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it cannot be overstated how much better this movie is than the later red dragon, which i watched a few days ago. despite being slightly shorter, it takes the time for details like showing hannibal hacking the phone, will being driven to the murder scene and reconstituting the events while reading the file (as opposed to going there alone... at night, and presumably just understanding it all), showing various people working in their field and sharing the results, the snipers scene, the code not being broken by a lone guy in a library, even outright saying which library they'd go to; it's tiny things that build up.
it's the difference of focus of the scripts: manhunter's [i]is[/i] the investigation, and so the flow is better and more logical, the developments more realistic - for example langley identifying the red dragon mahjong symbol rather than hannibal knowing this. and that's it, the crux of it: rd coasted on the tails of previous movies and the appeal of its famous actors, milking hopkins's popularity as hannibal, and aping the structure of sotl; manhunter predates all of that. this is not hannibal's movie; he has little screen time, despite the plot being the same, and his interactions with will are different. will himself is a different character, less cliched and reluctant than rd's, his backstory far better developed in scenes with his wife and son, and the actor hits some interesting notes, a quiet intensity that allows room for his later isolation to mean something - especially as he was shown to be a team player before. the villain has less development, and instead of rd's florid psychotic mess, is a mousy, awkward man that doesn't speechify or make grand gestures, and is motivated by his crushing sense of inadequacy to the very end.
that's one side of it. the other is that rd is cheaply sensationalistic and takes a few cards from the horror genre deck of minor tricks, while mh derives its thrills from actual craft: the pacing is excellent, ramping up tension in the right moments - for example the clarity in the investigative process and the emphasis of team work involved in analyzing the message give off an effective, believable sense of urgency.
i don't know which one is faithful to the book, but the movies completely diverge in the last 30 minutes or so. unsurprisingly, i prefer manhunter here too.
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