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I watched Silence of the Lambs (1991) a long time ago, and recently watched Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002). I haven't watched the Hannibal TV Series or read any novel.

I want to understand how Hannibal Lecter turned to cannibalism.

I'm also curious to know what kind of cannibal he is. For example, cannibals from Wrong Turn eat people because there is nothing else in forest to eat. But here it seems Hannibal treats his victims as some sort of delicacy, eats small part and leave others. Also, he feeds parts to unsuspecting people - is that for fun, or something else?

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Hannibal Rising answers why he eats people and feeds them to each other, but the reason he only ate part of them was so he could avoid getting captured (he disguised the fact that he removed organs by mutilating the body so the doctor performing the autopsy may just assume it was destroyed by the damage done to the body) – Crow T Robot Feb 8 at 17:53
In TV series he was looking for a friend, someone to share his meals with, familiar soul. He's very manipulative, familiar with human psychology. Feeding human flesh to others is probably some kind of inductive approach. (That's my guess, i haven't seen Hannibal Rising) – Lettmannen Feb 8 at 18:08
up vote 23 down vote accepted

It's important to understand that Hannibal Lecter is insane and is trying to reverse the death of his sister Misha. He even tries to build equations that could reverse entropy and thus the the flow of time - these calculations are described as elegant at first but quickly devolving into insanity and wish-fulfillment. He, however, believes he has found a way in Clarice Starling.

This is where the book Hannibal diverges in the extreme from the movie Hannibal:

In the final chapter, Hannibal actually keeps Agent Starling in a childlike state and helps her achieve closure over the death of her father. He uses hypnosis and narcotics, and Starling is unable to fight him and actually partakes in eating Agent Krendler's brain. After this meal, she seduces Hannibal and helps him achieve closure over the death of his sister. She asks him: "Were you ever angry at Misha because she took your mothers breast from you?" to which he replies that he doesn't remember (a probable lie). She offers him her breast and tells him that this one will never be taken from him. He accepts and they find true happiness together.

Something else the movies don't explain very well is the fact that Hannibal has been trained from boyhood in the ancient art of building a memory-palace. This is how he has achieved his photographic memory. After fifty years of practice his palace has such a greatness that he can escape into it and can resist torture by staying in his own mind.

Hannibal has suppressed the memory of eating the broth made from his sister.

However, as one of the characters he murders says: "You have to kill everyone who knows, don't you?" It would appear that he also needs to eat from the men who ate from his sister. Why the habit continues is not explained in the books nor the movies other than for enjoyment and the love of cooking.

In the narrative, he seems to find cannibalism comforting, and remember, he only eats 'the rude'. The men who ate his sister and fed her to him, were war-bitten rude men of low education. I suspect he hunts them still and will never stop. The ending of Hannibal the book is ambiguous and we only know that he shows up in Rio with Starling, and that Barney spots them and flees the country without notifying anyone. This is the terror Hannibal strikes in people. He truly is a monster and seeing him unrestrained is terrifying.

For lack of a better description, I would call him a superhero cannibal. A truly unique entity. The people who get in his way are removed but not necessarily eaten. Again the text is ambiguous. We know of many victims that aren't described very well, such as the curator who held the position he wanted and a student's body that was never recovered. Also, he didn't eat from Mason Verger - apparently he was only good for dog food.

Thus Dr. Lecter seems to have strict standards and appears to uphold them religiously within his own insane frame of reference, which is only vaguely described so far. No one knows if the tale will be continued for such is the mystery of the author, who prefers not to say anything until after the book is written.

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Good answer, but Hannibal and Starling flee to Brazil (Rio to be precise), when Barney spots them in the opera house, not Italy. – Bad_Bishop Feb 9 at 14:28
My bad, will correct :) – Dannie Feb 9 at 14:36

He cannabalises because his sister was killed and cannibalised.

The official backstory of Hannibal derives from the treatment his sister Mischa received (and is explored in detail on his Wiki page). In the books, Lecter and Mischa are very close. However, to escape the war his family movie into a lodge in a forest. One day, his parents are killed, and looters invade the lodge and hold them both captive.

Mischa is killed and then cannibalised by the starving group of looters, and traumatises Lecter.

He attacks his first person at 13 (a local butcher) and then murders the man who kills his uncle, eating his cheeks (which is his first act of cannibalism). He proceeds to murder a total of nine people before he is eventually captured (which brings us up to date with the films). These nine people include all six members of the group that attacked and killed his sister.


In the three films, his back story of murders is briefly described, but his reasons for becoming a cannibal aren't explored in detail.

TV Series

In the series Hannibal, we see his background from the books, albeit with some subtly different details (such as the order the men are killed). However, a young Hannibal, Mischa and all the various looters who attacked her are shown (as are their deaths).

Type of cannibal

Hannibal certainly doesn't eat people for religious reasons, or sexual satisfaction. In fact, his exact rationale isn't clear. Remember, this is a man who does not fit any known psychological profile, as the books tell us.

He seems to eat part or all of his victims for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Revenge (such as in the case of the looters)
  2. Disappointing qualities (such as in the case of Benjamin Raspail, whose poor performance in the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra ruined Lecter's night).
  3. Rudeness (such as in the case of Paul Krendler)

Ultimately, I don't think it's possible to concisely and succinctly describe the type of cannibal Lecter is, or even the type of criminal he is, as the books (and films) go out of their way to convey that he is a unique criminal who defies description.

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