Anthony Hopkins did not originate the role of Hannibal Lecter on film. That distinction belongs to Ronny Cox, who played Hannibal in "Manhunter" (1986), Michael Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's novel, Red Dragon (1981). Ronny Cox is quite good, and the film is quite nifty overall, but it didn't take off to the same extent as "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), the film version of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon sequel. That film, of course, is a modern classic, sweeping the Academy Awards and establishing Hopkins' incarnation of Hannibal Lecter as a nightmare figure for the ages, right up there with Dracula, Darth Vader, and any number of recent Republican celebrities. After "Silence," though, things started to go downhill.
I have no idea whether Thomas Harris always intended to write some sort of Hannibal trilogy. In both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is a supporting (albeit fascinating) character. He is imprisoned, having been captured earlier by Special Agent Will Graham (William Petersen in "Manhunter," Edward Norton in "Red Dragon" , and Hugh Dancy in the current TV series "Hannibal"--more on that to come). In both novels and films, Lecter is consulted by FBI agents--first Graham, then Clarice Starling--who seek his unique insights into cases they are investigating. In Silence, Lecter escapes from custody, so we can imagine that Thomas Harris wanted to give himself the option of writing another book that would, presumably, focus on the hunt for Hannibal. Still, there was not necessarily a huge demand for such a book; we all could have happily gone on with our lives knowing that Hannibal was "out there" somewhere, ready to murder us horrifically (but with a certain panache) and eat our livers.
Once the film version of "Silence" went blockbuster, though, one can only imagine the amounts of money being thrown at Thomas Harris by both publishers and studios to finish the third installment, appropriately titled, Hannibal (2000); indeed, I for one am impressed he was able to hold all these people off for eight years while he finished writing the thing. Overall, though, the book and subsequent film have to be seen as disappointments.
The main problem with Hannibal is that, once Lecter becomes a central (as opposed to supporting) figure, he can no longer truly be a monster. Oh, sure, he's still a murderer, but his killings now seem justified. He butchers a Florentine detective, but, while we feel somewhat bad for the policeman, and while his graphic demise is disproportionate to his "crime" (i.e., trying to capture Hannibal and hand him over to someone who wants to kill him), we can also chalk Hannibal's actions up to a sort of self-defense. All Lecter's other victims in this novel seem in one way or another thoroughly deserving of their fates: They themselves are mostly criminals and murderers--or at least thoroughly distasteful and sleazy individuals. Hannibal Lecter has been transformed from monstrous sociopath into avenging angel. And even with Anthony Hopkins' continued revelry in this juiciest of roles, the character becomes decidedly less interesting. The low point comes in Hannibal Rising (2002, film version, 2007), a sort of Lecterian origin story, wherein we learn that Hannibal was driven over the edge during his childhood, when he witnessed his baby sister being cannibalized during the waning days of World War II. See, folks? Society is to blame for Hannibal's depravities!
Thank God for "Hannibal," which just completed its first season on NBC. (And thank God that NBC was apparently so desperate for ratings that they took a chance and put this on the air. This show is, to say the least, not your typical network drama.) This series takes place in what I can only assume is a sort of "parallel universe" to the Thomas Harris novels: Hannibal has not yet been captured, and he is still a respected psychiatrist in Baltimore. He still serves as a consultant to the FBI, particularly to Will Graham (who has obviously not yet figured out that Lecter is a serial killer). And, of course, he still engages in highly artistic murders and in culinary tours de force (just don't ask about the ingredients).
The best part, though, is that Hannibal, played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, is once again thoroughly and unrepentantly evil. Presumably he still has the same back-story as the Hannibal we've all come to know and fear from the earlier books and movies, but we hear nothing of his sister's murder or of any other mitigating factors. This Hannibal, like the Hannibal of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, is a pure genius, a pure sociopath, and an addictively watchable character. I'm not saying that Mikkelsen is a better actor than Anthony Hopkins--I'll leave that argument for others--but this version of the now-iconic character is much closer to the original conception than anything that has been seen since "Silence of the Lambs." It's kind of like seeing Dracula as "Dracula" (1931) again, after having spent the last ten years watching "Love at First Bite" (1979).