The Great Hannibal Lecter Deep Dive

Do you ever get really excited about a deep dive, go full-boat into it and then wash out? Well, that’s kind of what happened last year when I found myself minorly obsessed with Hannibal Lecter and his exploits throughout television, film and, of course, the written word. I started watching the series, which made me read the books, while still watching the show (a very unique and interesting experience) and then the movies, but I petered out after seeing my third take on the Red Dragon story. But, I still wanted to get these thoughts out there, so here’s most of the original post I started sometime last spring.

For years, I’d been hearing great things about NBC’s three season-long series Hannibal based on Thomas Harris’ character made most famous in The Silence Of The Lambs. It ran from 2013-2015 with Mads Mikkleson starring as the title character and Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, a pure empath who FBI Behavioral Sciences head Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) brought back in from his teaching gig in an effort to help catch a serial killer. I decided to dive right into the series thanks to its presence on Amazon Prime Video and now have a new favorite show!

As the series begins, Graham and Lecter — who is a psychologist at this time, working in Baltimore — become friendly, but the more Graham works on these cases, the deeper he falls into what seems like his own psychosis. I got really into this show, you guys. First off, it’s got fascinating stories punctuated with such gruesome murders and deaths that I kept track for a time thinking they could make for a great list, but then remembered the show had been out of commission for a few years. You’ve got people grown into trees, honey comb victims and all manner of other creative poses and embarrassments heaped upon the corpses. Every single member of the cast brings their best and does an amazing job, especially the two leads who balance one another in all the best ways, especially when in the presence of these horrors.

But the show is also beautiful. Creator Bryan Fuller has said that he took inspiration from not only the novels, but also very visual directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock to fill the frame with fantastic treats for the eyes (if you want to hear him talk about this show as well as the rest of his career, check out the episode of Shock Waves he was on). This carries over into the gorgeous suits Hannibal wears and also the food he prepares (which almost makes you think about going cannibal if it meant you could eat with this guy…and not get eaten BY this guy).

I was so taken with Hannibal, that I decided to do something I’ve never done before: start reading the source material while enjoying the show. While at the library, I was happy to discover that Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon was just sitting there on the shelf. This book focuses on Crawford pulling Graham out of retirement to help him find the Tooth Fairy killer which leads to Graham meeting with Lecter, the man who cut up his stomach and lead to his retirement three years earlier.

I enjoyed the book and it’s procedural nature, but the real treat came in the form of recognizing bits and pieces from the book in the show. Of course, lines of dialog translated directly from one to the other, but Fuller and company also turned descriptions into conversations and dropped in other bits and pieces that made me smile every time I caught them. While some of the plot points in this book were peppered throughout the first season, it really came into play in the second half of the third, which finally tackled the Tooth Fairy killer.

To my surprise, I then tore through Silence Of The Lambs, a book I actually read once before when I was a kid. I was probably way too young for it and the follow-up Hannibal, but there you have it. Rights issues kept characters made solely for Silence from the show, which explains the lack of Clarice Starling, but her ghost hovers all over the place in the form of other characters including Will, Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), Lecter’s shrink Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) and a former trainee of Crawford’s named Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky). In the end, it actually feels to me like the relationship between Hannibal and Will is more well-defined and earned than the one that develops between the madman and Clarice in the books. Of course, much of that comes from the longer form of the former and the increased amount of time I’ve spent with one version compared to the other.

I actually slowed down on watching the first half of season three because I was right in the middle of Hannibal (the book) and realized that there was going to be a lot of overlap between Lecter’s adventures in Italy and the confrontation with the Vergers. After finishing the novel, I got back into the series, but felt a little disconnected because I felt like I’d seen so many of the same beats in the book as in the show.

Next time I watch the series — I’m thinking of picking it up on Blu-ray because it’s SO PRETTY — I will not go the book route, but I’m glad I did it this time around because it added a lot more context, especially to the first two seasons which didn’t take as many plot points from the books.

Anyway, having finished the show, I’m still fascinated by the relationship between Hannibal and Will. In the Shock Waves interview I mentioned above, Fuller said that one of the most basic things he wanted to explore was a non-sexual male friendship between these two. I’m not so sure I’d want Hannibal for a friend given the wildly strange treatment he gave Will throughout these three seasons, but I hope something can be worked out so that we can see more of them in the future!

But, of course, you can’t really do a Hannibal Lecter deep dive without getting into the films themselves: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs (1994), Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) and Peter Webber’s Hannibal Rising (2007). After finishing the show and the books (minus Rising, which I just couldn’t bring myself to read), I dove into this in order of output.

I’d never actually seen Manhunter, but do remember knowing about it because it sat on the shelves at my beloved Family Video. It had come to mind again not long ago after I watched his episode of The Director’s Chair with Robert Rodriguez which was also fantastic. I added this film, Heat and Thief, but bumped the last one up to the top for reasons I can’t quite remember.

I’ve got to admit, this one felt like a disappointment in relation to what I’d already read and seen. It’s not that the plot changes bothered me — I appreciate those, especially with a story like this where I’d already read the book and seen the TV version — but it just felt like all style and zero substance. It was creepy and violent and intense, but there wasn’t much emotion to it. I’m sure it’d be a fun viewing experience as its own thing away from this deep dive, but I wasn’t satisfied this time around.

I then moved on to Silence Of The Lambs which I’ve seen and written about. I liked the film more this time than I did when I read it that time, but I still found myself liking the relationship between Will and Hannibal more than this one, though the performances are stellar. With that, I moved on to Hannibal, a film I still quite enjoy, even with the Julianne Moore casting switch. The last scene of that film SHOCKED me when I saw it the first time and I thought it was still effective this time around. I feel like this movie gets a bad wrap, but I had a good time with it.

Unfortunately, the deep dive faltered and ended with Red Dragon. I didn’t even have anything bad to say about that adaptation, but after experiencing the same story five times in such a small period of time, I was spent. I probably could have moved on to Rising, but by then I just didn’t have it in me anymore. It also didn’t help that the film producers basically blackmailed Harris into writing the book otherwise they’d just do whatever they wanted with the next film. That’s just not cool, dudes.

So, in the end, I walked away from this experience pleasantly surprised. Hannibal‘s easily one of my all-time favorite shows, I still think about it quite a bit even now and feel a re-watch coming on, possibly this year. I also can’t say enough about how interesting of an experience it was trading off between the books and the show, picking up all kinds of references my memory would not have allowed for otherwise. However, for me at least, it’s not a great idea to watch the films so close to the show because there’s just too many versions bouncing off of one another in that case. At the end of the day, though, whether he lives in your head as a book character or appears in the visages presented by Mikkleson, Hopkins or Cox, Hannibal Lecter remains one of the most interesting and complex villains in modern fiction.


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