t go that way. And most of the time you won’t have any help from informants. See, there’s a lot more stooling than sleuthing behind most arrests, but in a case like this there won’t be any informants. He may not even know that he’s doing it. So you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate. You try to reconstruct his thinking. You try to find patterns.”
“And follow him and find him,” Molly said. “I’m afraid if you go after this maniac, or whatever he is—I’m afraid he’ll do you like the last one did. That’s it. That’s what scares me.”
“He’ll never see me or know my name, Molly. The police, they’ll have to take him down if they can find him, not me. Crawford just wants another point of view.”
He swallowed and said, “What the hell can I do?”
“What you’ve already decided. If you stay here and there’s more killing, maybe it would sour this place for you. High Noon and all that crap. If it’s that way, you weren’t really asking.”
“If I were asking, what would you say?”
“Stay here with me. Me. Me. Me. And Willy, I’d drag him in if it would do any good. I’m supposed to dry my eyes and wave my hanky. If things don’t go so well, I’ll have the satisfaction that you did the right thing. That’ll last about as long as taps. Then I can go home and switch one side of the blanket on.”
“I’d be at the back of the pack.”
“Never in your life. I’m selfish, huh?”
“I don’t care.”
“Neither do I. It’s keen and sweet here. All the things that happen to you before make you know it. Value it, I mean.”
“Don’t want to lose it either way,” she said.
“Nope. We won’t, either.”
WILL: We have it pretty good, don’t we?
MOLLY: We have it more than good. All that happened to you before lets you know that.
WILL: If I went back, I’d only look at the evidence. I wouldn’t get deeply involved. He’d never even see me or know my name. If they find him, they’ll have to take him down. What do you think?
MOLLY: I think you’ve already decided and you’re not really asking.
WILL: lf l were asking?
MOLLY: Stay here with me. Me and Kevin. That’s selfish and l know it.
[Sex ensues while synth music plays on the soundtrack, because of course]
Red Dragon (movie)
MOLLY: Crawford has the whole damn government. What does he need you for?
WILL: He just wants me to look at some evidence, Molly. Give him another point of view. You know, it’s—it’s a few days, a week maybe, and l’ll be right back.
MOLLY: And you believed that?
WILL: Yes. I mean, look—these kinds of cases come along very rarely and I’ve had experience.
MOLLY: Yes, you have.
[Shot of Will’s conveniently shirtless torso to show the scar from his encounter with Lecter]
MOLLY: You’re paid up, Will. All of us. Even Josh.
WILL: There’s a chance that I could help them save some lives. How do I say no to that? This one will never see me or know my name. I’ll just have to find him. The cops will have to take him down, not me. I’ll be in the back of the pack, Molly, I promise.
[Lots of exasperated looks and eye-rolling from Molly happening while he says all of this]
MOLLY: Never in your life. I know you.
[Hugging ensues while “tender instrumental music” plays on the soundtrack]
So, okay, I think Red Dragon’s Molly just won me over.
Let’s just end this screenshot, because, well, do you see?
 Oh my god, is this why the stag in Hannibal became a thing? I mean, I know there were the antlers that Cassie Boyle was impaled on and the stag sculpture in Hannibal’s office, but did it all start from this passage? ^