Silence of the Lambs came out at a formative period of my childhood. No, this isn’t a long-winded digression that’s going to end with a confession about how I keep a starving woman in the abandoned well on my property. That would be silly. I keep ten starving women down there. (That’s how I make my money. Bulk.) Anyway, when the film came out, I had never seen anything quite like it. It was dark and moody, indulging in what has since become the cliche of the superhuman serial killer, and it featured a heroine utterly undefined by her relationship with men. I loved it, and it’s also partly to blame for my refusal to accept Jodie Foster was gay until I witnessed her palpable revulsion at having to touch Matthew McConaughey back when he was at the height of his sex powers. Like many new fans, I eagerly devoured the novels, both Silence of the Lambs and its predecessor Red Dragon, and I clamored for the extended adventures of Hannibal Lecter. At the time, a rumor circulated that Thomas Harris’s novel Black Sunday was actually about the investigation into Lecter’s murders and subsequent manhunt. It’s not. It’s about some schmuck in a blimp.
Hannibalmania was nothing unique in 1991. Anthony Hopkins took what could have been a forgettable character and created an instant icon, winning a Best Actor Oscar with a meager 26 minutes of screentime. With Lecter’s popularity, Harris returned to him, first with the sequel Hannibal and then the origin story Hannibal Rising (to give the devil his due, Harris was compelled to write the second when producer Dino De Laurentiis said the movie was happening with or without his help), but in the process lost some of what made the character so fascinating. As is a danger with novelists and their most compelling characters, Harris fell in love with Lecter, walking back the cannibal doctor’s worst traits and instead turning him into something more akin to Dexter Morgan, where Lecter’s victims were chiefly people who deserved to die: Mason Verger the pedophile, the Nazi collaborators who killed and ate Lecter’s little sister, the sadistic and petty Dr. Chilton. He stopped being a monster, and became more of a cannibal Batman, which… actually sounds pretty cool now that I think about it.
But it’s not really Hannibal Lecter. At least, not the version that seduced me in that dark theater in February of 1991. Another Lecter had been brought to the screen five years earlier in Michael Mann’s hilariously overwrought Manhunter, indifferently portrayed by the normally magnetic Brian Cox, but due to the director’s usual contempt for his audience, the character elicited little more than eyerolling (from the protagonist of the movie, no less). The subsequent attempt at bringing Red Dragon to the screen did not fare much better, as the producers unaccountably decided to hire uberhack Brett Ratner to helm the beast. It’s a shame, because Red Dragon is actually the better novel of the two, though no studio has the stones to make a film whose protagonist is a serial killer who murders entire families.
When Hannibal debuted on NBC, I was skeptical. Very skeptical. After all, NBC is known chiefly as a collection of people dedicated to shooting themselves in the foot first and a network a distant second. I had soured on the sympathetic depictions of Lecter, and worried the continued downward spiral of Dexter would somehow infect a new serial killer show. Added to that, I had just watched Fox’s The Following, a show I had enjoyed in spite of its flaws, and I wasn’t certain how I would fit yet another show about serial murder into my schedule which — and I cannot emphasize this enough — does not include any actual serial murder.
I am no longer skeptical. I am a fan. A full-on drooling fanboy who can’t fucking wait for the next season. And I want to convince everyone I know to watch this thing and revel in its gothic majesty. It takes place before the events of Red Dragon, when Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) is a practicing psychiatrist in Baltimore. Though Hannibal is the title character, the lead is FBI advisor Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the hero of Red Dragon.
The show succeeds where even Harris failed: making Graham into an interesting character. He is one of those ubiquitous investigators with the ability to put his mind into that of a killer’s. I am not certain if Harris invented this particular cliche, but in every other depiction, Graham is mired in it. The show has wisely determined that the ability to do this is a form of mental illness, and Dancy runs with this interpretation in his performance. Graham always appears to be about five seconds from shattering, as he phobically avoids eye contact and his voice grows thin and reedy. He is a man not with a gift, but a horrible curse, and he can use it to save lives. But there are only so many he can save before he’ll be lost utterly to madness.
On the other end of the scale is Lecter. Mikkelsen wisely avoids aping Hopkins’s iconic portrayal, keeping his voice neutral and low, his sometimes incomprehensible Danish accent swallowing the words. His face has a fascinating ugliness to it, only adding to Lecter’s alien mien. Mikkelsen has said he plays Lecter as the Devil himself, which explains a lot. He has a few human qualities, but these are always tempered with his monstrous urges: he seems to enjoy his friendship with Graham, though he is happy to toy with the man for his own amusement. As appropriate, Lecter is often in the background of episodes, though his presence pervades everything. Both his identities touch the plot, as Graham’s therapist and friend, and the uncatchable serial killer, the Chesapeake Ripper.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, and creator Bryan Fuller thankfully cut back on Harris’s tendency to make everyone a white man. Laurence Fishburne gives us some gravitas as Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn’s character from Silence), striking the right balance of being concerned for Graham and wanting to use the remarkable gift to catch monsters. Fuller gender-swapped Graham’s colleague, turning Alan Bloom into Alana, and making her Lecter’s legitimate protege, and cast the tightly-coiled Caroline Dhavernas. The writers have given her the obligatory romantic subplot, though she’s never treated simply as a prize. Dr. Bloom is her own woman, her value not determined by any man. Former Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson plays one of Graham’s team and Gillian Anderson (fun fact: Dana Scully was partly based on Clarice Starling) is Lecter’s therapist.
All of these great actors would have nothing to do if the writing were bad. The writers like to tease us, sometimes making this look like a procedural, where each episode Graham catches some killer with Lecter’s help. In fact, the investigations take a backseat to the character interplay between Graham, Lecter, and their circle. The show becomes what Smallville teased us with in that first episode: the sprawling story of two unlikely friends destined to become bitter enemies.
Visually, the show is on an entirely different level. Every case has an operatic grandeur. Every killer does something unspeakably horrible and morbidly fascinating to his victims, and Graham has to experience the act of performing this. While in Mann’s version of the character, he pawns responsibility off on the killer (“Didn’t you!?! Didn’t you!?!”), Fuller’s Graham puts it on himself, narrating the murders in the first person, always with the line, “This is my design.” And then we see our increasingly unhinged hero do something awful. Graham’s hallucinations, from the acts themselves to the aftermath, including the sight of what I can only describe as an elk-shrike, look incredible. There’s very little dip in quality from the CGI on Hannibal to what you would see in a movie theater. And the visuals are far more innovative.
Hannibal is what I have been waiting for since I was that kid in the theater in February of 1991, watching Dr. Lecter describe what he did to census-takers. I didn’t even know I was still waiting for it; I had thought there never would be any way to recapture that dark wonder. I was wrong. And I am so very happy.