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Literature / Red Dragon

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The first novel in the Hannibal Lecter series.

In 1981, Black Sunday author Thomas Harris released a very dark thriller novel called Red Dragon, about a gifted FBI profiler named Will Graham, who comes out of retirement to assist in the investigation of a Serial Killer known as "The Tooth Fairy" (for his habit of leaving bite marks on his victims). Throughout the novel, Graham reluctantly seeks help from another serial killer, the brilliant but insane psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The two had previously forced each other into mutual retirement four years earlier, Graham by catching Lecter, and Lecter by nearly disemboweling Graham while trying to escape.

The novel was well-regarded for its unyielding Gothic tone and the unnerving detail and care Harris put into the psychological dysfunctions of villain Francis Dolarhyde. The book was made into the movie Manhunter in 1986, starring William Petersen (yes, that one) as Graham and Brian Cox as Hannibal "Lecktor", quietly updating the story's setting from 1979 to the present day.

In 2002, there was a new film adaptation of Red Dragon, starring Anthony Hopkins and Edward Norton, keeping the original name this time. Like Manhunter, the 2002 film changes the story's setting to the late '80s, though this time as a means of preserving continuity with the 1991 film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs (itself also given a contemporary setting). It was a moderate success, although some fans of Manhunter complained that a remake was unnecessary, but was ultimately far less controversial than the previous year’s Hannibal film adaptation. The film also included the focus on the Red Dragon's psychological torments, which was all but ignored in Manhunter, and features an ending more faithful to the book's.

In 2013, Bryan Fuller premiered the TV series Hannibal, a major league Adaptation Expansion focusing on the relationship between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). The first two seasons draw from the book's flashbacks and Gothic tone to create an extended back story between the two characters before the latter was found out and imprisoned. The series doesn't actually get into the events of Red Dragon until the second half of Season 3, where Dolarhyde is played by Richard Armitage. Go to the show's page for more details.

The book received a sequel in the form of The Silence of the Lambs in 1988.

This book provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Will's stepson is named Willy in the book. Changed to Kevin and/or Josh in the films.
    • Dr. Bloom's first name is mentioned as Sidney in Manhunter instead of Alan.
    • Will Graham himself - his full name is given to be William. Not specified in the book.note 
  • Antagonist Title: An indirect example. "Red Dragon" is actually a shorthand for the painting "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed In Sun" that figures into the plot. Francis Dolarhyde, the villain, believes himself to be representative of it, and develops a murderous split personality that identifies itself as the Dragon.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When it comes to unsettling Will Graham in their interview, Hannibal Lecter's most effective tactic is to keep asking "Do you know how you caught me?" It speaks to many of Graham's fears about how and why he's good at catching intelligent psychopaths.
    Lecter: The reason you caught me is that we're just alike.
  • Ascended Extra: Hannibal Lecter appears only briefly in the book(apart from letters), but then he becomes the Breakout Character in The Silence of the Lambs and has a lot of screen time in the 2002 adaptation of Red Dragon. Several of his written correspondences with Graham and Dolarhyde are reimagined as phone conversations across the various adaptations.
  • Asshole Victim: Played with Freddy Lounds. Almost everything that the audience learns about his character displays him as a smug asshole with no scruples, but the scene right before his death with him humiliated, begging helplessly for his life in fear, disgusted and horrified by Dolarhyde's "slideshow", and dying in a fashion that was extraordinarily painful and protracted, generates at least some sympathy for the poor man.
    • The book also goes into his backstory a bit, and reveals that he was actually a very skilled journalist who left his legitimate career for the Tattler when he realized that he'd never be given the respect and opportunities he deserved. It's implied that he plans to use the fame from helping catch the Tooth Fairy to give another try at a more prestigious career. He also has a girlfriend, Wendy, who despite being a prostitute has genuine affection for him.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted and double subverted by Serial Killer Dolarhyde - despite his shyness he is (as Reba laughingly points out) something of a pin-up to the women he works with. The double subversion? Dolarhyde was born looking so horrible that they had to sedate his mother to stop her from screaming at the sight of him. His good looks as an adult are due to a lot of operations to sort out his severe cleft palate and some pretty intense weightlifting.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: This saves Reba's life. It's also a sign that Dolarhyde is much more complex than you'd expect from a mere Serial Killer; he recognizes that it would be wrong to harm her, even by his own Blue-and-Orange Morality.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the book, while Dolarhyde is eventually stopped, Graham ends up hideously disfigured by Dolarhyde and his marriage and relationship with his stepson fall apart, and deals with it by becoming a severe alcoholic, and Reba is implied to have been traumatized by her experience. Graham does see the family that Dolarhyde was targeting next and considers everything worth it to save them, and despite his trauma is oddly comforted by the knowledge that life goes on.
  • Blind and the Beast: Francis Dolarhyde falls in love with Reba McClane partly because she's blind and can't see his harelip, although it's strongly implied that most women he knew were attracted to him already. He just thinks of his harelip as being a much greater problem then it actually is.
  • The Book Cipher: The Tooth Fairy uses one to communicate with Lecter while the latter is still imprisoned. The FBI catch wind of it, and are able to avert any true crisis, but Lecter still gets his hidden message through: the address where Graham's family lives.
  • Break the Cutie: Francis Dolarhyde's whole childhood seems to revolve around this. Reba, his love interest, may also count as this too.
  • Cannibal Larder: It's implied that Hannibal Lecter had one in his basement, as the first officer who entered his basement ended up traumatized and took early retirement.
  • Characterization Marches On:
    • In the book, Graham says that Lecter: "... had the first and worst sign [of sociopathy] - sadism to animals as a child." This runs contrary to his Wicked Cultured and Affably Evil characterization in the subsequent books, and feels rather beneath the Hannibal Lecter we eventually get to know. When Hannibal Rising was released and allowed readers to witness Hannibal's childhood and Start of Darkness, such uncouth behavior was noticeably absent.
    • The timeline of Lecter's crimes indicates that he was an impulsive spree killer, rather than the calculating serial killer he's portrayed as in later novels.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Lecter tells Dolarhyde where Graham lives, and in response Graham teaches Molly how to use a gun. At the end of the book, Dolarhyde attacks the Graham's home and Molly kills him. The latter sequence is cut out of Manhunter.
  • Consulting a Convicted Killer: The Trope Maker, along with The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is approached by Graham, the FBI agent who had originally captured him, requesting his assistance in capturing a serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy". Hannibal provides this help to Graham, while secretly corresponding with the Tooth Fairy behind his back, in exchange for a first-class meal in his cell and privileges to use the prison library.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • In Red Dragon we see Lecter wearing practically everything he wore in Silence: The regular blue jumpsuit, the white shirt and pants (worn during his time in Memphis in Silence, worn during his exercise time in Dragon), the straight jacket and muzzle (worn when he was being transported to Memphis in Silence, worn when they clean his cell in Dragon) and the straight jacket and wire mask (worn when Chilton interrogates him in Silence, worn when Chilton clears out his cell in Dragon).
    • Will's approach to Lecter's cell is virtually identical to Clarice's, except that Lecter is lying down.
  • Cradling Your Kill: Hannibal Lecter comforts protagonist Will Graham after stabbing him. Then he kind of ruins the oddly touching moment by saying "I think I'll eat your heart." Or perhaps adds to it in a strange way if you consider that Hannibal might be eating his heart because he has great regard for Will's courage and strength, not to mention the twisted romantic implications of him choosing the heart to eat. Luckily for him, Will survives the encounter and gets Hannibal arrested.
    Hannibal Lecter: Shh. Don't move. You're in shock now. I don't want you to feel any pain. In a moment, you'll begin to feel light-headed, then drowsy. Don't resist, it's so gentle, like slipping into a warm bath. I regret it came to this, Will, but every game must have its ending.
  • Creepy Souvenir: It was presumed the "Chesapeake Ripper" was doing this, until Will Graham realized the parts being taken were all used in cooking and realized he was hunting a cannibal.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Dolarhyde tries to save Reba from this (being bitten to death by "The Red Dragon") by shooting her in the face. He can't bring himself to do it.
    • Dolarhyde may also have just been playing her to make the investigation think he's dead and earn enough time to take his revenge on Will. Since the entire scene is shown from Reba's point of view, we don't and can't know whether he seriously intended to shoot her in the face.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Lecter is given a phone with the rotary dial removed so he can call his lawyer. Turns out that kind of pulse-dialing phone can place a call just by Lecter tapping out the digits of a telephone number on the switch hook.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Dolarhyde abruptly dropping Reba home and blowing her off after their night together comes across like a jerk who was just using her and it's obvious that she's fearing this possibility. In truth, he's grappling with his alternate personality and is afraid that if he doesn't push her away, he'll end up killing her.
  • Eat Me: Dolarhyde tries to kill the Red Dragon by going to the Brooklyn Museum and eating the original painting.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Plenty.
    • How Graham realizes Lecter is the Chesapeake Ripper: Graham saw a medieval manuscript in Lecter's office which he knew contained a "Wound Man" surgical diagram which matched how the Ripper displayed one of his victims.
    • Also how Graham finally figures out how to track down the Tooth Fairy. He realizes that the only way the killer could know the layout of the victims' houses or to bring a bolt-cutter in advance is if he has seen the home movies Graham has been watching, meaning he works for the company which processes the films.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Dolarhyde genuinely cares for Reba, altough he doesn't express his love all that well.
  • Evil Makes You Ugly: Inverted with Dolarhyde. His dark side is what motivates him to work out and because of it he has a perfect physique that his female co-workers fawn over; something he is ignorant of.
  • Faking the Dead: The first climax of the story. Dolarhyde has Reba at gunpoint, having attempted to free her from the Red Dragon but still warring for control. He proposes a Murder-Suicide with a shotgun, but Wouldn't Hit a Girl and abridges the plan to Eating His Gun instead. Reba — who is blind — puts her hand in what used to be a face and draws the inevitable conclusion. But the corpse belongs to someone else (Romantic False Lead Ralph Mandy, whom Dolarhyde had killed while kidnapping Reba). The Tooth Fairy is still out there...
  • The Film of the Book: Both Manhunter and Red Dragon.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Dolarhyde is often called "the Tooth Fairy". However, context makes this an Averted Trope - they call him the "Tooth Fairy" because they only clue left behind are tooth-marks... on the victims' bodies.
  • Forensic Drama: Downplayed compared to Manhunter.
  • Freudian Excuse: Dolarhyde; as Will Graham notes, "As a child, my heart goes out to him. As an adult, he's irredeemable." Dolarhyde's grandmother was rather an abusive parent who subjected him to severe physical and emotional abuse; his adoptive family prior to his grandmother was just as cruel and abusive; and neither novel nor adaptations even touch on the All of the Other Reindeer treatment he must have received from his peers and society at large, due to the combination of extreme ugliness and severe speech impediment.
  • Freudian Threat: When he wet the bed as a boy, Dolarhyde's grandmother threatened to cut off his penis with scissors. As in, made him present it while she set her fabric shears' blades around the root.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Dolarhyde shooting himself. Subverted as it hide the fact that he didn't actually killed himself;
  • Guns Do Not Work That Way: Glaser Safety Slugs are nowhere near the invincible manstopper described in the novel.
    Ninety Glasers had been fired at men so far. All ninety were instant one-shot stops. In eighty-nine of the cases immediate death resulted. One man survived, surprising the doctors.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Though Will insists that it's Molly's doing that they have so many ugly adopted dogs, he clearly likes them, too.
  • Hired to Hunt Yourself: Graham goes to Lecter to seek his help in capturing a cannibalistic murderer.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Dolarhyde apparently shoots himself, apparently sparing his next intended victims as well as Graham and his family. It all turns out to be a ploy, and he attacks Graham at home.
    • In a long-term variant, in the end, Will is promised that the doctors will fix his face, and he wonders if he can keep Molly around as a "cheap shot" due to his condition, and he ultimately comforts himself with the uncaring eternity of nature. In the sequel to the novel the reconstruction surgery apparently didn't work, he's likely divorced, and he's a drunk beach bum.
  • House of Broken Mirrors: Dolarhyde does not have any mirrors in his house, both because of his sensitivity over his appearance and because of an incident in his childhood where his cruel older brother slammed his face against one.
  • I Am the Noun: See Antagonist Title
  • I Love the Dead: Dolarhyde violates some of the corpses of his victims.
  • Idiot Ball: Hannibal Lecter is possibly the most dangerous criminal in the world, and he's held under the tightest security imagineable. He's allowed to use a phone in return for co-operating, which he abuses to get Graham's home address. Lecter claimed he was calling his lawyer, and as insane as he is, he's still entitled to privacy for this communication. What was idiotic was giving him a phone that could call out at all, rather than having the lawyer call him on a phone with no dialing capacity.
  • Inbred and Evil: Graham suggests to sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds that the Tooth Fairy is the product of incest, as part of various other insults.
  • Insistent Terminology: Dolarhyde really hates the "Tooth Fairy" nickname the cops and press gave him. When he reveals his crimes to Reba and she initially calls him by that name, he angrily corrects her - it's "The Dragon."
  • Insufferable Genius: Lecter himself. "It's the only weakness I ever saw in him: he has to look smart, smarter than everybody. He's been doing it for years."
  • Lip Losses: Dolarhyde bites the lips off Freddy Lounds using his "Tooth Fairy" dentures. It seems to be a symbolic punishment, given that Freddy is a sleazy tabloid writer who knowingly published insulting falsehoods about the Tooth Fairy; Dolarhyde is thus "silencing" him by mutilating his mouth. For good measure, he then sets him on fire and sends him tumbling downhill on a wheelchair, leaving him to die in hospital—but not before providing a barely-coherent witness statement.
  • Malicious Slander: Employed by the good guys. The FBI use a tabloid, The National Tattler, to print libelous attacks on the Tooth Fairy in the hopes of provoking him into attacking Graham. It backfires horribly when the Tooth Fairy goes after the reporter, Freddy Lounds, instead.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Hannibal Lecter; Jack Crawford (who manipulates Will Graham into returning to a line of work which is definitely not healthy for him and his family); arguably also Chilton, with his manipulations being wildly outclassed by Lecter's.
  • Married to the Job: Played with in the novel. Graham really is happily retired with Molly, but is unable to stop himself from chasing Dolarhyde once he learns more about his previous victims. Molly is worried about his health and sanity but seems unconvinced that the stress was worth the lives saved, and the pursuit of Dolarhyde puts an irreparable strain on his relationships with both wife and son, the latter of whom increasingly prefers his cloying grandparents. By the end of it, Will is well aware of their dislike of him and the feeling is mutual, and is planning on ending the marriage even before Dolarhyde maims him.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The FBI devises a sting operation in which have the trashy tabloid Lecter and the Tooth Fairy use for their correspondence print an article attributing insulting quotes about the Tooth Fairy to Graham, hoping to provoke the Tooth Fairy into making a move on Graham and thus move in for an arrest. They provoke the Tooth Fairy all right, but he ends up kidnapping and brutally killing the reporter who wrote the article, leaving them no closer to catching their man.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: In the book, Will's in-laws don't even bother calling him by his first name and only associate with him as far as necessary to spend time with Willy. After Dolarhyde is apparently caught, Will tells him that Dolarhyde seemed Scandinavian, only because they are, too.
  • One-Steve Limit: Will Graham's stepson in the books is named Willy. This is coincidence, as the child was born to Molly and her first husband (a baseball player who died of cancer due to excessive tobacco chewing). The movies rename the kid "Kevin" (Manhunter) and "Josh" (Red Dragon) to keep things simple.
  • Paparazzi: Freddy Lounds, played by Stephen Lang and/or Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • Pet the Dog: Dolarhyde and Reba: after he meets her, he's markedly less confrontational for a short time, even leaving live witnesses behind. Graham's analysis is he was attempting to Heel–Face Turn due to that The Power of Love. (The attempt is unsuccessful.)
  • Public Secret Message: Lecter places a personal ad filled with Bible verse numbers in a tabloid as a coded message (the numbers refer to the nth letter on the xth page of his edition of ''The Joy of Cooking'') to Dolarhyde. The FBI decrypts it and realize that it told Dolarhyde where Will lives; they send Dolarhyde another message to lure him into a trap, but he recognizes it for what it is.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Especially in the book: Dolarhyde is finally defeated, but Graham loses his looks, family, career and sobriety in the process.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: When briefing the Birmingham police, Crawford makes it clear that he couldn't care less who gets credit for stopping the Tooth Fairy, as long the guy gets put down. While local police worry that Graham might be affected by past trauma, once they realize that Graham is still a damn good investigator, they throw their support behind him.
  • Red Right Hand:
    • Francis Dolarhyde's harelip, which played a major role in his descent into madness due to his being cruelly mocked and shunned. Dolarhyde's yellow eyes may also count. As an impressive piece of detail, it is briefly noted that his mother also had them.
    • Lecter having maroon eyes and six fingers on one hand in the books.
  • Room Full of Crazy:
    • Francis Dolarhyde has his huge scrapbook of crazy going back to childhood, with photographs and journal entries. It also features clippings from the time of Lecter's arrest and trial.
    • Dr. Lecter himself isn't shown to have a room but it is mentioned his basement was horrifying enough to make an officer retire. There is also one small piece that tips Graham off. In the book it is a diagram of the Wounded Man, which matches the murder of Lecter's sixth victim. In the movie it is a human anatomical diagram labelled "sweet breads."
  • Rousseau Was Right: in the original novel, Graham is constantly surrounded, sometimes without him even knowing it, by people who are willing to do their best to help him, in whatever limited way they can, simply because it's the right thing to do. The story's setting contains gross depravity and monstrosity, but is also driven by a multitude of small kindnesses.
  • Sexier Alter Ego: Zig-Zagged. Dolarhyde believes the Red Dragon to be this but since it's all in his head it obviously doesn't change his harelip. However, in his efforts to "transform" he has taken up bodybuilding, which has made him very attractive to his female co-workers in spite of his face. Also, his transformation is what gave him the confidence to approach Reba and find his first experience with genuine human affection.
  • Shown Their Work: The manner in which Graham deals with the imprisoned Lecter is consistent with proper protocol for investigative questioning. When Lecter asks probing questions to Graham, he either ignores him, or provides the smallest amount of information necessary to keep Lecter talking. This is to make sure that Lecter can't get inside Graham's head (though naturally, since its Hannibal Lecter, it still doesn't work).
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Hannibal's status. In the book his appearance is limited to twelve pages and a few letters he writes. Despite this his presence affects the entire story. At the beginning of the story Graham is haunted by his previous encounter with Lecter. Graham's visit to Lecter leads to Graham's involvement with the investigation being exposed to the public and thus to Dolarhyde. The only thing Lecter actually does is give Dolarhyde Graham's address, which at first appears to be for nothing but at the end comes back in a big way. Lecter was able to achieve a final victory over his nemesis from behind bars with nothing more than a phone call and a letter. Whether he really succeeds is debatable, depending on if his goal was to kill Graham or not.
  • Snuff Film: Part of Dolarhyde's M.O. in the book. He films the deaths of his victims and films himself having sex with the woman's corpse. Later he masturbates to it and fuels his obsession with being looked at.
  • Sociopathic Hero: Averted with Hannibal Lecter; it's clear he's still a villain even if he's helping out Graham.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: In the original book of Red Dragon, Hannibal Lecter only actually appears for a few pages. Good pages, but still. The VHS/DVD release for the first film now advertises it as "the beginning of Hannibal Lecter's legacy" and the poster for the second film is mostly a giant picture of his head.
  • There Are No Therapists: Subverted, since Lecter is imprisoned in a psychiatric institution and has been visited by a number of shrinks. Since he's a psychiatrist himself, this rarely works out right.
  • 13 Is Unlucky: The Red Dragon has thirteen total victims.
  • To Know Him, I Must Become Him: How Will Graham catches serial killers - he's able to get into their mindset, to empathize with them, to an extent that disturbs him.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Reba, blind and female. Also invoked by a line of dialogue in the book.
  • Unbuilt Trope: Lecter's insights and lectures are unsettling, but fallible, especially against an experienced profiler like Graham. Furthermore, it is perfectly clear that beneath it all, he is, well, insane.
    • Consulting a Convicted Killer: Lecter is consulted less because he is a killer and more because he is an excellent profiler in his own right. Even so, he doesn't really tell Will anything Will himself hadn't already thought of—all he does is back up Will's opinions, though this is not so much due to lack of insight as it is Lecter deciding that helping out the FBI is less fun than pitting Will and the Tooth Fairy against each other. Lecter's only real contribution to the plot is taunting Will and telling Dolarhyde where Will and his family live.
    • The Profiler: Will is given three weeks to profile and catch the Tooth Fairy, and he fails; that Dolarhyde doesn't slaughter another family is down to issues he is going through in his personal life, not anything Graham did. While Will does offer genuine insight into what the Tooth Fairy is like and why he is doing this, he cannot deduce what specific delusion is driving him and is clueless as to what the "Red Dragon" means to Dolarhyde. In the end, Dolarhyde is found by hard detective work as much as anything else. Though Graham is a highly skilled and near-legendary FBI profiler, he has only caught two Serial Killers in his entire career by the start of the story, and both cases put him in hospital, with the first for a mental breakdown brought on by the stress of the case and the trauma of Graham killing the perpetrator and the second leading to permanent disfigurement.
  • Villain of Another Story: Hannibal Lecter, a captured cannibal serial killer who, in both stories, is consulted on how to catch another serial killer. However, it also subverts this since Lecter does become an active threat to Graham late in the book and film by giving Dolarhyde his home address and corresponding with him in secret.