The recent proliferation and, I might add, pervasiveness, of crime dramas like Sherlock (BBC One 2010-), Elementary (CBS, 2012-), Hannibal (NBC, 2013-), Whitechapel (ITV, 2009-2013), Ripper Street (BBC One, 2012-), and Copper (BBC America, 2012-2013), just to mention a few, all indicate an interesting albeit not unprecedented tendency in serial programming: the recurrence (and re-interpretation) of the classical and the iconic. In an article about the constant recurring of the Sherlock Holmes narrative, Ashley Polasek looks at three recent adaptations (the Warner Brothers franchise, BBC’s Sherlock, and CBS’s Elementary) and concludes that ‘though they differ in several ways including genre, medium, setting, and target audience, taken together, these adaptations offer not only unique interpretations of the character, but a surprisingly uniform vision of how this hero of page and screen has evolved’ into a post-modern, action-driven, and vitriolic anti-hero (1).
Similarly to the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes, the figure of the serial killer emerges as a narrative and iconographic topos that is constantly re-invented and re-interpreted. A closer look at three of these programmes, Whitechapel, Ripper Street, and Hannibal, provides a good opportunity to attempt to offer a (non-definitive) theorization of the ways adaptations have recently moved away from the pursuit of an already problematic authenticity and fidelity to ideas of conversion, reinvention and reinterpretation by performing an underlying de-centring move that shifts the location of ‘origin’ from source text to the spectrality of a subversive iconography. A possible consequence of this de-centring is that the positing of iconography as a supplement, may – or may not – account for the interdependence of adaptation and serialisation as well.
To begin with, adaptation, as Linda Hutcheon explains, is primarily a generic category, it is ‘an announced and extensive transposition of a particular work or works’ (7), whereas serialisation has to do with form; it not only underlines the structural dimension of a work, but also functions as a narrative mode. The juxtaposition of Hannibal and Whitechapel exposes the problematic nature, as well as the interdependence, of these two, seemingly distant categories: the character of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychiatrist-serial killer originates from Thomas Harris’ quadrology, which, as the term indicates, is a serialized narrative itself. The character, however, was immortalized by Sir Anthony Hopkins’s memorable performance in the film-adaptation of the books. The interdependence of serialization and adaptation is further-enhanced by marketing strategies where the films were used to ‘advertize’ the books, and vice-versa [it is an interesting development, that in 2002, New York’s Brooklyn Museum used the film Red Dragon (Brett Ratner, 2002) to advertise its exhibition of William Blake’s artwork, and among them the famous painting that was central to the narrative of both the book and the film].
The television series Hannibal premiered on NBC on 4 April 2013, and, at least as regards the premise of Season 1, it relies extensively on Red Dragon (the book and the film-adaptation alike) for character and plot. In chronological terms, the programme tells about the events that lead up to the plot of Red Dragon, and focuses on the story of the relationship between forensic psychologist Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Dr Hannibal Lecter. The programme elaborates on the most emblematic and memorable elements of its pretext: Lecter, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, is the same well-known connoisseur, elegant and aristocratic as he can be. He sees Will as an intellectual match to himself. But here Lecter’s uncanny intelligence and monstrosity is blended with hints of vigilantism – not because he kills criminals (he does), but because he kills those who deserve it according to his twisted logic: as Mikkelsen himself explains in an interview, Hannibal ‘is not a classic psychopath. He’s not [killing] for reasons that other serial killers would. It’s not the childhood; it’s not that his mother was a junkie — that’s way too banal for him. For him, it’s something else. The threshold between life and death is extremely beautiful. The rest of us see evilness there, but [Hannibal] sees beauty there’. Lecter does not look at Will as an apprentice or as a rival (much like the book and the film would have it), rather, he sees Will as a friend; there is even an uncanny intimacy that characterizes their relationship: Lecter sees into Will, not only as a therapist, but also as his alter-ego (which he points out multiple times). He’s also a curious representation of the Other Derrida speaks about, the Other who can see into me, who can see my secret self (92).
The portrayal of the relationship of Will Graham, and Hannibal Lecter is founded on their uncanny collaboration: Lecter helps Will understand the thinking of the serial killers he is trying to apprehend. In the series, Will is equipped with a new character trait; his intuitive skills are somewhat magnified in the show, and his empathic skills are signalled by flashback-like visions where he places himself into the position of the perpetrators. These visions are becoming more and more disturbing – which prompts him to seek Lecter’s counselling in the first place. But interestingly, and this is one of the most curious ‘novelties’ in the programme, their conversations balance between discussions of cases and private therapy sessions for Will. Their set pieces are characterized by ambiguity; Lecter’s introjections serve a dual purpose: they are supposed to open up new perspectives for Will and also, to confuse him. Lecter very often turns Will’s arguments around – echoing the game-pattern of classical thriller narratives, and also the (mimetic) rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty, or Jack the Ripper and the police – as illustrated by these dialogues from Season 1 Episode 5:
Will [about a suspect]: ‘If he was self-destructive, he wouldn’t be so careful.’
Lecter: ‘Unless he is careful about being self-destructive.’
Lecter: ‘So God gave this man insight into the heads of others?’
Will: ‘He didn’t give him insight, he gave him a tumor; he is just a man whose head is playing tricks on him.’
The series takes advantage of dramatic licence in its horizontal expansion of the original narrative (and premise of plot) of Harris’ books (and their film adaptations) to explore (and expand on) the concept of rivalry, mayhem, and brilliantly orchestrated back-stories of originally less central characters, when, at the end of season one, it has Lecter frame Graham for all the murders Lecter has committed. Season two then finds Graham in a hospital for the criminally insane. In an ironic turn, Graham assumes the character traits (and the iconographic attributes) associated with Lecter in the films, in line with the curious exchange of identities for which season one meticulously paved the way. The plot then reverts to an intricate quest for identity: in order to prove his innocence, Graham needs to re-establish his own sanity and identity through a series of Macchiavellian manipulations that, ironically, render him even more similar to Lecter.
Apart from iconic characters, narrative space also assumes a spectral identity that is contrived through a specific iconography: Whitechapel focuses on the iconicity of space. The haunting legacy of historical crimes emerging as reverberations of the Ripper-murders, and the web of (fictional and non-fictional) narratives surrounding the subsequent investigation, are all linked together via their close connection to (and dependence on) the same geographical location. The programmeme follows a group of investigators who investigate murders that replicate historical crimes committed in the Whitechapel district. The programme can also be conceived of as a transposition into a 21st century setting of the concept of Ripper Street, which is, technically, a costume drama set in London’s East End just six months after the Ripper-murders. The question of the haunting presence of historic space is of particular significance to these dramas, especially when it comes to accounting for the popular image of late-19th-century East End. It is very difficult to tell fact from fiction/fabrication especially if one reads both as culturally entrenched discourses. Deciding whether these two shows are ‘adaptations’ or original programmes that re-imagine the past is a challenging task. Given the subject-matter, Whitechapel is prone to be read as an adaptation, a present-day re-imagining of historical crimes – and indeed, the detectives are after copycat killers who replicate such crimes (at least in the first three seasons). The programme’s signature shots visually amplify and mark this referenciality by juxtaposing shots of crime scenes to shots of illustrations of the same settings that appeared in contemporaneous newspapers and magazines. There is also an apparent abundance of the elements of mise-en-scene that help the programme articulate the spectrality of the Victorian atmosphere: the characters’ clothes, lighting, enterieurs, shabby police offices, the famous archive room in the basement of the police station, the characters’ ambiguous and often allegorical dialogues, and, most importantly the London cityscape, especially the night-for-night sequences shot in dark alleys paved with cobbles, all emerge not only as atmospheric elements but also as constituents of an iconography that is both subversive and conservative – in the sense that it renders the new by means of both subverting and retaining the familiar and the recognizable. In other words, these ‘adaptations’ rely on no singular source text (or discourse, for that matter) or on specific sets of representational patterns and conventions, but rather on a network of inter-connected narratives and modes of symbolizing through converging media – that sublimate into a spectral iconography.
In a similar fashion, Ripper Street re-imagines the past of the East End – but doing so by constantly bombarding the viewers with instances of cinematography reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s vision of London. Also, Ripper Street pays tribute in a curious form to the apparent forensic imperative of crime television by allowing a sneak-peak into the beginnings of forensic science and policy-making surrounding the establishing of scientific procedures as standards for modern day criminology.
Another pivotal aspect of this iconography characteristic of these dramas is the emphasis on specific conceptualisation of the flesh. The graphic portrayal of murder, mutilation, hints to the collection of surgical trophies in both Hannibal and Whitechapel evoke the context of other serial murder dramas, ranging from Criminal Minds to Dexter, or the more forensically focused programmes like Bones and the CSI franchise. The celebratory elaboration of a curious ‘fetishization of the flesh’ – more particularly, of ‘psychoanalysis in-carnate’ connects these dramas not only to the gory visuals of horror, and to the immediate media context into which these dramas are entrenched, but also to each other: Hannibal’sserial killers and Whitechapel all draw on the haunting legacy of Jack the Ripper. Hannibal is particularly big on the conceptualization of the ‘flesh-cut-up’: murdered and mutilated, and also, served as food. This provocative juxtaposition is enhanced by the episodes titles that allegorize on the name of an exquisite meal or dish. Moreover, the conversations between Will and Lecter, or Lecter and Jack Crawford often take place over meals, usually at Lecter’s house, where the origin of the food served is more than dubious. These dialogues are equally allegorical and ambiguous, resulting in a series of uncanny doubles: medicine and its other; the profiler and his other; the body and its other.
In conclusion, we might say that iconography as supplement, blended into a coherent, elaborate narrative universe, also discloses a curious form of auto-referenciality built into the machinery of the narratives. Hannibal, Whitechapel and Ripper Street are not simply baroque representations of a social pathology (the circulation of the iconographies of the monstrous, of the phenomenology of violence, or of psychoanalytical curiosity) that tries to talk reason in the face of behavioural aberrations reminiscent of Lombroso’s conceptualisation of the criminal man. They also disclose the pathologization of social pathology itself.
These observations may indicate a re-appropriation of the symptomatic role serial television plays in the circulation of patterns, and the re-invention of narrative topoi. Since their legitimization in academia, discourses on contemporary serialized prime time drama have always been driven to questions of aesthetics, which, simply by their critical trajectory, position these dramas in relation to each other and to other (filmic, or written) texts, and to the pseudo-narratives of reception and production. As Kackman writes, evaluative discourses of quality are predicated on the understanding that these days “we’re in a period of some very interesting narrative television” where the concept of quality brings together the formal and institutional characteristics of the televisual medium. Quality is discussed in terms of textual features, modes of production as well as reception, and participatory models of audiences. As regards the curiosity about the narrative structure of TV series, Neil Harris speaks about an “operational aesthetics” (quoted in Mittel (35) that derives from a narrative complexity that blends episodic and serial structure. It mobilizes the back stories of characters, expands the plot in multiple directions (Mittel, 35) into a(n almost hypertextual) network of narratives that triggers a continued suspension of the “sense of an ending” – a trait that is inherent, and, one might add, a necessary minimum to the serial.
The hauntology of iconography, as a consequence, does not impose a constraint on the adaptations, where representational fidelity and authenticity would be the most important regulatory schemas; on the contrary, iconography is understood here as a frame, as that which allows for ‘free play within the structure’, that is, the exploration, re-invention and re-interpretation of character, space, and narrative topoi to our specific times and specific audiences. These circumstances also indicate that adaptation is at the same time conservative AND innovative, building itself on what Clare Parody calls a ‘balance of familiarity and novelty’ (211).
David Levente Palatinus holds a lectureship in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the University of Ruzomberok. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Bologna. He has published on forensic crime fiction, corporeality, the representation of the body, and violence and deconstruction. He is currently working on a booklength project called “The PathologEthics of Culture.”