The best Hannibal Lecter movies and TV shows, ranked (including 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Clarice')

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Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Hello, "Clarice."

CBS this month premiered its moody procedural spin on FBI agent Clarice Starling, starring Rebecca Breeds in the role made famous by Jodie Foster in 1991's Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs." The series (Thursdays, 10 EST/PST) is the latest in a slew of film and TV adaptations of Thomas Harris' novels about infamous cannibal Hannibal Lecter. The cultured yet calculating ex-psychiatrist first appeared in Harris' 1981 book "Red Dragon," and was memorably played by Anthony Hopkins in three movies (including "Lambs," released 30 years ago this month).

Here's how "Clarice" ranks with the best (and worst) Lecter fare:

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"Hannibal Rising" explores the backstory behind the people-eating ex-psychiatrist (Gaspard Ulliel).
"Hannibal Rising" explores the backstory behind the people-eating ex-psychiatrist (Gaspard Ulliel).

7. 'Hannibal Rising' (2007)

Why can't we just let baddies be bad? As part of an eye-rolling trend of villain origin stories, Harris rush-released a novel and film about young Lecter (Aaran Thomas), tracing his dire upbringing in 1940s Lithuania, where his parents were murdered and his sister was cannibalized. Now grown, Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) develops his own taste for flesh in a gruesome revenge-killing spree. It's a hackneyed tale that robs the character of his chilling mystique, reducing him to a cheap horror movie slasher.

Australian actress Rebecca Breeds ("Pretty Little Liars") steps into the role of "Clarice" in the new CBS drama.
Australian actress Rebecca Breeds ("Pretty Little Liars") steps into the role of "Clarice" in the new CBS drama.

6. 'Clarice' (2021)

A show that is somehow more lifeless than Dr. Lecter's victims. Set a year after the events of "Silence of the Lambs," the CBS drama follows Starling (Breeds) as she's called back into the field to investigate serial killings. The series aims for nuanced exploration of Starling's childhood trauma and PTSD from the Buffalo Bill case but is hindered by flat dialogue and heavy-handed storytelling. Most lethal of all, "Clarice" is unable to name or depict Lecter for legal reasons, leaving an obvious void that the show is forced to awkwardly tiptoe around.

Our critic: CBS's 'Clarice' is a far cry from the brilliance of 'The Silence of the Lambs'

Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins, left) carries an unconscious Clarice (Julianne Moore) in 2001 movie "Hannibal."
Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins, left) carries an unconscious Clarice (Julianne Moore) in 2001 movie "Hannibal."

5. 'Hannibal' (2001)

Strangely convoluted and unpleasantly gory, this high-budget sequel is set 10 years after "Lambs," as a now-disgraced Starling (Julianne Moore, replacing Foster) races to capture Lecter (Hopkins) before Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), his mutilated surviving victim, gets vengeance. Set in the U.S. and Italy, Ridley Scott's film often feels like a grislier version of Dan Brown's "Angels & Demons," with a truly stomach-churning image of Ray Liotta's exposed brain that will haunt us for a lifetime. But it's a delight watching Hopkins turn up the camp as a bloodthirsty Lecter, who's let loose in the wild. And Moore, God bless her, tries her best to emulate Foster's distinct West Virginia accent as Starling.

Will Graham (Edward Norton, right) must face his old nemesis, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), as he hunts down a serial killer in "Red Dragon."
Will Graham (Edward Norton, right) must face his old nemesis, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), as he hunts down a serial killer in "Red Dragon."

4. 'Red Dragon' (2002)

Despite being a prequel to "Lambs," this is actually the last of Hopkins' Lecter movies, as his cannibalistic psychiatrist helps retired FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) catch Francis Dolarhyde (Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Tooth Fairy killer. With a superb cast including Mary-Louise Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman, this stylish but familiar thriller is a step up from "Hannibal." But Norton's Graham lacks the tortured cool of the dashing William Petersen, who originated the character in 1986's "Manhunter" (more on that below). His interrogation scenes also lack the spark of Foster's Starling, who managed to go toe to toe with Hopkins' Lecter even with glass separating them.

Brian Cox is a cunning Hannibal in 1986 thriller "Manhunter."
Brian Cox is a cunning Hannibal in 1986 thriller "Manhunter."

3. 'Manhunter' (1986)

With flickers of "Miami Vice," Michael Mann's neon-washed adaptation of "Red Dragon" was a critical and commercial disappointment upon release, but has since been reappraised as one of the better Lecter movies. Set to a pulsing synth soundtrack, the movie tracks Graham's (Petersen) hunt for Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), himself an avid fan of Lecter (Brian Cox). Due to his towering physique and withdrawn demeanor, Noonan is in some ways scarier than Fiennes' more postured and feral take on Dolarhyde. And in a brief role, the legendary Cox ("Succession") brings sinister charm to the first onscreen Lecter.

Mads Mikkelsen, left, and Hugh Dancy in NBC's low-rated but critically adored "Hannibal."
Mads Mikkelsen, left, and Hugh Dancy in NBC's low-rated but critically adored "Hannibal."

2. 'Hannibal' (2013-15)

One of the most visually stunning TV shows of the past decade, Bryan Fuller's macabre NBC entry in the Lecter-verse was a surreal and squeamish feast for the eyes (and we're not just talking about all that exquisite food porn). And we couldn't get enough of the delicious cat-and-mouse game between criminal profiler Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen); their homoerotic thrills have only been matched by "Killing Eve" in the years since.

Anthony Hopkins, left, and Jodie Foster won best actor and actress Oscars for their performances in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."
Anthony Hopkins, left, and Jodie Foster won best actor and actress Oscars for their performances in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs."

1. 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)

As if there was any other choice. Thirty years later, Jonathan Demme's unlikely best picture Oscar winner is still an eerily spellbinding masterpiece: meticulously edited and strikingly shot, with an exhilarating final 40 minutes that's unrivaled in its intensity. Foster's Starling remains an all-time great protagonist, who approaches depraved killers and leering superiors with the same level of cool-headed resolve and intuition. Hopkins, as her intellectual sparring partner Lecter, looms over the film with a creeping menace, gradually exposing Starling's vulnerabilities and forcing her to confront her father's death.

A twisted love story and unnerving slow burn, "Lambs" is about the masks we wear to protect and hide our true selves: as a fresh-faced FBI trainee trying to succeed in a male-dominated field, or a cannibal literally wearing his victim's face to escape custody. That's well worth raising a nice chianti to.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hannibal Lecter: Every movie and TV show, ranked (including 'Clarice')