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 HitchcockThere 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.
- 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.
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 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.