“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” – Jack Crawford, The Silence of the Lambs
That sage advice has been ignored by every writer and director to use the character of Hannibal Lecter ever since the huge popularity of Jonathan Demme’s great film and Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winning portrayal—including Thomas Harris, the author who created the character.
The most common complaint of a filmed book is usually that it doesn’t quite live up. However, the worst thing you can say about every embodiment of Hannibal Lecter post-Silence of the Lambs is that it follows the author’s vision.
Thomas Harris is a reclusive writer who popped up every 6 or 7 years to deliver a great and filmable thriller, beginning with Black Sunday in 1975, (made into a movie with Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern) about terrorists who want to blow up a blimp over the Super Bowl.
His 1981 book Red Dragon introduced the world to FBI behavioral sciences profiling, now a staple in thrillers to the point of cliché. This book, arguably the best serial killer novel ever written, featured Hannibal Lecter as an imprisoned chilling side character who was consulted by FBI profiler Will Graham in his pursuit of another killer.
But it was the follow up six years later, The Silence of the Lambs, that put the focus forever on the evil psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter—and led to the creative ruin of Thomas Harris.
Hannibal Becomes an Anti-hero:
The Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal, a popularity-driven sequel, became not the embodiment of evil who gave us nightmares, but a garbage collector who took out the irritating among us—and did it with charm and panache. He had become a character to amuse us, not to horrify us.
In my review at the time, I wrote:
Worse, while the other books have chilling portraits of sadistic behavior, “Hannibal” is an exercise in sadism. Readers are invited to revel in the pain of others without moral context or even the cheap thrills of hoping the innocent can escape. The deaths in “Hannibal” are of nasty people, delivered with relish by a charming sadist with whom we are encouraged to sympathize.
Harris begins one of his chapters with this question: “Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us. What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?”
Well, how about this book, for starters.
The inevitable film that followed was just as bad. If anything, it doubled down on the sadism. Jodie Foster refused to reprise her role as agent Clarice Starling, and I wrote that “everyone involved in this film should be ashamed.”
A prequel by Harris, called Hannibal Rising, trafficked in the Freudian excuses Red Dragon eschewed, making Hannibal the victim of a horrific upbringing (and was predictably followed by a terrible movie adaptation.)
Which brings us to the show “Hannibal” on NBC: After nearly two decades of horrible Hannibal offerings, I thought it was the worst idea I’d heard of in a while, and probably inspired by the success of “Dexter.”
But the first clue that I was wrong about TV’s “Hannibal” came in the credits, which said the show was “Based on the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.” Next was the casting of the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal, which signaled the writers were not going to try to make this sadistic monster a charming fellow.
And for two seasons, “Hannibal” was brilliant– if gruesome– television. But it has always struggled for ratings as it’s not for all tastes— and yes, pun intended.
Down the tubes in just one episode:
How Hannibal Should be Portrayed
NBC’s “Hannibal” is a prequel to Red Dragon, which has been filmed twice. Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter has William Peterson as troubled profiler Will Graham, Tom Noonan as the serial killer he is pursuing, and Brian Cox as the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter. Manhunter was criticized for being too close in style to Mann’s TV show, “Miami Vice,” but it was better cast than the 2002 reboot, with Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes as hunter and quarry, and mostly remade just to let Hopkins chew the scenery as Lecter again in an expanded role.
The TV show was to demonstrate how Will Graham first captured Lecter—and to explain the toll letting Lecter into his head to catch him took on him. Setting these two up as antagonists restored the moral center of Red Dragon and Season 2 ended in a bloodbath as Lecter unleashed his bloodlust on a sympathetic and terrific cast that includes Hugh Dancy as Will Graham and Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford.
Then, in just one episode, the writers, led by producer Bryan Fuller, descended from the heights of Red Dragon to the depths of Hannibal, as in season 3, just as in Book 3, Hannibal goes to Florence, and the show goes from being horrified by Lecter’s actions, to reveling in them.
And that’s the tendency any serious treatment of evil monsters must battle. Every thriller needs a compelling bad guy, but needs to avoid making him the only interesting character in the story.
As Sick as its Subject:
But even if it weren’t morally repellent, Season 3 of “Hannibal” is just plain unwatchable. Not one person has a conversation without speaking in hushed tones fraught with meaning and foreboding. No one, from cop to psycho, from hunter to victim acts at any time the way an actual person would act. No one.
And if you thought it was gruesome before, “Hannibal” is now in a perpetual nightmare state of slowly dripping blood, stop-motion photography flying blood and, well, blood—not to mention lovingly prepared and served cannibalistic dinners. Lots of them, with people saying macabre and ironic things in hushed tones.
The only way Bryan Fuller can possibly redeem the moral center of his story is if in the final scene of the season, Will Graham wakes up to find this was all a coma-induced dream brought on by hospital drugs and Hannibal Lecter’s playing with his mind before the attack.
That won’t get Fuller his audience back, though. It was never very big and this season has chased most of them off. And NBC has announced it will not renew the show.
Fuller had just about redeemed the legacy of Thomas Harris, but then he fell prey to it. Too bad.