My first experience with these stories was a marathon of the first three movies (all but Hannibal Rising). My initial reaction was "Very well made, but extremely disturbing." I suppose that's the point. Who wouldn't be unnerved by a cannibalistic genius with the psychological skill to talk a person into swallowing their own tongue (reference to "Miggs", Hannibal's neighbor in the maximum-security wing of the psychiatric hospital in which the villain was incarcerated)?
These movies may have their share of horror-film-type gore and disgustingness, but they immensely well-produced psychological thrillers. Sir Anthony Hopkins displayed sheer genius in the way portrayed infinitely creepy and unnerving villain that is Hannibal Lecter.
It wasn't until sometime in the 2006-2007 school year that I discovered the movies were based on novels. Sorry Mom, sorry Dad, I haven't inherited your credit-watching proclivities. Thus, being intrigued by the movies, I made mention that I would like to read the books. Keelia was good enough to give the three existing novels to me as Christmas gifts. At roughly the same time, Thomas Harris published the fourth Hannibal Lecter installment Hannibal Rising. Which also when to the big screen right away. Again, a very well-made and thoroughly creepy movie.
I have read all four of the novels now. The last one I finished sometime last fall. As such, I may have some details mixed around, but I can give the general idea here.
First of all, the books are better than the movies by a long shot. Harris does an incredible job of recreating the sense of the unnatural in the stories. By unnatural I mean the uneasiness and discomfort that emanates from Lecter even when he is within the confines of his cell. His use of diction and style create a feeling of eeriness that almost never lets down in any of the novels.
One element that contributes more than anything to the novels' higher quality is Harris' way of telling the story. While the movies--with the exception of Hannibal Rising--concentrate on the struggle of the detective and his or her hunt for the villain (Will Graham's hunt for the "Red Dragon" and Clarice Starling's hunt for "Buffalo Bill" and Dr. Lecter), the books have large sections that delve into the intricacy of Lecter's thoughts and plans and the unfathomable darkness that is the Doctor's mind. Harris creates an imagery that puts the reader in the mind of a man who is impervious to psychoanalysis.
I would have to say Hannibal is the best of the novels--and movies, actually--for one main reason: it focuses more on Lecter than the rest, except for Hannibal Rising.Red Dragon is the story of the hunt for a serial killer that is challenging to the point that FBI agent Will Graham must seek the assistance of a brilliant psychiatrist and Graham's trophy capture: Dr. Lecter, of course. The Silence of the Lambs is the story of agent-in-training Clarice Starling's hunt for "Buffalo Bill", a serial killer that is skinning his female victims for a woman suit. Hannibal, on the other hand is the story of Starling's race to recapture Lecter, who escaped at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, before the deranged millionaire that is the only "Hannibal the Cannibal" victim that the Doctor left alive can get his revenge.
Harris does an impeccable job of adding the minutest of details to his works. The stories are incredibly intricate and interwoven. This makes for a fascinating read and a much more intense connection between the audience and the story than most stories I have ever read. If you can stomach some of the unnerving details, then the novels are definitely worth a read. There is violence, language, and sexual content in each of the novels, but Harris includes it with such skill that all adds to the overall feel of the story that makes the novels such great psychological thrillers.