Thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant acting abilities, practically everyone knows the story of ‘Hannibal the Cannibal,’ even if they’ve never read the books or watched the movies. If you think it’s long past time that you read these phenomenal books – and I agree! – then, you might want to know in what order you should read them.
There are two different ways to read the Hannibal books: chronologically or in order of publication. I recommend reading them in order of publication, starting with Red Dragon and ending with Hannibal Rising.
This article will start by giving you a brief synopsis of the books in publication order. It’ll also provide you with the chronological reading order of the books and some more basic info about Thomas Harris’ famous work. Keep reading to learn more, but be warned that there may be spoilers.
This blog post contains affiliate links
Initially published in 1981, Red Dragon is the first of Harris’ Hannibal books and his second-ever novel. In this psychological thriller, detective Will Graham must visit the man who nearly killed him, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and ask for his help in solving an ongoing spree of serial murders by a killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy.”
Lecter is in an institution for convicted felons who are also criminally insane. He’s there because Graham put him there after the two of them nearly killed one another when Graham consulted with Lecter on an earlier case. (A case in which Lecter turned out to be the killer and a cannibal.)
After Graham appeals to Dr. Lecter’s pride, Lecter agrees to help, though he also has his own motives for doing so. Finally, Graham comes face to face with the new killer and nearly dies once more.
The second novel in the Hannibal series, The Silence of the Lambs, once again features Dr. Lecter helping out the FBI from within his cell. This time, though, he works with a young FBI agent-in-training, Clarice Starling.
Clarice is hunting for a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill, who is murdering young women and removing their skin to make himself a ‘skin suit’ because he wants to be a woman. The end of this novel leaves readers with a much bigger cliffhanger than the first book in the series.
Clarice finally tracks down Buffalo Bill and has her showdown with him, but Dr. Lecter also finds a way to escape. The cops cannot find him once he’s gone, but he does send Clarice one final letter, letting her know that he has no plans to find and kill her.
Like The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal also features Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling. However, in this one, Lecter is living in Italy under an assumed identity, and Clarice is no longer the hero cop she was. Instead, she has fallen from grace in the FBI after an ill-fated shoot-out and some bad press.
Other supporting characters include Mason Verger, a seriously deranged former patient of Dr. Lecter, and an Italian police officer named Pazzi. This third book in the series has a much more complex and intricate story than the first two, and it ends in a much-anticipated reunion between Dr. Lecter and Clarice.
Published in 2006, years after the first three original novels in the series, Hannibal Rising is a prequel. It tells the story of a young Hannibal who escapes a brutal and terrifying childhood to live with his uncle and his uncle’s wife in idyllic France.
There, he forms a close relationship with his uncle’s wife, who gives him a chance at a new life. Unfortunately, Hannibal has too many inner demons to turn things around completely. It’s a fascinating, eye-opening look at the traumatic childhood that turned a young Hannibal into the esteemed and insane Dr. Lecter.
If you’d rather read the books chronologically, the reading order is almost the same. The only difference is that you’ll read the prequel book, Hannibal Rising, first. After that, you’ll keep the other three books in the same order:
- Hannibal Rising
- Red Dragon
- The Silence of the Lambs
This isn’t actually a bad way to read the books. Some people even prefer it, especially if they are fond of keeping things in a linear fashion. The only reason I recommend reading them in publication order instead is that I think Red Dragon is a better book than Hannibal Rising.
Since Red Dragon has a higher rating on both Amazon and Goodreads, it seems most of Harris’ readers agree. Red Dragon has 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon and 4.04 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Hannibal Rising has 4.5 stars on Amazon and only 3.55 on Goodreads.
Those who read Red Dragon first will likely enjoy the book and be more invested in finishing the series. Hannibal Rising is a great book, too, but I’ve known more people to dislike it than Red Dragon. Therefore, if you read Hannibal Rising first and don’t like it, you might not want to finish the other three books, which would be a shame.
However, reading the prequel after the original three books gives you a chance to dive back into Hannibal’s world. It allows you to examine his “origin story” with the knowledgeable mind of someone who already knows how he will turn out as an adult. In my opinion, it’s the superior way to enjoy the books.
Five Hannibal movies have been released over the years (not including the two television shows based on the books). They are, in order of release dates:
- Manhunter (1986): a renamed adaptation of Red Dragon
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Hannibal (2001)
- Red Dragon (2002)
- Hannibal Rising (2007)
When it comes to the movies, it’s okay to watch them in chronological order. (Although, according to most online rankings and ratings, Hannibal Rising seems to be the weakest film among critics, just as it’s the lowest-ranked book.)
If you want to get the whole Hannibal story chronologically, you’ll need to watch them in the following order:
- Hannibal Rising
- Red Dragon (or Manhunter)
- The Silence of the Lambs
As for choosing between Red Dragon and Manhunter, I can’t tell you which one to watch. They’re both pretty great movies. Red Dragon is more well-known, but Manhunter has a larger underground ‘cult classic’ following. However, if you appreciate Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter, go with Red Dragon instead.
Of course, it’s up to you whether you read the Hannibal books in chronological order or order of publication. My recommendation, as I’ve already noted, is publication order. However, they are incredible books either way. Just don’t try reading them as stand-alone novels with Hannibal or The Silence of the Lambs first.
The books are still just as excellent when read out of order. However, you’ll miss out on a lot of what’s going on if you don’t start from the beginning.