Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot The cannibal psychiatrist from The Silence of the Lambs is a murderous madman -- but he comes to be fond of FBI agent Clarice Starling. It's that evil-with-a-sweet-streak thing that's behind his appeal.
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Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot

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Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot

Hannibal Lecter: A Psycho with an Unlikely Soft Spot

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

If you're like me, you lost your appetite for fava beans and wine when you heard this:

(Soundbite of movie "The Silence of the Lambs")

Mr. ANTHONY HOPKINS (Actor): (As Hannibal Lecter) A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans in a nice Chianti.

SEABROOK: That, of course, is Anthony Hopkins bringing Dr. Hannibal Lecter to life in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs." Lecter was born in the mind of crime novelist Thomas Harris, but it was Hopkins who made Hannibal the Cannibal one of the most notorious villains in American pop culture.

As part of our series In Character, NPR's Laura Sydell explores how Lecter feeds our fascination with serial killers.

LAURA SYDELL: When Anthony Hopkins was first offered the part of the murdering psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, he was intrigued.

Mr. HOPKINS: And I thought, oh, it's one of those parts. It's the dark man, the boogeyman at the top of the stairs. You know, we all have that from our childhood fantasies — the unknown shadowy person, which is very attractive and neurotic as well — but I thought, it's one of those parts, and I think I'm going to enjoy this.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Silence of the Lambs")

Mr. HOPKINS: (as Hannibal Lecter) I did not kill, I assure you. Merely tucked him away very much as I found him after he'd missed three appointments.

Ms. JODIE FOSTER (Actress): (as Clarice Starling) But if you didn't kill him then who did, sir?

Mr. HOPKINS: (as Hannibal Lecter) Who can say? Best thing for him really. His therapy was going nowhere.

SYDELL: Lecter is dark but he's also funny. Hopkins' co-star, Jodie Foster, who played FBI profiler-in-training Clarice Starling, says she found Hopkins' portrayal frightening — but it was more than that.

Ms. FOSTER: He still played the wit of Hannibal Lecter. He played all of the layers of hiding, instead of trying to, you know, understand whether his parents beat him or whether he was abused as a child. You know, instead of trying to make us feel sorry for him, he allowed Hannibal to have that veneer of evil.

SYDELL: And evil he is. Fortunately, in "The Silence of the Lambs," Dr. Hannibal Lecter is already in prison for his crimes. This once respected psychiatrist has killed at least seven people and eaten them, hence his nickname, Hannibal the Cannibal. Adding to his dark veneer is his home in a dungeon-like cell with no windows, in the basement of a mental institution.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Silence of the Lambs")

(Soundbite of banging)

SYDELL: In most of the film, we see Lecter through the eyes of agent Clarice Starling, who is sent to get some information from Lecter to help catch another serial killer. Clarice is clearly frightened of him and yet he takes a mentor-like attitude towards her.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Silence of the Lambs")

Ms. FOSTER: (as Clarice Starling) Well, perhaps you'd care to lend us your view on this questionnaire.

Mr. HOPKINS: (as Hannibal Lecter) Oh no, no, no, no. You were doing fine. It had been courteous and receptive to courtesy. You had established trust with the embarrassing truth about me. And now this ham-handed segue into your questionnaire…

Ms. HELEN MORRISON (Psychiatrist): Hopkins has the capacity to just draw you in.

SYDELL: Dr. Helen Morrison is a psychiatrist who has studied serial killers.

Dr. MORRISON: Which is a little similar to what a serial killer can do. They draw you in, and then it's like being in a Venus flytrap — it's over.

SYDELL: Plenty of real-life research is behind Hannibal Lecter. Author Thomas Harris was a crime reporter who covered some real serial killers before he wrote "The Silence of the Lambs." Anthony Hopkins studied up on them before he played the part.

Morrison thinks Hopkins nails certain behaviors and characteristics of the real thing. She has interviewed dozens of them, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Wayne Williams. Morrison says they can be alluring because they seem so normal. She remembers the first time she met a serial killer.

Dr. MORRISON: And I walked into the interview room, and there was this individual sitting there in a powder-blue suit. And I thought, oh this is interesting; I wonder when they're going to bring the serial killer in. Until I realized that this individual sitting in front of me, who looked like Caspar Milquetoast, was responsible for some fairly horrendous murders.

SYDELL: Only once in the film do we actually see Lecter at his most murderous. One moment he's quietly sitting in a temporary cell listening to Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and preparing to eat a lamb chop dinner served by the guards. The next moment he has broken free of his handcuffs, and he eats one of them and clubs the other to death. Throughout there is no change in his placid expression.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Silence of the Lambs")

But Agent Starling never sees Lecter at his worst. To her, he appears human, and she treats him that way. A sort of bond develops between them. In a strange way, they relate to each other, says Jodie Foster. Lecter is locked away and treated like a lab rat by his jailer; Starling grew up poor and has worked her way up.

Ms. FOSTER: She wants dignity, and interestingly, Lecter does too. That's his little thorn in his side, is he wants to be treated with dignity. And if you don't, he'll eat you.

SYDELL: Because of her unique relationship with Lecter, the character, Clarice Starling, comes to feel that he wouldn't attack and eat her. Indeed, when the movie ends, Clarice has caught the serial killer she was out to get and Lecter has escaped. But he does make a brief phone call to Clarice, and a promise.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Silence of the Lambs")

Mr. HOPKINS: (as Hannibal Lecter) I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world's more interesting with you in it. So you take care now to extend me the same courtesy.

Ms. FOSTER: (as Clarice Starling) You know I can't make that promise.

Mr. HOPKINS: (as Hannibal Lecter) I do wish we could chat longer but I'm having an old friend for dinner.

SYDELL: Lecter is more than just a bad guy.

Ms. FOSTER: His is a fully fleshed character. You know, he's not just a cardboard villain. You see his vulnerabilities; you see that he cares for her in the way that he can. That he has a kindness toward her. And, yes, we're seduced by that humanity, by his light touch with her — in the way that you would hope a great dad would be.

SYDELL: She must be kidding. And that's also where Hannibal's character serves the needs of fiction, says Dr. Morrison.

Dr. MORRISON: In real life, he never would have become attached to her. You know, I sit with these serial killers for eight, ten hours at a time, and I come back day after day after day — and every time I walk in to them, it's as if I were starting all over again.

SYDELL: Morrison says actual serial killers have no empathy. But in Lecter we get a little sweetness that may be what makes him better fiction and more likeable and more enduring.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

SEABROOK: There's more about Hannibal Lecter from Jodie Foster. You can find it online at npr.org/incharacter - that's all one word. And while you're there tell us about the characters who stimulate your appetite. We might just use your comments on the air.

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