Since first appearing in print more than three decades ago, the character of Hannibal Lecter has maintained a grip on the imagination of millions through several books and their subsequent movie adaptations. Perhaps it’s the lure of that cultured voice, drawing us in. Perhaps it’s the hope that, were we to confront his analogue in the real world, he would find us as interesting as he found Clarice Starling, and thereby spare us.
Now NBC is hoping fans are still interested in spending time in the company of the evil genius in the new series Hannibal, which premiered last Thursday. (The first episode is available online at NBC or Hulu; new episodes will air Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern time.)
Readers of Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon were the first to encounter Hannibal Lecktor (Harris spelled the name that way in this book, then changed it for all others). Only a secondary character, he is already in prison, but it is established that he had assisted the FBI in capturing other killers while committing murders himself, and that he in turn was caught by FBI agent Will Graham.
The book was the basis for the 1986 movie Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann and starring William Petersen as Graham and Brian Cox as Lecktor. Though it suffers from some creaky dialogue and an ending that’s a little too Hollywood for its own good (Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, chose not to follow the book’s ending), its overall execution is quite good, establishing a modern standard for the genre that many others have tried and failed to replicate.Realizing the value of what he had created, Harris wisely moved Lecter to center stage in his next book.
Realizing the value of what he had created, Harris wisely moved Lecter to center stage in his next book, The Silence of the Lambs, which was released in 1988. Though Harris’s fans had been eagerly anticipating the book, Lecter didn’t achieve household-name status until the film version arrived in 1991 and became a box-office hit and a cultural phenomenon, sweeping the Oscars the following year.
Later works were less successful. The ending of 1999’s Hannibal shocked and confused many readers. How could she? It’s possible Harris simply decided to subvert expectations and set about creating the most unexpected scenario he could devise. When plans for the film version began moving forward, Jodie Foster declined to return as Clarice (ultimately a smart decision). Julianne Moore’s performance has been maligned, but it’s not entirely her fault; though her difficulties with Clarice’s accent are a factor, the material is equally to blame.
At this point, someone had the idea to keep the cash flowing by remaking Manhunter, but with Hopkins appearing as Lecter. The result was 2002’s Red Dragon, a movie that stayed truer to the ending of Harris’s book but is otherwise inferior to Manhunter in every significant way.
In 2006 Harris released Hannibal Rising, the story of Lecter’s formative years in Europe and how the horrors he witnessed as a child during World War II damaged his psyche and contributed to the genesis of his criminal behavior. Harris also wrote the screenplay for the film, which was released largely to ridicule, but it is a watchable curiosity, if gratuitously gruesome in parts, and serves to fill in Lecter’s background.So, is there still enough material to continue mining this vein? Judging only from the first episode of Hannibal, yes.
So, is there still enough material to continue mining this vein? Judging only from the first episode of Hannibal, yes. The show was developed by Bryan Fuller, the creative force behind Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me. Fuller’s shows have a lush look, and he loves to use color in very specific ways, like Lecter’s clothing in the pilot.
This version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter fits between the teenager of Hannibal Rising and the prisoner of Manhunter/Red Dragon. He is in his mid-40s and has a successful psychiatry practice in Baltimore. He is portrayed by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, probably best known to American audiences as the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. In Hannibal he is not attempting to mask his accent, and it’s difficult to say after only one episode whether or not this was the right choice creatively, but it does reinforce Lecter’s sense of otherness, his outsider status.
Also intriguing is the question of Lecter’s motivation for helping the FBI, and whose side he is really on. Graham’s ability to empathize with killers makes Lecter want to get close to him, perhaps to explore the possibility of grooming him as a protégé or acolyte. But at the same time he is assisting the FBI, he is also seen deliberately obstructing justice. It would be unwise for this to become a regular pattern of their investigations, because it will quickly grow tiring.
Whether or not Hannibal is successful as a TV show, one place Lecter’s story is unlikely to go is beyond the conclusion of the 2001 movie Hannibal. It’s doubtful that anyone wants to see an elderly Hannibal and Clarice living out their days in a retirement community, going to bingo night and playing bridge.