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Combined Review: Manhunter and Red Dragon Were Both Adapted From the Same Novel



Combined Review: Manhunter and Red Dragon Were Both Adapted From the Same Novel

Red Dragon and Manhunter were both adapted from the same Thomas Harris novel but are very different movies. Manhunter was directed by Michael Mann and has his uniquely wonderful excessively 80’s aesthetic. The colours are highly saturated, the images trippy/dreamlike and the soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect from the creator of Miami Vice.

Red Dragon is much more grounded in reality and the whole film feels timeless in comparison. It’s grim but not dull. The classical score makes the moments of horror more jarring and immediately shocking.

On paper most of the scenes in both movies are identical but the way the filmmakers chose to depict them makes them very distinct and individual. This is especially significant in the different ways the parallel actors play the same character. Will Graham, the main character is much less stable and prone to manic episodes when played by William Peterson in Manhunter. Yet even when having a massive panic attack that forces him to run down an endless flight of stairs Peterson keeps him quite guarded. Ed Norton’s Graham in Red Dragon is less unhinged but more willing to show emotional vulnerability.

The same thing goes for serial killer the Tooth Fairy. He’s much creepier in Manhunter but Ralph Fiennes owns the character in Red Dragon by giving a rich, tortured depth to his psyche. He manages to make us sympathise with a man who enjoys murdering entire families for his own sexual gratification. It’s a heartbreaking and terrifying performance.


Red Dragon is the third film in its series after Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. So they milk the amount of screen time Anthony Hopkins gets as Dr. Lector. In the exciting opening we get to see how he was caught and are given glimpses into his trial, something that has not been shown on the big screen before. It would be interesting one day to see a movie adaption that shows Hannibal in the dock defending himself in court or just using the opportunity to horrify and offend the families of his victims.


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We see very little of Hannibal in Manhunter. Brian Cox plays him in a much more understated and unreadable way. This could make him scarier though it’s easy to see why Hopkins is considered the definitive Hannibal with his more overtly sinister and calculating performance.

Manhunter focuses on Graham’s family and how his serial killer hunting has affected their lives. In Red Dragon this screen time is given to the Tooth Fairy and his relationship with his blind girlfriend played by Emily Watson. The biggest difference between the two is their endings.

If you’ve never read the book as a reference point then it’s handy to watch both these movies back to back as they each fill in the gaps in the others story. For instance Manhunter contains a surreal scene of the Tooth Fairy taking his girlfriend to a zoo so she can stroke a sedated tiger. We’re not told the motivation behind this apart from some sexual subtext. But in Red Dragon this scene is given a backstory and makes much more sense.

In Red Dragon we’re given more information about the characters so the story seems to have more logic. In Manhunter, Mann decides to focus on stylised cinematography rather than explore character psychology/motivations. This makes his characters less predictable and arguably scarier. His focus on stylisation extends to his depictions of violence. In Manhunter the kills are surreally shocking even though they are more overtly graphic in Red Dragon.

My favourite scene in either film is of Graham uncovering a major clue in Manhunter. The awesome synth score, definitively 80’s set design and Peterson’s energetic performance makes it a truly classic moment in cinema.

Both films show that two fantastic and very different adaptions can be made from the same material and though I’ve spent this time comparing them it would be unfair to choose one that’s “best” since both are worth seeking out.



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