Red Dragon (novel)

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This article is about the novel. For the film, see Red Dragon (film).
Red Dragon
First US hardback edition cover
Author Thomas Harris
Country United States
Language English
Series Hannibal Lecter
Genre Crime, horror, thriller, psychological horror
Publisher G. P. Putnams, Dell Publishing (USA)
Publication date
October 1981
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 480 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-399-12442-X (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 7572747
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3558.A6558 R4 1981
Followed by The Silence of the Lambs

Red Dragon is a novel by American author Thomas Harris, first published in 1981. It introduced the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer. The novel was adapted as a film, Manhunter, in 1986, which featured Brian Cox as Lecter. Directed by Michael Mann, the film received mixed to negative reviews and fared poorly at the box office. It has since developed a cult following.

After Harris wrote a sequel to the novel, The Silence of the Lambs, in 1988 (itself turned into a highly successful film in 1991), Red Dragon found a new readership. A second sequel, Hannibal, was published in 1999 and adapted into a film in 2001. Both film sequels featured Anthony Hopkins in the role of Hannibal Lecter, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor in 1991. Due to the success of the second and third films, Red Dragon was remade as a film directed by Brett Ratner in 2002, this time bearing the title of the original novel and with Hopkins playing Lecter. Elements of the novel also influenced the NBC television series Hannibal, while the plot was adapted as the second half of the series' third season.

The title refers to the figure from The Great Red Dragon Paintings by William Blake. Though Harris refers to one of these, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,[1] he actually describes another, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.


In 1978, a serial killer nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy" stalks and murders seemingly random families during sequential full moons. He first kills the Jacobi family in Birmingham, Alabama, then the Leeds family in Atlanta, Georgia. Two days after the Leeds murders, FBI agent Jack Crawford seeks out his protégé, Will Graham, a brilliant profiler who captured the serial killer Hannibal Lecter three years earlier, but retired after Lecter almost killed him. Crawford goes to Graham's Marathon, Florida residence and pleads for his assistance; Graham reluctantly agrees. After looking over the crime scenes with only minimal insight, he realizes that he must visit Lecter and seek his help in capturing the Red Dragon.

"The Tooth Fairy" is revealed to be the production chief of a St. Louis film processing firm named Francis Dolarhyde. He is a disturbed individual who is obsessed with the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (which the book misidentifies as The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun). Dolarhyde is unable to control his violent, sexual urges, and believes that murdering people—or "changing" them, as he calls it—allows him to more fully "become" an alternate personality he calls the "Great Red Dragon", after the dominant character in Blake's painting. Flashbacks reveal that his pathology is born from the systematic abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of both his sadistic grandmother and his stepfamily.

As Graham investigates the case, he is hounded by Freddy Lounds, a sleazy tabloid reporter. Meanwhile, Lecter's de facto jailer, Frederick Chilton, discovers a secret correspondence between Lecter and Dolarhyde, in which Lecter provides the killer with Graham's home address. Graham's wife and stepson are evacuated to a remote farm belonging to Crawford's brother. Graham tries to intercept the secret communication without Lecter's knowledge, but instead attracts the attention of Freddy Lounds.

Lounds becomes aware of the correspondence and tries to trick Graham into revealing details of the investigation by posing as the Red Dragon, but is found out. Hoping to lure the Red Dragon into a trap, Graham gives Lounds an interview in which he deliberately mischaracterizes the killer as an impotent homosexual. This infuriates Dolarhyde, who kidnaps Lounds, forces him to recant the allegations, bites off his lips and sets him on fire, leaving his maimed body outside his newspaper's offices; Lounds eventually dies.

At about the same time, Dolarhyde falls in love with a blind co-worker named Reba McClane, which conflicts with his homicidal urges. In beginning a relationship with Reba, Dolarhyde resists the Dragon's "possession" of him; he goes to the Brooklyn Museum, beats a museum secretary unconscious, and eats the original Blake watercolor of The Red Dragon.

Graham eventually realizes that the killer knew the layout of his victims' houses from their home movies, which were developed at the same film processing lab. Dolarhyde's job gives him access to all home movies that pass through the company. When he sees Graham interviewing his boss, Dolarhyde realizes that they are on to him and goes to see Reba one last time. He finds her talking to a co-worker, Ralph Mandy, whom she dislikes. Believing that Reba is being unfaithful, Dolarhyde kills Mandy. He kidnaps Reba and, having taken her to his house, sets the place on fire. He says he intends to kill her and then himself, but finds himself unable to shoot her. The shotgun fires, and a body hits the floor. Reba escapes just before the house explodes. Graham later comforts her, telling her that there is nothing wrong with her, and that the kindness and affection she showed Dolarhyde probably saved lives.

Dolarhyde appears at Graham's Florida home, stabbing him in the face and permanently disfiguring him. Graham's wife, Molly, then fatally shoots Dolarhyde.

As Graham recovers, Crawford explains what happened. The dead man in Dolarhyde's house was a gas station attendant he'd had an altercation with; Dolarhyde had brought the man's body to his house to stage his own death, using Reba as a witness.

Crawford intercepts a letter to Graham from Lecter, which bids him well and hopes that he isn't too disfigured, and destroys it in an incinerator. Graham, in the hospital, has a flashback to a visit he made to Shiloh, the site of a major battle in the U.S. Civil War, shortly after apprehending (and in the process killing) Garrett Hobbs, a serial killer he investigated and on whose profile he consulted with Hannibal Lecter. Graham starts thinking that Shiloh is a beautiful and quiet place, and decides that he will live there for the rest of his life.



Red Dragon is Thomas Harris's second novel, after Black Sunday. As part of his research for the book he attended classes and talked to agents at the FBI Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia, during the late 1970s. He learned about serial killers, offender profiling and the role of the FBI in serial killer investigations.[2] After his father became terminally ill, Harris stayed for eighteen months at an isolated shotgun-style house where he worked on the book. The rural setting helped him visualize both the character of Hannibal Lecter and the Leeds murder house depicted in the story. The book is dedicated to his father.[2]:12


Thomas Fleming in The New York Times gave the book a generally favorable review. He compared the development of the story to the gradual acceleration of a powerful car, but complained that the explanation for Dolarhyde's behavior, trauma in his youth, was too mechanistic.[3] James Ellroy has described Red Dragon as 'the best pure thriller I've ever read' and cited it as an influence on his own novel Killer on the Road.[4]


  • The first film, released in 1986 under the title Manhunter, was written and directed by Michael Mann and focused on FBI Special Agent Will Graham, played by William Petersen. Lecter (renamed Lecktor) was played by Brian Cox.
  • In 1996, Chicago's Defiant Theatre produced a full stage version of the novel at the Firehouse theatre, adapted and directed by the company's artistic director, Christopher Johnson. The production included projected home movies as were described in the novel, including reenacting the violent murders. Dolarhyde's inner dragon was personified by an actor in an elaborate, grotesque costume and seduces the killer to continue on his violent path.
  • The second film, which used the title Red Dragon, appeared in 2002. Directed by Brett Ratner and written by Ted Tally (who also wrote the screenplay for The Silence of the Lambs), it starred Edward Norton as Graham and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter.
  • Elements from the novel influenced the NBC TV adaptation Hannibal, which first aired in 2013. Graham is played by Hugh Dancy and Lecter is played by Mads Mikkelsen. Though set in the 2010s, the series begins prior to the events of Red Dragon, re-imagining Graham's and Lecter's early encounters during the former's tenure with the FBI, and the events following his fatal shooting of Garret Jacob Hobbs. The plot of the novel itself was adapted for the second half of the series' third season, with Richard Armitage cast as Francis Dolarhyde[5] and Rutina Wesley as Reba McClane.


  1. ^ Tony Magistrale; Michael A. Morrison (1 January 1996). A Dark Night's Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 27–. ISBN 978-1-57003-070-3. 
  2. ^ a b Philip L. Simpson (30 December 2009). Making Murder: The Fiction of Thomas Harris: The Fiction of Thomas Harris. ABC-CLIO. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-0-313-35625-4. 
  3. ^ "HUNTING MONSTERS". Retrieved 13 June 2014. 
  4. ^ The Paris Review, James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201.
  5. ^ "Richard Armitage to play Tooth Fairy killer in Hannibal". Retrieved 17 February 2015.