Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
It’s a good time to be a serial killer. At least as far as TV dramas go. We’ve had a recent onslaught of make-believe murderers between The Following, Bates Motel, and now Hannibal. Out of all of these though, it’s Hannibal that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. While The Following has followed its antagonist on the loopy road to crazy town, and the muddled but intriguing Bates Motel has struggled to find its tone, Hannibal has erupted onto televisions with artful vigor and refined melancholy. Make no mistake though, this Hannibal is definitely a cannibal.
It’s a strange proposition, to create a new series, based on classic source material, that’s very much of an era, and then modernize the setting. It’s the same situation that faces both Hannibal and Bates Motel. Bates Motel has done this by giving everything a 60’s flare, despite taking place in the present. Characters may use cell phones, but, especially when it comes to Norman and Norma, the clothes and sets have a retro feel. Bates Motel always had more of an uphill challenge than Hannibal. Psycho is not only a cultural high-watermark, but the singular vision of a film master. Even Gus Van Sant’s remake is shot-for-shot. Dr. Lecter had already appeared in two books and one other movie before The Silence of the Lambs hit the scene. Before Anthony Hopkins’ iconic (and Oscar winning) take on the roll, the Lecter character had even been portrayed by another actor, Brian Cox (probably better known as the villain of the second X-men film). Hopkins may be considered the quintessential take on Hannibal, but as far as the world and mythology that surrounds him, there hasn’t really been a definitive take.
Bryan Fuller (the mind behind the cult-classic Pushing Daisies, and behind this new version of Hannibal) has stated in interviews that his goal is to create that definitive take. To do that he’s drawn in elements from all parts of Hannibal’s catalogue, and reshaping them to fit the story he’s telling. The Pilot deals with the hunt for Garrett Jacob Hobbs, an early assignment of our hero Will Graham (Hobbs is only mentioned in the Harris books and their adaptations). Infamous tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Red Dragon, and Stephen Lang in Manhunter) has been transformed into Freddie Lounds, a woman, to ease up on the sausage fest that is Hannibal’s world (at least until Clarice Starling shows up, which may never happen in the TV series due to legal issues). There is even a nod to Benjamin Raspail (who only appears as a severed head in The Silence of the Lambs) in the Pilot as a patient of Lecter’s named Franklin Froideveaux (Benjamin-Franklin, and Froideveaux and Raspail are parallel streets in Paris, another character surrounded in legal red tape).
More importantly the new show tries to maintain the world established in Harris’ work. The killers faced by Will Graham in the new series aren’t just run of the mill killers, each have complex psychological histories and desires, just like Francis Dolarhyde, and Jame Gumb. In the first three episodes alone we have seen a man dealing with his daughter leaving home by mounting look-a-like women on deer antlers, and a man that uses his victims as live fungus food to make a connection. It also explores its characters by taking them to their logical depths. Will Graham’s “super-empathy” is explained here as something akin to being on the Autism spectrum. The Hannibal seen here, as played by Mads Mikkelsen, isn’t the preening super-villain Hopkins portrayed, he’s urbane and subdued, his menace quiet, below the surface (if just barely). This is a man you could see as a working psychiatrist, while I can’t imagine any clients signing up to have Hopkins dig around their brain (metaphorically, then eventually, literally). Mikkelsen’s performance actually reminds of Cox’s take on the character, which is actually my favorite iteration of Lecter. If Hopkins’ Lecter is a snake, then Cox’s is a wolf with a brutish and efficient cunning, and a wider cut of malice (he’s a lot more fun too). I’m not quite sure what Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is yet, but I look forward to discovering it.
This new take on Hannibal’s world has picked at all the pieces of what’s come before, cut out the choicest meats, and doused them in a fine sauce. That sauce is the lush photography of the show. The pacing is thoughtful and leaves a robust lingering flavor. I agree with critic Todd VanDerWerff’s take on the program, that it’s very much like a bad dream. Not a nightmare (an important distinction), but a hypnotic and disturbing dream.
“… Definitely one of those dreams where something is off, where the world has taken a turn for the worse, and everything looks to be at the wrong angle, and the dreamer simply cannot will himself awake.” – Todd VanDerWerff
There’s a lingering sense of melancholy that pervades Hannibal. It’s not like many of the other procedurals or horror shows that fill the airwaves. It doesn’t just try to shock with violence, but it lingers on the collateral of death. The bodies on the floor aren’t just plot devices, they are people that were once alive, with all the hopes and dreams that that entails, and now all that has slipped away. Fellow State-Liner Ken Whiting has told me that, horror, at its best, is about death. It’s about the fear of it, and sometimes the acceptance of it. In that case Hannibal, while in a lot of ways both a procedural and a crime-thriller, is very much a horror story. Death pervades every scene, Lecter celebrates it, and it hangs around Will Graham’s neck like a great weight. All the pieces that make up Hannibal may be gathered up from old cadavers, but the new monster they find themselves in is fascinating, and dare I say it, beautiful.
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