The Silence of the Lambs, released exactly sixteen years ago today, is almost certainly the finest American film about serial killers, because it's not "about" serial killers. It's about Clarice Starling, FBI trainee, and how she stared evil in the face in order to stop another evil. It's somewhere between a fable and a character study, carried off by three brilliant performances: Jodie Foster in the central role of a woman straddling the bestial evil of Ted Levine's Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb and the sophisticated evil of Anthony Hopkins's Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter.

The key here is that Starling was bridging two forces of evil, unfathomable and inhuman (nobody ever mentions it, but one of my favorite moments of Foster's performance is her delivery of the line, "They don't have a name for what he is"). It was, after a fashion, a fable on Good and Evil, light and dark.

The first bit of trouble came in 1999, when Red Dragon and Silence novelist Thomas Harris brought Lecter back for a third novel imaginatively titled Hannibal. Although set in the present day, several scenes in this book were flashbacks to Lecter's WWII childhood, when he witnessed Russian deserters eating his sister Mischa. In Ridley Scott's tedious 2001 film, this subplot was wholly abandoned, and so there has never been a cinematic retelling of Lecter's youth.

Now, of course, Thomas Harris has crapped out a fourth book (which I didn't and won't read) and the screenplay for a fourth-or-fifth movie: Hannibal Rising. And now, the total destruction of one of the cinema's great villains is complete.

In a review of the novel that's too perfect not to reference, Anthony Lane cites five criteria for a great Lecter story:

"1. Lecter must be incarcerated.
"2. He must be in America.
"3. He must be peripheral to the plot (the capture of another killer), however central he is to the atmosphere.
"4. He must attract the professional interest of a woman.
"5. He must be as insoluble as Iago."

All true, all met by Silence, none by Hannibal Rising, but I suspect the only one that significantly matters is the fifth. In the first two novels, Lecter was a being of evil, an elemental force if you will, beyond understanding or control, imprisoned but not tamed. Hannibal Rising from opening shot to the moment the credits roll, undoes that. It is that rarest and most terrible of things, the sequel that actually makes the original worse by association.

The quick and dirty version of the plot is: in 1944, the boy Hannibal watches his parents die in a German bombing raid and then not-quite-witnesses his sister's grisly death. After eight years of being a mute in a Russian orphanage, Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) sneaks to France to live with his uncle's widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, yet again playing a Japanese woman) and brutally kill and cannibalise the men who ate Mischa. Truth be told, the expansive version of the plot is about the same, except it takes place over two mindnumbing hours.

In essence, Hannibal Rising turns Lecter into a slightly more antisocial version of Bruce Wayne, not the most sensitive or appealing way to treat a great mythological monster. The film is nothing more nor less than a revenge melodrama, and it makes Lecter an anti-hero at best, several miles removed from that thing which stared through the glass at Starling and made jokes about how to prepare a census-taker's liver. The new Lecter is distressingly human, his enemies so venal, that we begin to realize after a time that we're meant to cheer for him.

Now, I view the idea of a Hannibal Lecter origin story per se as a bad idea, and so can be accused rightly of bias. But Hannibal Rising isn't even a good origin story - it contradicts and makes no sense. Theoretically, the whole point of the film should be exploring the moment where a human being ended and a sociopath was born, but that moment apparently happens offscreen; in one moment, Lecter is a confused young man in France, the next he's decapitating a butcher. The bulk of the film is given over to the extremely dreary revenge quest that begins after Lecter turns to the dark side; the nature and cause of that turn, for all that it's obvious that Thomas Harris means for it to be that winter night in 1944, remains murky and vague.

Moreover, the plethora of details that make Hannibal Hannibal - the love of art, the gourmet mind, etc. - these are all abandoned completely. "He made a pot-au-feu with this man's cheeks!" declares a policeman at the site of Lecter's first cannibalistic escapade. Fantastic! Where'd he pick that up - the Communist orphanage? Then of course there's the biggest lapse of all: it's evident that Hannibal Lecter is infamous by the end of the film, and yet he was able to come to the US and build a thriving psychiatric practice before being captured. Poor communication between the French and the Americans, as usual.

Mostly, Hannibal Rising is just plain boring. Director Peter Webber's only previous feature was the mostly ignored Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I actually really liked, and I felt he did a good job managing it; but this is a terribly misdirected film. It has some nice visuals here and there, but the pace is death itself - two hours that feels like three, to cover five sentences of plot. And it doesn't help that the actors are mostly worthless, with Gong Li giving the flattest performance of her career, and Gaspard Ulliel trying desperately to evoke psychopathology by leering and waggling his eyebrows. I think that for all of these people, the script really betrayed them - there's nothing interesting in the screenplay, just an endless series of the same six scenes over and over again. Eventually, Lecter runs out of people to kill (in far less interesting gore scenes than we saw in the over-the-top Hannibal), and the movie ends, without giving any indication of how Lecter started his practice, or where he learned that fava beans match well with chianti. Instead, there's just a bit of in-jokey imagery of masks and boars, horrible dialogue that's meant to sound clever, and one of the greatest characters of 1990s cinema ends up scuttled for nothing.