We need to talk about ‘Hannibal’

Monday, November 9, 2020 - 2:29pm

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How does a TV show from 2013 based on a movie from 1991 and a book from 1981 continue to influence us in 2020?

Well, Hannibal Lecter can be very persuasive. The cannibalistic ex-psychiatrist has captivated American audiences for nearly forty years and remains one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history.

Author Thomas Harris’s most famous character is known mainly for the 1991 film “The Silence of the Lambs.” Starring Jodie Foster (“Hotel Artemis”) and Anthony Hopkins (“Westworld”), it is one of the few horror movies given mainstream critical acclaim and only the third film in history to sweep the Academy Awards in the five main categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

2013’s cult classic “Hannibal” has not manged to equal such success in either accolades or ratings. After poor viewership during its first two seasons, the NBC series was canceled before the story arc was completed. Like many shows backed by producer Bryan Fuller, “Hannibal” found a deeply-devoted fanbase that remains loyal years after the show’s untimely demise. While the TV adaptation was short-lived, its grip on audiences presents an interesting new development to Harris’s beloved franchise. 

Based on the novel “Red Dragon,” the psychological thriller follows FBI agents Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, “Homeland”) and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne, “The Matrix) on their hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper. Unbeknownst to them, the cannibalistic serial killer is their close friend Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, “Doctor Strange”), who is hiding in plain sight as a highly respected psychiatrist.

“Hannibal” garnered much attention for its stunning visuals and acting performances. The atmospheric series employed a dark-yet-decadent aesthetic to explore the world of the rich and well-educated. While the carnage is undoubtedly gory, the world of Dr. Lecter is given a quality no other adaptations have been able to achieve: beauty. Utilizing gorgeous cinematography, Fuller creates a world which somehow makes human flesh look appetizing and heinous crimes artistic.

While the intellectual connection between Starling and Lecter captivated audiences, that of Hannibal and Graham is even more compelling. Mikkelsen and Dancy’s chemistry supplies substance to the show’s signature glamor. Throughout its three seasons, “Hannibal” evolves from a more traditional killer of the week procedural into a deeply disturbing look into the human capacity for both empathy and evil. With the relationship between the conflicted main characters as its focus rather than a simplistic plotline, the show exposes why the character of Hannibal Lecter has remained relevant since the early ’80s.

Dr. Lecter presents a curious paradox for fans of the horror genre. Cold and calculating, yet charming. Savagely violent, yet composed. He is neither a slasher flick villain nor an untouchable genius. “Hannibal” brings all of his contradictions to the surface, mainly because of the intense intimacy between the doctor and Graham. The show presents his character as arguably more human than the franchise’s films. Since the series’ premiere in 2013, the killer psychiatrist is no longer just Hannibal the Cannibal or a joke about fava beans and Chianti. His careful manipulations and taste for the extravagant weave the iconic character into the artful production of the show. 

Presumably, “Hannibal” will be remembered as a moderately successful adaptation of a classic series. In failing to recognize the tact with which it approaches its titular character, we risk losing one of the most visually impressive and delectably dramatic examples of quality television. It remains dazzling and hypnotic upon multiple viewings and deserves a more prominent place in the horror and thriller canons.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.

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