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Hugh Dancy as Special Agent Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Both real-life and fictional serial killers have fascinated audiences for decades with stories that pit the ability of society to keep order against hidden evil that's an affront to that order. The serial killer genre is based in the fear there are real monsters among us with smiling faces and seemingly "normal" lives that conceal their true nature and the bodies left in their wake. Monsters that kill out of insecurities and power fantasies. Monsters that kill because God told them to do it. Monsters that kill because the dog told them to do it. Criminologists and social scientists have spent incalculable hours trying to understand where things went wrong, how these murderers became "broken," and deducing patterns, models and profiles to detect the ones yet to come. And inherent to the situation is the mystery of it all, where we're left pondering who did it and why? We're still not exactly sure about the identity of Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac Killer, and that horrible feeling of an unanswered question has kept their memories alive in pop culture.  

When NBC first announced their intention to do a TV series based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, I was very skeptical about it. It seemed like the retreading of ground that had been covered in five films and four books, added to the fact that the series was going to be on network television where murders and violence are usually done half-assed to escape censors and please advertisers. However, Hannibal decidedly goes in much different directions than its predecessors. Developed by executive producer Bryan Fuller, who has a history with black comedies concerned with death like Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, the result is something that uses one of the best known fictional serial killers to create an operatic, surreal entry in the suspense/thriller genre that is one of the better series currently on television.

Read more analysis below the fold.

After this point, details and descriptions of story details up to and including the fifth episode of season two will be discussed. So if you're not caught up and don't want to be spoiled, you might want to stop right here.

"One of television's great contributions is that it brought murder back into the home, where it belongs." —Alfred Hitchcock
There have been three adaptions that use Red Dragon as a basis (i.e. Michael Mann's Manhunter, Brett Ratner's Red Dragon and this series). However, NBC's Hannibal uses the hints dropped in Harris' book of what came before the events of Red Dragon to construct a prequel that takes things in familiar but also completely different directions that re-imagine the Hannibal Lecter story.

Lecter, in both book and film form, is a highly intelligent and manipulative cannibal psychiatrist. That holds true for television as well. However, there are some differences and the plan for this show will get really interesting if it stays on the air. The first three seasons are meant to be prequel, with the intentions of seasons four and beyond being adaptions of the events that occur in Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and possibly the novel Hannibal, with new versions of Francis Dolarhyde and Buffalo Bill making appearances. However, there is a snag to this plan. At present, the series doesn't have the rights to characters and events that originate from The Silence of the Lambs, so it's still up in the air as to whether a new iteration of Clarice Starling will show up at some point.

"What do you see?"
  • The Pure Empathy of Will Graham: In Harris' Red Dragon and both film adaptions, the audience learns that Will Graham was severely traumatized by what he went through in putting Dr. Lecter in a cage. Through Hugh Dancy's version of Graham, Fuller shows Graham's mental descent as he's manipulated by Lecter and falsely accused of murder. But the show also accentuates a theme of the book, which is how thin the line of Graham's psyche is between putting himself in the shoes of the killer and the question of whether his true nature is that of a killer struggling to hold on. Graham is odd and antisocial, with his innate empathy allowing him to think like the killers he chases to the point it almost overwhelms him. His compassion for his dogs marks him as a genuinely good person, but it also shows him as much more comfortable around them than people. This season has reversed the roles of Red Dragon (i.e. Will locked up in Hannibal's cage and Hannibal standing on the outside of the cage consulting with the FBI on cases), as Will's efforts to undermine Hannibal grow morally darker as season two progresses. And in the latest episode, the "hit" that Will puts on Hannibal is a reworking of an event that occurs in Red Dragon between Hannibal Lecter and Francis Dolarhyde, except that hit was against Will.
"I know who I am. I'm not so sure I know who you are anymore ... You - you have no traceable motive. Which is why you were so hard to see. You were just - curious what I would do. Someone like me, someone who thinks how I think. Wind 'em up, and watch 'em go. Well, apparently, Doctor Lecter ... this is how I go." —Will Graham
  • The Devil and Hannibal Lecter: I have always found Brian Cox's performance as Lecter in Michael Mann's Manhunter more interesting than Hopkins' Lecter in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. Both iterations of the character play with FBI agents the way a cat plays with a mouse, but Hopkins always comes across as extremely intelligent but nuts, even on the surface. Hopkins' Lecter revels in it, and you wonder how he was ever able to keep that side of himself contained. In contrast, Cox plays Lecter as a man who's extremely intelligent, but has a sinister nature just below the surface that he doesn't believe is wrong or even a problem. Instead of reveling in insanity, Cox's Lecter rejects that he's insane. For NBC's Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen's take on the character is that he's basically the Devil masquerading as Frasier Crane. Mikkelsen's Lecter is a deceiver, corrupter and destroyer with an affinity for humanity, but is distinctly separated from mankind. Lecter uses the weakness of a person's psyche to his own ends. Fuller has described the show's version of Lecter as a "good" psychiatrist that believes he's helping his patients realize who they are, even if who they are is something destructive. The show gives Hannibal a bit of a sympathetic angle in that, like Dexter, many of his victims are assholes. But as the line is crossed, it becomes harder and harder to sympathize with Lecter. Also, all three iterations of Lecter display vanity and pride, wherein they see themselves as above and different than the rest of humanity. This particular iteration of the character seems to be much more of an expert in hand-to-hand combat than either Hopkins or Cox's versions.
Bryan Fuller: "I wanted to lull the audience into a false sense of security with who this character was. We had seen him in the films and the literature post-incarceration where the world knows exactly who he is and what he is and what he's capable of. He had no motivation to hide any of it, so I wanted to really get the audience into Hannibal's corner as a likeable character. Then when he does terrible things, you've already fallen in love with him and like him as a character. So you have to then juxtapose what you've just seen against what you've experienced in the previous episodes. But the first time he smashed Alana Bloom's head against the wall, it's startling. It's like, "Oh, yeah. We're watching Hannibal. He's that guy." ...  If you look at Hannibal Lecter, he is — beyond the European dandy aesthetic and the accent, you're essentially dealing with Frasier Crane. It would be like suspecting Kelsey Grammer. Most audiences wouldn't suspect him of doing horrible things. Frasier Crane is very uptight, very fussy, he wouldn't dream of doing something terrible, because he's such a gentleman. That was the idea behind portraying Hannibal Lecter as an idiosyncratic guy, as opposed to somebody who instantly sets off everybody's alarm bells."
  • The Relationship Between Graham and Lecter: In interviews Fuller has described Lecter's feelings for Graham as being "affection" where Hannibal sees himself in Graham, and his manipulations are a form of tough love. Hannibal repeatedly tells his own psychotherapist, Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), that he wants to be Will's friend. Lecter sees Will's empathizing with killers as a way for him to embrace the darker parts of his nature, instead of shunning those impulses.
"Madness can be a medicine for the modern world ... a boost to the psychological immune system to help fight the existential crisis of modern life." —Dr. Hannibal Lecter
  • The Things That Are Changed: Some of the statements made by characters like Dr. Chilton (Raúl Esparza) in season one, as well as some of the events depicted in season two with Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), imply that the circumstances of how Hannibal will be discovered, arrested and incarcerated will unfold much differently than how it happened in the source material. The flash forward at the beginning of season two shows Hannibal and Jack Crawford fighting, suggesting that either Hannibal will be caught and arrested by Jack (instead of Will) in this version of events, or that Jack isn't going to last as long as his film and novel counterpart. Also, the characters of Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl) and Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) live through the events of Red Dragon, where here things go differently for them.
  • The Search for the Chesapeake Ripper: As in the books, Jack Crawford and the FBI are shown to be dedicated and obsessed with their pursuit of serial killers, but largely outwitted and outmatched while experiencing the psychological weight of the horrors they bear witness to. Lecter usually manipulates the investigation of the Chesapeake Ripper away from himself by distracting Jack Crawford, whether tormenting Crawford and his team in a direct way, or using Crawford's wife Bella (Gina Torres). Harris based the Crawford character on FBI Agent John Douglas, and Fuller has said that he's used elements of Douglas in his version of Will Graham. When actor Scott Glenn was researching the Crawford role for The Silence of the Lambs, Douglas sent Glenn a tape that was an audio recording serial killers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris had made of themselves raping and torturing a 16-year-old girl as they drove around Los Angeles. Douglas told Glenn it was an example of the ugliness that he had to experience and carry with him. And Glenn has said he was so haunted by what was on that tape that it was the reason he refused to reprise the Crawford role in any of the subsequent Lecter films.
Beverly pulled apart and analyzed.
Bryan Fuller: "As Will earns [Beverly's] trust and gets her to start looking at things, we start to care more about her, because she’s believing Will, and it’s a very dangerous position to be in, as she ultimately finds out. In order to really feel her loss, you have to see the impact of her loss on the other characters, which is why the big section at the beginning is non-dialogue reactions of people just absorbing the loss of the character, because I think whenever you sit down and you write one of those grieving scenes, they all become a little cynical in a sense, because there’s only so many ways that you can write, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” So to play it almost entirely cinematically and having just the reactions felt like it was a more honest, accurate representation of what it is to grieve, because you grieve in images. You don’t grieve in words. You grieve in emptiness; you don’t grieve in presence. It felt like that was a good way to feel her impact and her loss, was to see how everybody was reeling from it ...  It was absolutely the Body Worlds exhibit that inspired that, and the art of Damian Hirst, and it was the breaking down of the biological mechanics and the exploration of what that was is so fascinating and beautiful at the same time that it felt like, and we say this in the script, that he broke her down the way she would break down a crime scene, and that was very much what we wanted to do. It was almost an affront to the FBI, like I’m going to break down your agents the way your agents break down a crime scene and understand them more through that process. Damien Hirst, the Body Worlds museum, and also the elaborate “F you” to the FBI."
The Wendigo, the Wendigo
I saw it just a friend ago
Last night it lurked in Canada
Tonight on your veranada!
Ogden Nash
  • The Ravenstag that Knows My Name: As Will was drugged and his encephalitis worsened in season one, he was increasingly haunted by the vision of a deer with feathers for fur. The "ravenstag" (as it has been dubbed by fans of the show) is a representation of Dr. Lecter. Will first spots sculptures of deer in the offices of Lecter and Dr. Chilton, and Lecter uses a deer sculpture to murder the serial killer Tobias Budge (Demore Barnes). As the series has progressed, the ravenstag has taken on humanoid form as Will imagines both Lecter and himself taking on its qualities. At the beginning of season two, when Lecter walks up to Will's cell, Will first sees a cloven hoof instead of Lecter's leg.
  • Serial Killers Everywhere: Thankfully, in the real-world, serial murder is exceedingly rare, and comprises less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. However, since this is a television show, there's almost always a new killer that murders their victims in a new and exotic way each week. There are serial killers that murder by mushroom digestion, murder by acupuncture, murder to create "authentic" instrument strings, murder to create totem poles and murals, and of course murder to eat their victims. Real serial killers are usually divided into four categories (visionary, mission based, hedonists, and power/control), and fictional killers tend to fall into one or more of these categories as well. However, even in the books, Harris acknowledged that Lecter doesn't fit into any serial killer profile (which is also a way of getting around the more absurd aspects of the character). And neither Dr. Lecter or Will really fit the clinical definitions of psychopath or sociopath. One of the inspirations for Lecter was thought to be Albert Fish, but Harris has said the character is based on a real-life doctor and murderer he met while visiting a Mexican prison in the 1960s.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips/Flames (26+ / 0-)

    Other entertainment stories making news:

    • Variety: AMC’s The Walking Dead Finale Draws Whopping 15.7 Million Viewers
    • Washington Post: Frozen is officially your biggest animated film. Ever.
    • Deadline Hollywood: MGM To Make New Live-Action/CG Pink Panther Movie
    • Business Insider: Neil deGrasse Tyson Tells Us Why Star Trek Is So Much Better Than Star Wars
    • A.V. Club: Pharrell Williams to join The Voice next season
  •  This show is simply outstanding (5+ / 0-)

    Every time I watch it, I marvel in wonder as to how it ever ended up on network TV.

    Ergo, it will probably end up getting cancelled by an unimaginative suit.

    Dammit Jim, I'm a lawyer, not a grammarian. So sue me.

    by Pi Li on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 07:04:34 PM PDT

  •  'visiting' a Mexican prison. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, palantir, Matt Z, Larsstephens

    what a holiday that was.

    i'll be reading each of your words, because it's you.

    TRAILHEAD of accountability for Bush-2 Crimes? -- Addington's Perpwalk.

    by greenbird on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 07:05:24 PM PDT

  •  By the way... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, palantir, Matt Z might consider adding a "spoiler" alert to the start of this diary, as some of the pictures, and descriptions, in your diary reveal the fate of some key characters (for those planning DVR/DVD binge viewing later).

    Dammit Jim, I'm a lawyer, not a grammarian. So sue me.

    by Pi Li on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 07:24:40 PM PDT

  •  I Loooooooooooove (7+ / 0-)

    this show! I had to do a double take when i saw this on the front page of Dailykos though.

    I don't watch a lot of TV, but this show caught my eye because I'm a big fan of the films. So I spent the earlier part of the year catching up on season 1 that I had missed last year, and I was instantly hooked. Tell me, are other TV shows this well written and well directed, have I been missing stuff like this all my life?

    •  I don't watch a lot of TV either (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, Larsstephens, LinSea, Progrocks

      But this one also caught my eye. One thing the diarist really didn't discuss were the amazing visuals in Hannibal...the show has one of the most distinctive looks I've ever seen on television, and almost every scene looks like a work of art.

      And the beautiful way that Hannibal preparing his "meals" is shot is extraordinary as well. I'm convinced they must have a culinary specialist, and someone very skilled an photographing food, on staff.

      Dammit Jim, I'm a lawyer, not a grammarian. So sue me.

      by Pi Li on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 07:48:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Feeding Hannibal (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Pi Li, Matt Z

        ... is the blog of Janice Poon, the show's food stylist. Well worth the read, they go to astounding lengths to get the meals right. No other show makes me feel so disturbed ... and hungry, at the same time.

        Love, love, love this show to death. So David Lynch with its haunting use of sound design and bleak, surreal imagery. Great performances, great writing, I'm so happy that Bryan Fuller finally has a show that's lasted for more than one season. Keeping my fingers crossed it stays on the air!

  •  I wasn't going to watch it (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, Matt Z, LinSea

    but I caught one show and now I'm hooked.

  •  Do you take requests? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, Progrocks
    I was wondering if you could work your majic with a profile on Shameless.
  •  link weirdness? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, LinSea

    Hi Dr RJ... usually I like yr analyses a  lot but I don't care for cannibalism so haven't watched this....

    anyway! what I'm writing about is that the Business Insider link takes me to a BI page, and headers & footers that talk about NdG and ST/SW, but there's just a big blank in the middle of the page, not even a grayed-out "FLASH" and I can't find the video! I have found the Star TAlk Radio show (5:10) that looks like MAYBE it's about this subject, and I found a page that said I needed Java to view-- but I HAVE java....

    any ideas on finding that?

    thx much!!

    "real" work : a job where you wash your hands BEFORE you use the bathroom...

    by chimene on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 08:04:21 PM PDT

  •  I must admit, I came kicking and screaming (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ, LinSea, Pi Li

    to the table.

    When I first heard of it, I expected the worst.

    1. It's not on Showtime or HBO, it's on NBC. Network TV is limited in ways that a cable network is not in terms of language and violence. To the great credit of the show's talent, they have used the limitations and constraints to their advantage. Like a great Jazz musician who has a restricted palette of notes, you either see that as a handicap or you make beautiful and challenging art in the sandbox you have been provided. There has been terrible acts of violence and horrifying visuals. But it's stylized. Happens in bursts. At no time do you feel like what you are seeing is schlock. It's like each act of violence, terror, or horror is a moving painting or an experimental student film. Best of all, it's willing to leave things to your imagination because the people behind it clearly understand that, from time to time, leaving things to the imagination means the viewer is more horrified and disturbed by that than anything you could act out on screen.

    2. It's about a group of characters, and an author's universe, that has a pretty significant track record and fan base, well worn paths. "A census taker once challenged me...." "Hello Clarice". That mask that is probably second only to Jason Vorhees hockey mask as an icon of instant recognition. A dark character that is as recognizable as Darth Vader and Dracula. People "know" the Monster, these other people as well, so, you have to re-invent them and re-introduce them to a cynical and skeptical audience, write that audience off and go strictly for a new audience, or thread the needle and do both. Like being on a network with limitations on language and violence, that can cripple your creativity or unleash it. Again, the best is brought out instead of the hackwork. Bonus kudos for creating a great series from characters and material that also has arguably "jumped the shark" in terms of films that were clearly about cashing in on the infamy of one monster. Hannibal Lecter had hit the point where I was expecting an "Alien Vs. Predator Vs. Lecter" film.

    3. This is, in many ways, a golden age of brilliantly written television. That makes the bar higher for me. Hannibal lives as a show in the time/era of Dexter. Game of Thrones. Boardwalk Empire. The Wire. Mad Men. Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead. Justified. Under the Bridge. Sons of Anarchy. The bar had already been raised, as well as the expectations probably as low as they could go, before they started their run. So much was working against this being even given a shot or a chance. It's carved out its own niche admirably.

    4. This is also a time of television trainwrecks, and a number of the cast are movie stars with careers in film that could be marred. There are people who have things to lose all over this cast if this was a mess. This show takes risks to re-define the boundaries of narrative and character development that could be confusing and distracting in lesser hands. The avoidance of cliches when dancing in a genre that is a legendary garden of cliches is pretty breathtaking. You see hallucinations and fits of madness and terror as warped visuals and distorted fields of vision. Banality is used by these writers and film makers like a spice. To emphasize horror and re-enforce how numb and numbing some jobs and events can be for those whose greatest passion is justice and the business of sorting out terrible things.

    5. It seems so impossible to pull off in an hour. An hour. That's it. No, less than an hour. Gotta sell Tide and Honda Civics in between scenes. Each hour that is not an hour has to be part chapter of a book, part and movie unto itself. I'm often frustrated and sorry that it is over.  


    “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” — Auric Goldfinger

    by LeftHandedMan on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 11:20:52 PM PDT

  •  i LOVE this column! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ

    Thank you for starting this ongoing TV discussion! I always check it out and read what you have to say about different shows. I'll confess I'm not a Hannibal fan, but thanks for highlighting a series that many of my friends and acquaintances have recommended. I always try to keep an open mind.

    I am, however, a huge Grimm fan and I'm holding out hope you'll spotlight my favorite show eventually. :)

    Keep up the good work!

  •  I noticed in changes to the backstory (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Doctor RJ

    You missed the really obvious one: Freddie/Freddy Lounds getting a sex-switch. Over time her character is becoming more sympathetic than the version in Red Dragon/Manhunter and I can see her perhaps escaping getting mutilated and her corpse set on fire by Francis Dollarhyde.

    Or, given the show so far, perhaps not.

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