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An Introduction to Hannibal

*Contains some spoilers if you’ve yet to watch series 1 of Hannibal*

Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon changed the landscape of crime fiction, establishing the forensic procedural as a sub-genre and introducing Dr Hannibal Lecter. The charismatic serial killer was first played on-screen by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s cult 1986 film Manhunter, but he became a cultural phenomenon with Harris’s 1988 sequel The Silence of the Lambs and Jonathan Demme’s multiple Oscar-winning 1991 film adaptation – which of course gave Anthony Hopkins his defining role.

Following the success of Silence, Harris fell into the trap of bringing a character who worked best as a dark shadow into the spotlight of a leading role. The third Lecter novel Hannibal, published in 1999, was Grand Guignol fun but it, and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, failed to match previous artistic success. A plain bad prequel, Hannibal Rising, followed in 2006, with Harris simultaneously working on the screenplay for the 2007 film adaption.

It felt as though the character had run its course, so the announcement in 2011 of a TV series that would both re-boot the character and be another Red Dragon prequel was not met with enthusiasm. That the show would be made for NBC with the restrictions of network television rather than a cable channel furthered suspicions that the result would be a CSI-clone, ironically a franchise that owed much to Harris’s writings (and starring William Petersen who played the Will Graham in Manhunter). Well, to paraphrase one of the series’ victims, we were ‘wrong, so wrong’.

The influence of Harris’s novels means the premise of Hannibal feels familiar. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is an FBI instructor with a unique gift (or curse) that makes him a desirable asset to the Head of the Bureau’s Behavioural Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). Graham suffers from a rare empathy disorder that allows him to analyse a crime scene and from the grisly details enter the mind-set of the killer, then predicting their moves. Crawford is concerned with Graham’s mental state and insists he enter therapy under the care of Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) a brilliant psychiatrist, but also a cannibalistic serial killer.

In season one, murder-of-the-week episodes gradually gave way to an ongoing story in which Lecter abuses his position to send Graham to the brink of madness, whilst covering up his own murderous activities. Not unlike The Walking Dead, Hannibal plays on fans’ knowledge and expectations derived from the source material, whilst also working perfectly well as a stand-alone piece: significant dialogue from the novels and films is seamlessly dropped into the scripts; key events are echoed and repeated; certain characters have switched genders – most notably Graham’s secondary nemesis, an unscrupulous tabloid blogger called Freddy Lounds (brilliantly played by Lara Jean Chorostecki). The season concluded with Graham incarcerated having been expertly framed by Lecter for his crimes.

The second season sees Graham in a position not unlike that of Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (his asylum garb and a distinctive muzzle he must wear clearly reference Demme’s film). Now able to see how he was manipulated, Graham continues to feign madness whilst playing a deadly game of chess with Lecter from behind bars.

Under the creative direction of executive producer/writer Bryan Fuller (the creator of Pushing Daisies) Hannibal has blossomed into one of the best series currently on air. Whilst firmly rooted in the crime procedural genre it has a lush and opulent visual style. I would credit British director and executive producer David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) as a key player. Slade’s terrific pilot episode ‘Aperitif’ (all the episode titles are food related) clearly wrote the style guide: elaborate and smooth camera work (handheld ‘shaky-cam’ is banished); striking use of colour in desaturated winter locations; a fascination with capturing the faces and micro-expressions of the cast (Mikkelsen is especially good in this regard, able to chill the blood with the faintest of smiles). Added to this are elaborate sets and costumes (Hannibal’s neckties alone are a fetish item), a chilling modern classical score by Brian Reitzell, and graphic makeup effects.

Key to the series’ success is its approach to Lecter and Graham. Fuller understands that less is more when it comes to ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ but also that Will Graham is at least as fascinating. Mikkelsen underplays Lecter but makes the character his own, convincingly dangerous but also cool and intellectual. Mikkelsen is able to invite us to examine at close range an alpha predator, whose actions, like the killers of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, are based on his intellectual contempt for humanity. Hugh Dancy, a slight English actor, seemed initially a bizarre choice to play Graham (following Petersen and Edward Norton in the role). However, the actor has created a definitive reading of the part, both vulnerable and (when required) deranged. Graham is a complicated and deeply flawed hero: his capacity for empathy runs to both killer and victim, giving him a level of understanding that makes those around him uncomfortable.

Hannibal struggled in the US ratings; its second season renewal was rumoured to be touch-and-go. However, during its second season, the ratings dramatically improved and – contrary to stereotypes – this startlingly graphic show has scored particularly well with a female audience. Speculation about gender aside, Hannibal works because it is fundamentally an interesting story featuring a cast of fascinating characters that its audience connects with (fascinating does not necessarily mean sympathetic). That this is wrapped up in such a stylish and visceral package seals the deal.

My compliments to the chef.

Creator: Bryan Fuller

Cast: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Laurence Fishburne, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams, Hettienne Park

Hannibal’s first season is available on DVD, Blu Ray and VOD through Sky’s Now TV service; the second series is currently being broadcast on Sky Living. Bon appetit!

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