Hunting the Cannibal: The Heroes of Thomas Harris, Part 1 – Will Graham

Thomas Harris has created some chilling and hideously memorable characters. Of course, everyone remembers Hannibal Lecter (or ‘Lecktor’ in some versions of the character). This is not surprising. After all, everyone remembers Dracula and the Wolfman but few can enthusiastically list all the brave men and women who hunted the monsters. What are the serial killers of fiction if not modern day vampires and werewolves? In an age when vampires have been brought into the light, softened and romanticised (with a small ’r’), the shadows are left occupied by psychopaths, sociopaths and killers who look just like the average people who hunt them. Thomas Harris imbues Hannibal Lecter with superhuman intelligence, cold patience and a quick and terrifying willingness to kill. He may be charming but you can never forget who he is. Just as the vampire Dracula scarred the lives of those who ultimately defeated him (Johnathan Harker, Arthur Holmwood, Dr Jack Seward, Quincey Morris, Prof Abraham Van Helsing and Wilhelmina Harker), Lecter physically and emotionally scars the people who hunt him (Will Graham, Clarice Starling and Jack Crawford). Although in all cases the monster is at the very centre of the story, it is through the eyes of the hunter that the audience experiences the world. It is their pain we feel, their fear we experience, and their triumph that we hope for. This is the first of two posts which will look at the movie and TV versions of Thomas Harris’s serial killer books by examining the portrayal of the heroes. In this post: Will Graham.

Figure 1 - Woundman

Figure 1: The Wound Man is a way of diagrammatically laying out some of the various injuries a person might suffer in battle in Medieval European surgical texts. Typically the accompanying text would suggest treatments for the various injuries. It first appeared in print in Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae (Venice, 1491). Despite his injuries the Wound Man is always depicted as enthusiastically alive.

Will Graham appears in only one of Thomas Harris’s books: Red Dragon (first published in 1981). That book is a stripped down detective story – sleek, interesting and unsettling. Graham is the central character: a FBI investigator who is brought back by his old boss/mentor, Jack Crawford, to catch a serial killer who is ritualistically murdering whole families. Being among the first books in what might be called the modern serial killer genre, the narrative is now familiar to the point of being cliché. However, the plot of the book and the character of Will Graham are more complex and more rooted in the late 70s/early 80s than later adaptions would suggest. Graham is first introduced on an idyllic beach near Marathon, Florida. It is quickly apparent that the serenity of his current life is all on the surface and that beneath are scars and mutilations of a previous life. Graham is a broken man who at the beginning of the story has been mostly put back together by his wife and adopted son. Jack Crawford manipulates Graham’s sense of guilt and obligation to assist in the capture of “The Tooth Fairy” – or the “Red Dragon” as he will later be known. The book is peppered with scraps of back story giving us a window into Graham’s previous life. He is the only man to have personally caught two serial killers, something which not only emphasises Graham’s ability but the rarity of this type of crime. Contrary to some cinematic depictions, Graham of the book is not psychic nor is he a serial killer ‘in potential’ who decided to fight for good instead of evil. Rather he is a talented forensic investigator who is able to empathise, sometimes unwillingly, with the monsters he is trying to catch.

Figure 2 - Linoleum_Knife

Figure 2: A linoleum knife is sometimes called a banana knife or hook axe. It has a similar design and intended action to a sickle or a billhook, which is to cut by pulling, but on a smaller scale. It is a small knife with a short blade, a curved point and a large handle. It is used to cut sheet materials like linoleum or wood panelling.

Working backwards in time, Will Graham has most recently been depicted in the TV show Hannibal (2013-2015). Hannibal is three seasons of fantastic television. It is part psychological thriller, part horror and part crime procedural drama. The series constantly reconciles impossible contradictions and in doing so forces the audience to see the world from the perspective of the killer. Human remains are prepared into the most lavish banquets. Every time it is horrific, it is also beautiful. Every time a character is frightening, they are also somehow attractive, and the more characters lose control of their situation, the better we understand them. The original idea of the show, according to internet rumour, was to create seven seasons. Four of new material and three re-making the books: Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). However, changes in the story arc between seasons and difficulties arising in gaining the rights from MGM to use key characters meant that, ultimately, Hannibal the TV show told its own story while also incorporating elements from the books Red Dragon (1981) and Hannibal (1999). A large part of the story is based on the scraps of back story provided in Red Dragon. It is Graham’s investigation into the killer Garrett Jacob Hobbs which causes his initial psychological breakdown and begins his relationship with Dr Hannibal Lecter. Hugh Dancy plays Graham beautifully by selectively exaggerating and softening characteristics already present in the book. His obviously scarred psyche is apparent in every twitch, flinch and line of dialogue. Graham of the TV show is a physically and emotionally vulnerable character who finds his greatest strength and his greatest enemy in his relationship with Lecter.

Figure 3 - Charter_Arms_Bulldog

Figure 3: The Charter Arms Bulldog is an inexpensive, 5-shot revolver first sold in 1973. It is relatively lightweight and popular for concealed carry. Police detectives in the 70s and 80s used it. It was designed to fire .44 Special and .357 Magnum rounds. It can be used with Glaser Safety Slugs, a frangible bullet made by Cor-Bon/Glaser which are designed to fragment on impact for maximum damage.

Hannibal the TV show is Graham’s journey. The scope of it reaches beyond the story told by the book Red Dragon, and it shows the fantastically nightmarish world inhabited by multiple serial killers. In this world Lecter is played by Mads Mikkelsen with the coolness of arctic ice and the threatening lethality of a jungle cat. He is the centre of the world, like a spider at the centre of a web. Graham enters this world with Lecter as his guide and only his imagination to protect him. In contrast to Lecter, Graham is fearfully tense like a raw nerve. It isn’t always easy viewing but a worthwhile journey and a worthy tribute to the characters created by Harris. The most faithful adaption of the book Red Dragon is the 2002 film of the same name. Ironically it is also the least faithful depiction of Will Graham. Edward Norton plays the character as a much more conventional cinematic hero. In this movie he is an FBI special agent rather than a forensic investigator and his psychological profiles have been provided by a long standing working relationship with Hannibal Lecter. The desire to expand the relationship with Lecter was a result of the critical success of the movie The Science of the Lambs (1991) and this puts the movie Red Dragon a little off balance. By making some of Graham’s insights derive from Lecter his character becomes a little redundant in a movie which should be his story. In fact the whole production of the movie Red Dragon seems an exercise in imitating The Silence of the Lambs (1991), all be it on a bigger budget, and distancing itself from the movie Hannibal (2001).

Figure 4 - Shrike

Figure 4: Shrikes carry the family name Lanius, which is derived from the Latin word for butcher. For this reason some shrikes are referred to as butcherbirds. They are known to impale their prey, usually insects or small vertebrates, on thorn bushes or even barbed-wire fences. This helps immobilise their prey so the shrike can tear them apart for consumption or as a cache of food to which the shrike can return.

In order to recreate the feel of the movie Silence of the Lambs (1991), the production of Red Dragon (2002) included some of the same sets and some of the same production crew. The cast is star-studded with the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman in lead roles. However, despite its potential it remains more of an unfocused Hannibal (2001) prequel than the real story of Graham’s investigative journey. The film’s lack of focus may be in part to do with Brett Ratner’s direction, which is functional rather than creative and displays all the subtlety and artistic flair you’d imagine coming from the director of Rush Hour 2 (2001). There can be no doubt that the definitive portrayal of Will Graham came 16 years before Red Dragon (2002) in the form of an actor called William Petersen. In fact William Petersen’s portrayal is so influential that he basically did a softened, geekier version of the same guy for nine seasons of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–2015). Both Gil Grissom of CSI and Will Graham are forensic investigators and entomologists. In the 1986 movie Manhunter, William Petersen knocks the character out the park. His version is tough but broken, afraid but also frightening and convincingly obsessed with hunting “The Tooth Fairy”. In the film, when he visits Hannibal Lecktor (different spelling this time) he is clearly afraid but the exchange is much more balanced. Both are intellectually gifted, capable of deception and of violence. In Manhunter, what Graham fears more than Lecktor is his ability to be like him. William Petersen gets this aspect of the character spot-on. His version of Graham is driven, perhaps by some inner demon or perhaps by fear but definitely against his own wishes, to confront these killers and destroy them.

Figure 5 - in the sun

Figure 5: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun – ‘And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth’ (Rev. 12:3-4).

A large part of what makes Manhunter great is Michael Mann’s direction. Now a cult classic, critically praised for its style and influence, it is strange to think that it was a box office failure. Initially the film was criticised for being over stylised and gimmicky. It was unfavourably compared to the TV series Miami Vice (1984–1989). Of course all of these criticisms miss the point that Mann was trying to create something more than just another bog-standard detective movie. It is the visual style (neon lighting and pastel colours) along with the eclectic soundtrack (The Prime Movers, Shriekback and Iron Butterfly) which takes the film beyond the simple police-procedural into the realms of full-on psychological thriller. However, it should be noted that the Miami Vice Season 3 Episode “Shadow in the Dark” (released in October 1986) has a strikingly similar plot to Manhunter and some almost identical camera work. In later films like Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004) Mann’s ability to use colour and shot composition to evoke emotion would be immediately recognised. Not to mention his use of urban landscapes. In Manhunter cinematographer Dante Spinotti has pointed out the use of colour: blue for safe/romantic scenes, green for the killer and white for Lecktor. This combines with framing, which deliberately uses familiar or unfamiliar objects or strange camera angles to create a sense of uneasiness. The film also suffered from a heavily constrained budget meaning that some scenes had to be shot with minimal special effects and crew, particularly the climactic gunfight.

Figure 6 - with the sun

Figure 6: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun – One of a series of watercolour paintings by the English poet and painter William Blake, painted between 1805 and 1810. These paintings were intended to depict scenes from the bible. This particular series includes multiple paintings of the ‘Great Red Dragon’ mentioned in the book of Revelations.

Will Graham does not appear again in Thomas Harris’s world but he is referred to by other characters. He is left broken and disfigured by the events in the book Red Dragon. Like Johnathan Harker at the end of Dracula he survives but the cost is terrible. Jack Crawford, his mentor and head of the Behavioural Science Unit at the FBI, is left to pursue future killers without the help of his protégé. Jack Crawford is an important character in each of the Thomas Harris books, less so in the movies. However, even in the movies he provides a sense of continuity. He is the Prof Abraham Van Helsing of Harris’s world. It is too simplistic to say that he represents the side of good to Hannibal Lecter’s evil – fighting for the soul of the hero. Crawford is a much more complex character than that. He is haunted by his work. As head of the Behavioural Science Unit he is tasked with providing the resources to hunt down the most twisted elements of humanity. In order to do so he uses Will Graham for his mind and skills with only a passing regard for the effect this will have on Graham himself. Crawford is not a cold human being, he simply recognises the need to disregard the welfare of one individual if the monster is to be caught. Laurence Fishburne is given three seasons to delve into the complexity of the character in Hannibal the TV show. In Manhunter, Dennis Farina plays the character as a more conventional movie detective but one who knows he is playing with fire by bringing Will Graham back into the fight. Graham’s absence leaves a vacuum and in The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Crawford is forced, through a lack of resources, to find another protégé.

Thomas Harris in Book, Film and TV


  • Black Sunday (1975)
  • Red Dragon (1981)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
  • Hannibal (1999)
  • Hannibal Rising (2006)


  • Manhunter (1986)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • Hannibal (2001)
  • Red Dragon (2002)
  • Hannibal Rising (2007)

TV Show

  • Hannibal (2013–2015)

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