One film, two versions: Manhunter

In 1981, I read a great thriller novel by Thomas Harris. It was called ‘Red Dragon’, and about the hunt for a serial killer. I liked it a lot, especially the details of the painstaking forensic work and psychological profiling. A few years later, in 1986, I read that there was to be a film adaptation released, directed by Michael Mann, a film maker known for glossy productions on TV, and making advertisements. But it starred the reliable William Petersen, along with such great names as Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, and Stephen Lang. What’s more, Scottish stalwart Brian Cox had been cast as the evil cannibal serial killer, Hannibal Lecktor. (It was spelled that way then) I had to see it, even though they had not used the title of the book, calling it ‘Manhunter’ instead..

It was great. The locations and snazzy lighting so typical of Mann actually contrasted well with the darkness of the story. Petersen was on top form as the weary FBI agent, Will Graham, and Cox made the most of his short time on screen as Lecktor, the bete-noir. They stuck to the story in the book, and even though I knew the ending, I was along for the ride, in every sense imaginable. This was a modern crime thriller to relish, and had rarely been done better. Thirty-two years later, I still recommend it unreservedly.

By 2002, we had read and seen ‘The Silence of The Lambs’. Anthony Hopkins was now playing Lecter in the ‘franchise’, and it was making big money. Cue a remake of ‘Manhunter’, now with the title of the original book, ‘Red Dragon’. As expected, the A-listers arrived. As well as Hopkins, we got Edward Norton, Emily Watson, Harvey Keitel, Ralph Fiennes, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Producer Dino De Laurentis secured a massive budget for the time, and the resulting film made a small fortune at the box office. Great cast, stuck to the story in the book, and it was atmospheric to watch, undoubtedly.
Some people, many in fact, think it is far superior to ‘Manhunter’.
I don’t agree with them.

36 thoughts on “One film, two versions: Manhunter

  1. Great post 🙂 Although 2002’s Red Dragon was very good (at least in my opinion), Manhunter was a great film for me. As much as I love The Silence of the Lambs, I would give the number one spot to Manhunter in terms of great Thomas Harris adaptations. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  2. I saw “The Silence of the Lambs” at the movie theater, and sometime later read the book in French translation. I did see one of the sequels, but I’m not sure which one it was (“Hannibal” or “Red Dragon”). I have not seen “Manhunter,” though I’ve heard about.

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  3. Hmm, the A-Listers arriving to tarnish the original story, seems like that’s usually the case. It’d be an interesting discussion to consider which big hit remakes and adaptations with Hollywood stars have kept or improved on the integrity of the source piece.

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  4. Absolute agreement here, Pete. Manhunter is a terrific movie. Peterson is very good and Cox plays Lecktor more low key which, I agree makes him more realistic and more ominous. Mann’s heavily stylized approach works well with the creepiness factor.
    I enjoyed Red Dragon primarily because I’m a Ralph Finnese fan, but Norton didn’t do it for me. It’s not a bad remake–it certainly has it’s moments–but it’s not nearly as inspired or as scary as the original.

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  5. I read all the books sometime before the Anthony Hopkins movies came out, so was prepared for disappointment anyway. However I was pleasantly surprised by SIlence of the LAmbs, thought it was done really well. Phil it was who had seen the original Manhunter and had a dvd of it so had me watch it. A really different feel to the Hopkins movies and I enjoyed it too!

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  6. I’m glad to see you are not agreeing with them either, because I also think the original is far superior to the remake. The big budget shine over that one, doesn’t come close to the chilling atmosphere created by Michael Mann. (Who of course was also responsible for directing my number 2 favorite film of all time: Heat). So yeah, totally agree: the original is better! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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