If horror has a new name on television, then that name is actually something more familiar, something immediately recognizable. I’m talking about NBC’s Hannibal, the Bryan Fuller serial-killer thriller inspired by Thomas Harris’s first “Hannibal Lecter” novel Red Dragon. Hannibal intently focuses on Lecter’s work with the F.B.I. and his relationship with the investigator, Will Graham, who ultimately captures him, a relationship that Harris only briefly mentions and is not nearly so involved in his book. (While investigating his serial murders, Graham, we are told, only visits Lecter twice. During their second meeting, he realizes that Hannibal is the killer when he finds “an illustration they used in a lot of the early medical books” in a text on Lecter’s shelf (55). Lecter attacks him, and that’s pretty much it.) Though “the idea of showing what happened before we met characters with whom we are already familiar” should, as Richard Hewett wondered in a previous post, “have limited appeal,” the backstory on Hannibal, under Fuller’s direction, ironically plays out like something new and has, for all of its struggles in the ratings, quickly developed a cult following on social media. (They call themselves “Fannibals.”) Slickly made and visually extravagant, the series never attempts to offer itself up as a second-rate Silence of the Lambs or to mine Anthony Hopkins’s Academy Award portrayal for Lecter’s character nuances. Rather, it reimagines and reconfigures the characters, the atmosphere, and the storylines so that the familiar no longer feels so familiar and the end result no longer feels so certain. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Hannibal is graphic, bloody, and nightmarish. It may also be the most compelling show on television and offer some new direction for the medium’s ongoing obsession with the anti-hero.
That reimagining begins with the character of Hannibal Lecter himself and his portrayals from film to television. Although the names are the same, the monsters themselves are entirely different. For Hopkins, whose performance is the gold standard, Hannibal was equal parts Edwardian snob and Wolf-Man, as quick to condemn rudeness as he was to eat a census-taker’s “liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” From his menacing turn as the blood-tearing Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale, Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is more subtle, a psychiatric Dracula who conceals his fangs behind three-piece suits, just as he conceals his victims within the meticulously prepared gourmet meals that he serves his guests, including F.B.I. Director Jack Crawford and his wife. The consummate manipulator, this Hannibal, however, is not simply looking to spice up his dinner menu; he takes great pride in teasing Crawford with the severed arm of a trainee and psychically driving Will toward insanity. Crawford and Graham trust him enough to work on some of their most puzzling cases, never realizing that the most dangerous killer of all and the greatest threat to their peace of mind is within their midst, advising and counseling them while routinely adding to his Chesapeake Ripper body count.
While it bears Hannibal’s name, though, the real focus of the series is Will Graham, a character so intriguing that he has been portrayed nearly as much as the ravenous Lecter himself. In many ways, Graham stands out in Harris’s novel as an F.B.I. Christ, someone whose unusual powers of perception and detection help him to track down and capture killers, like Lecter and the Tooth Fairy, but leave him with permanent physical and psychological scars and may even cost him his marriage as a result. (After Dolarhyde disfigures him at the end of Red Dragon, Clarice refers to Graham, in Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, as “a drunk in Florida now with a face that was hard to look at” (73).) William Petersen masterfully played him as obsessive and on the edge in 1986’s Manhunter; Edward Norton turned him into an F.B.I. whiz kid in 2002’s Red Dragon. Critic Sean Farren, among others, has also suggested that Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy in that other serial-killer drama, The Following, is yet another manifestation of the “world-weary […] Graham from […] Harris’[s] novel.” This time around, however, Graham isn’t the family man weighing his love for and commitment to his wife and son, “Spock-like,” against “the needs of the many” or the lives of so many potential victims. When we meet him at this early point in his career, he is a loner, a stray like the dogs that he finds and cares for, a socially awkward F.B.I. instructor who falls, by his own admission, somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum and comes out, as Hugh Dancy plays him, somewhat closer to Petersen’s interpretation, with Dancy looking over the edge and beyond.
But, where so many serial-killer storylines work off of the detective genre—and Dexter functions this way as well—by using clues and logic to make sense of the killer’s crimes and understand his or her deviant behavior, Graham’s gift, in Hannibal, “is pure empathy” (Fuller 74). He doesn’t just rely on deductive reasoning to recreate the crime. Falling into a trance at the scene, Graham momentarily sees himself as the killer in the act and feels what the killer feels. (He even describes what takes place in the first person.) The audience, moreover, is privy to this vision. In fact, while the series has already served up a smorgasbord of murderers and madmen, we primarily see the crimes from Will’s perspective, with Will playing the role of killer, and witness his remorse and horror when he comes out of his trance and returns to himself. If “listening to Dexter’s [voice-over] narration [makes us] his accomplice,” as James Hibberd suggests in a quote that I mentioned in my last post, then watching Will go in and out of trance gives us some sense of the disturbing nature of his gift, that he must assume these clearly unhealthy guises and accept the psychological consequences for the greater good. As other shows, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, continue to explore the possibilities of the anti-hero on television, Hannibal, then, offers us yet another variation on this theme: a hero who becomes the villain in order to catch him or her and, in doing so at the risk of his own sanity, becomes all the more heroic.
In this regard, in exploring the psychological complexities and the deranged visions in such inherently unstable figures, including Graham, Hannibal does not take its cues from the police procedural intensity that characterized Silence and Red Dragon or those other films and television shows, The Following among them, that have “followed” in their wake. Rather, the series works as an eerie, effective mix of Gothic horror and surrealistic nightmare. Human bodies are turned into mushroom fertilizer, angels with wings, a totem pole, and, last but not least, some appetizing entrees. A killer, a monster literally hides under Will’s bed. A number of characters, from the F.B.I to the killers themselves, wonder if they are awake or asleep and question their state of mind. Will, most of all, repeatedly loses sleep and time, as bizarre dream visions and hallucinations haunt him from week to week and make him doubt his reality. “A raven-feathered stag” (88), as Fuller calls it in the pilot script, periodically finds its way into his investigations. Garrett Jacob Hobbs, the serial killer that Will himself kills in the pilot, suddenly appears to clap when Will sees himself “playing” a victim who was “transformed” into a cello. In the same way that Will’s attempt to draw a clock for Hannibal turns into a Dali-esque image, with the numbers spilling out of the dial, he dreams of his own alarm clock dissolving into water before he dissolves on his bed. The series visually plays into these questions for the audience, from the realistic creation of these dreams to the clouds and sun that race by in the background from location to location, adding to the sense that we are in some unfamiliar place, some foreign dreamscape where the rules of the known world no longer apply.
As Max California warns private investigator Tom Welles in 8mm, “If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.” The price for Graham and the other “innocents” who dare to take part in this dance and immerse themselves in this world isn’t just the memory of some bloody crime scene photos or a mutilated corpse. It’s the sacrifice of their security, their beliefs, their identities, their psyches. Regardless of how the central storyline plays out and how restrained the villainous ultimately are, that change, for the heroic, cannot be reversed, and that loss of innocence cannot be repaired. They can’t unsee what they have seen or unknow what they now know. In Harris’s Red Dragon novel, we learn, via a Freddy Lounds Tattler story, that Will “was admitted to the psychiatric wing [of Bethesda Naval Hospital] soon after he killed Garrett Jacob Hobbs” (92). As Bryan Fuller fleshes out those details so vividly, we can understand, if the series follows suit, where that breakdown comes from and why it happens. This is his design.
To Harris’s great credit, the Hannibal Lecter/Will Graham backstory has become a kind of cultural myth for us, one that speaks as much to the fears about our transgressive, devouring natures as it does to our desire to contain them. Inasmuch as that myth has evolved to speak to the particular needs of different generations, this current version, so elegantly prepared and artistically designed, reminds us that the more important conflict between good and evil, if those absolutes still have meaning, isn’t the physical one that inevitably ensues; it’s the internal one between the realities that we would cling to and the nightmares from which we are trying to awake. (As Milton’s Satan argues in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place and in itself/ Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven” (I.254-255).) In this context and on this playing field, how do we stop the monsters or the tidal wave that Graham envisions from overwhelming us and sweeping us under? On Hannibal, it all becomes a matter of will.
Douglas L. Howard is Chair of the English Department on the Ammerman Campus at Suffolk County Community College, editor of Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (2010), and co-editor of The Essential Sopranos Reader (2011) and The Gothic Other (2004).