Some characters are so rich in their own creation that, while different actors can bring different qualities to the work, there’s a core appeal that goes beyond any one actor. For example, take Hannibal Lecter. He’s been played most famously by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, but Gaspard Ulliel and Brian Cox both had a shot at playing the villain on the big screen. In Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen plays the cannibal with a lupine, carnivorous energy. He’s so deeply unsettling and hungry in his performance that it’s a wonder anyone on the show doesn’t suspect he’s a cannibal before that fact is revealed.
While Mikkelsen is excellent in his performance, he has a lot to work with since Hannibal is an active, brilliant presence in Thomas Harris’ source material. Will Graham, meanwhile, is less well-served. Despite being the protagonist in Red Dragon, he’s not really all that interesting in the book. Harris seemed to think so as well, since Graham only gets a passing mention in The Silence of the Lambs, and the character never appears again. In the TV show Hannibal, however, Will is finally transformed into a fascinating character. To Lecter, Will is a student, a nemesis, a friend, and a lover. To the FBI, he’s a freak, a genius, a trusted ally, and a bomb about to go off. Will’s own relationship to himself is even less specific, bringing a wonderful ambiguity to Hugh Dancy’s intense performance. Anyone can play or write a great character poorly, but only the truly great actors and writers can make a poor character great.