The Dumb Reason Behind Hannibal Lecter's Legal Mess

Like most of life’s problems, we can blame stuff that happened in the ‘80s.
The Dumb Reason Behind Hannibal Lecter's Legal Mess

Rivaling even Marvel and over-emotional Sherlock Holmes adaptations for thorny intellectual property-based quagmires is the current state of the Hannibal Lecter-verse. We’ve mentioned before how messed-up it is that there’s a current TV show called Clarice that’s basically a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, in which Clarice Starling can’t legally mention Lecter by name. And likewise, the acclaimed series Hannibal couldn’t make reference to Clarice. This is, of course, because the rights to her character are owned by a separate company, MGM -- but how did that end up happening? Basically, it all boils down to one dude’s terrible decision-making …

It was legendary Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis who made the first Hannibal Lecter movie, Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann, which unfortunately bombed at the box office. Why did it do so poorly? It’s hard to say definitively, but it probably didn’t help that the film was based on a bestselling book with a totally different name: Red Dragon. De Laurentiis decided to swap out the original title, meaning that they couldn’t really capitalize on the massive success of the original novel. It would be like releasing the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone but calling it Manhunter.

No one knows for sure why this happened, but it’s either because De Laurentiis didn’t want audiences to think it was a martial arts movie or because he’d already produced a Mickey Rourke film with the word “dragon” in the title the year before, and didn’t do well at the box office. So despite the fact that it was a good movie, Manhunter tanked. De Laurentiis’ original deal with novelist Thomas Harris allowed him to retain the film rights to the character of Hannibal Lecter, giving him the first crack at buying the rights to The Silence of the Lambs once it was written. But because Manhunter didn’t make enough money, he not only passed on the project, he didn’t even bother to read the book.

When Orion (whose assets were later acquired by MGM) obtained the rights to the book and its new characters, De Laurentiis allowed them to use Lecter for free. Of course, once the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs was an Oscar-winning phenomenon, De Laurentiis regretted the decision and became an integral part of the subsequent movies. He also helped drive the nail into the coffin of the film franchise by producing the godawful prequel Hannibal Rising, based on a novel by Harris … which he only wrote because De Laurentiis essentially threatened him, so thanks for that.

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Top Image: NBC Universal

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