Hannibal Lecter, one of the most intriguing and chilling characters from modern popular literature, gets his 'back story' in a dark thriller from the director of the art house hit Girl With A Pearl Earring. Alan Silverman has a look at Hannibal Rising.

How does a man become a monster? Readers first encountered the physician-turned-murderer who dines on the flesh of his victims in the novels of Thomas Harris. Hannibal Rising goes back to the character's origins: a young boy growing up in World War II Germany, his parents are tortured and killed leaving only him to protect his little sister. When the Nazis are defeated, the young Lecter children fall into the hands of ruthless Soviet renegades. The Hannibal who finally escapes is scarred for life.

French actor Gaspard Ulliel stars as Hannibal in his late teens and early 20's: a medical student who is fascinated by cadavers and anatomy, but whose unimaginably harsh experiences prevent him from forming relationships with the living.

 "He has this kind of protection that he builds, so you can barely see any emotions in his eyes sometimes; but he can still feel them, I think, deep inside him," he says.

That ability to suppress emotion becomes apparent when a lout of a butcher is murdered in the French town where Hannibal lives. The police inspector suspects the young medical student, who turns the interrogation back on the interrogator.

There is also the shadow of what young Hannibal would become: the frighteningly tightly wound character as played by Anthony Hopkins in 1991's The Silence of The Lambs and two subsequent films: Hannibal in 2001 and Red Dragon the following year. Ulliel says his version of Lecter could not ignore Hopkins's Oscar-winning portrayal.

"It was important because I knew that the audience would expect a few things and look for similarities between my character and Anthony Hopkins. But it's a bit tricky because, for me, my work in this film was not to try to imitate or copy Anthony Hopkins," he says. "I think the idea was more to try to pick a few details in his performance and then mix it to my own recipe to create my own Hannibal Lecter."

In fact, says director Peter Webber, it would have been foolish not to acknowledge the Hopkins version.

"I don't think there will ever be a moment where Hannibal Lecter is quite as intriguing or as chilling as in the first three minutes that we meet him in The Silence of the Lambs. That's an iconic moment of cinema. You can't hope to reach that pitch, but you have a damned good time and get an awful lot of entertainment out of trying to get there," he says. "We spent a lot of time looking at The Silence of the Lambs trying to deconstruct that performance and work out what it was that Hopkins had done as an actor, because he's obviously not being himself. It's a performance. Then we took one or two elements of that and Gaspard was able to work them into his performance ...and I think that's enough to allow an audience to believe that some 20 to 30 years later this young man might grow up and develop into the Hopkins character."

The Hannibal Rising story also includes Lecter's aunt by marriage, the Japanese-born Lady Murasaki, played by Gong Li.

The Chinese screen star says her character realizes right from the beginning that there is something wrong with her nephew. She tries to help by teaching him the Japanese warrior's spirit of 'Bushido;' but, as Gong Li puts it, his 'thirst for revenge' for what happened to his family drives him beyond anything Lady Murasaki can do to stop his terrible rampage. Director Peter Webber believes that theme makes Hannibal's path particularly relevant in today's world.

"I don't want to get into any political discussion, but there is frankly an emotional and visceral response to seeing that cycle of revenge and violence that we see in Iraq and elsewhere in the world ...and I think that on one level this movie reflects that, but the equally important thing is that what happens to Hannibal: by taking revenge he destroys himself as a human being. He scours out any sense of empathy, any sense of humanity, and he becomes a monster filled with rage and blood lust. I think that is important to remember as well. It is a perfectly human and natural desire to want to take revenge, but you have to be very careful because taking revenge can kill you. Using the tools of your enemy can turn you into your enemy, which is what happens to Hannibal," he says.

The cast of Hannibal Rising also features Rhys Ifans as the brutal ringleader of young Lecter's captors; and Dominic West plays the French police inspector who comes close to capturing the budding young mass murderer. An international production by Italian filmmaker Dino DeLaurentiis, Hannibal Rising was shot on location in Lithuania, France and the Czech Republic.