Can a series be considered part of the Hannibal Lecter franchise if Hannibal Lecter never appears?
Picking up in 1993, shortly after the events of The Silence of the Lambs, CBS’s new drama Clarice follows the continued trials and tribulations of Lecter’s most famous foil, originally brought to iconic, Oscar winning life by Jodie Foster thirty years ago. For long-time fans of Thomas Harris’ creation, Clarice is a contentious proposition. The idea of a TV series about Clarice Starling is neither a creatively bankrupt nor unappealing one, however it comes with a faint veneer of controversy due to a perception that its very existence potentially puts an end to revival chances for Bryan Fuller’s gone-too-soon cult classic Hannibal, which ran on NBC between 2013 and 2015.
Due to complicated rights issues dating back to the 1980s, Thomas Harris’ stable of characters has been divided between different studios, with the DeLaurentiis company (who produced Fuller’s Hannibal) owning the novels Red Dragon, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, while MGM have exclusive rights to The Silence of the Lambs. It’s for this reason that the TV iteration of Hannibal could never use Clarice Starling or Buffalo Bill, while conversely Clarice can’t directly mention Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford, Will Graham or anyone else who didn’t originate in Silence.
Both shows find creative ways around this. Hannibal zeroed in on Lecter’s relationship with Red Dragon protagonist Will Graham, while winking to Clarice in the form of tenacious FBI trainee Miriam Lass. Clarice, for its part, refers to Starling’s interactions with a certain inmate at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane and features several repurposed Lecter quotes from the movie, but never names Lecter directly. This is less of a problem than you’d think; after all, in the canon of both the movies and the books Clarice and Hannibal didn’t meet again until either seven or ten years after the events of Silence (depending on whether you go with the books or the film adaptations).
But watching the new series it soon becomes clear that Clarice has little interest in the Lecter canon outside of the 1991 film.
From the first episode Clarice directly contradicts the plot of original Silence sequel Hannibal, scuppering any sense that it could be viewed as a bridging chapter. The inclusion of Ruth Martin, the senator whose daughter Clarice saved in Silence, is a savvy choice but it is quickly established that Martin is now the U.S. Attorney General, whereas in the novels she remained a Senator (but left office prior to the events of Hannibal). The inciting incident of the show is Martin sending Clarice to work for VICAP in Washington, a department headed up by another familiar character for fans of the books; Paul Krendler, played here by The Walking Dead’s Michael Cudlitz.
Krendler is a minor character in the film version of Silence, but is much more significant in the broader oeuvre of Harris’ writing. In the novels he is established as a misogynist who, smarting over Starling both beating him to the capture of Buffalo Bill and rejecting his sexual advances, actively works to impede her career.
The Krendler of Clarice is decidedly not the same character as the books. Quite apart from the novel Hannibal including no reference to any significant prior working relationship, here he is a tough but mostly fair veteran of law enforcement, initially dismissive of Starling yet developing a grudging respect over the course of the three episodes provided to reviewers. If anything it feels like the series has opted to merge the broader trait of his dislike for Starling with the original mentor role filled by the now off-limits Jack Crawford.
In isolation this is a fair choice. Once you accept that this Krendler is not the pre-established character, the tense yet warming relationship he shares with Starling works. However it does beg the question of why the show didn’t just create a new character to fulfil the role; it’s not as though Krendler is such a well-known name that not including him would be considered an unforgivable mistake by fans. If it were, he would certainly be written more in line with his textual counterpart or Ray Liotta’s slimy performance from the Hannibal film.
It comes off as though the writers of the series chose to work exclusively from the film version of Silence, in which Krendler’s bit-part provides only the sense of him being a bit gruff. This, largely, summarizes Clarice’s relationship with the source material; the 1991 film is its bible. The rest of the canon, not so much.
Now contrast this with Fuller’s Hannibal. What started out as a slightly dreamlike procedural developed into a Grand Guignol opera about the yearning for human connection between damaged souls. It is a singularly beautiful TV show, but arguably its savviest choice is a fidelity to the ideas, spirit and characters, if not the specific plot, of its source material. Supporting players from the books are treated with the kind of fanfare that only an obsessive fan of Harris would either bother with or appreciate.
Plot elements from the novels are remixed, allowing characters who never met on the page to interact, sometimes to spectacular effect. At times the show came across as giddy Thomas Harris fanfiction, a description Fuller himself actively encouraged. Hannibal was the perfect marriage of a unique creative vision with a classic text; it single handedly managed to revitalize the Lecter property after the film franchise’s ignominious farewell in the form of the limp prequel Hannibal Rising.
I want to clarify here that I’m in no way trying to suggest that Clarice falls short due to not engaging with the source texts in the same way as Fuller did. For one, Clarice only has access to one of said texts, and does work to include every logical Silence of the Lambs character in a way that both serves its story and furthers that of the film (the film more than the book, as Krendler’s depiction can attest). But the approach is worth discussing as it does underscore a key difference between the two shows.
Clarice largely adopts the look of The Silence of the Lambs, but to its credit the show uses the film predominantly as a springboard to tell new stories. While the first episode somewhat clumsily tries to pack in multiple Silence references, the second and third quickly find a more successful rhythm. A rhythm, interestingly, punctuated with unsettling dream imagery that would have been right at home in Fuller’s show. Vivid red blood squeezed from a hat in an almost greyscale kitchen. A human hand bursting from the back of a death’s head moth. Blood from the dying Buffalo Bill’s mouth racing back in, the nightmare suggestion of a monster coming back to life. Whether influenced by the earlier show or not, these moments clearly set out that this is a different vision to the film, which outside of a couple of pretty conventional flashbacks, eschewed fantasy.
But that’s not the only way that the three episodes made available to reviewers parallel the Hannibal series. It’s no secret that the earlier show was initially constrained by a frustrating case-of-the-week structure. From out of the gates, Clarice has a similarly episodic approach but wears it slightly better. Based on the first two episodes you would be forgiven for writing this off as CSI: Silence, but the third episode unites the threads in a satisfying way, indicating that going forward Clarice could be predominantly a serialized conspiracy thriller with an occasional dip into isolated cases. And while aspects of the unfurling mystery are faintly ridiculous and don’t provoke flattering comparisons to Silence, it’s engaging and confident enough to indicate that this series is interested in more than just reminding you of a thirty-year-old classic. Which, given the current trend in reboots, is refreshing.
There is however a sense that Clarice’s take on the procedural is a safer one than Hannibal’s. For example, the respective second episodes of both shows feature standalone cases. In Clarice the team are sent to deal with a cult-like militia who have injured a policeman. In Hannibal, somebody is turning drugged people into living mushroom farms.
The seeds of that show’s evolution into a surreal, heightened melodrama in which murder became a kind of art form were in place from the start. Clarice is far more rooted in the real world, but given that the central character is a driven young FBI agent as opposed to a high-art loving cannibal genius who is also maybe the devil, the discrepancy isn’t exactly surprising. Of course Clarice should chart its own path, although when comparing the two it’s hard not to miss Hannibal’s delighted embrace of sheer weirdness.
All of that said, there is a distinct pleasure here in seeing Clarice Starling back in action. Given that the novel and film Hannibal immediately got to work destroying her career, getting to see her achieve genuine success is nicely refreshing. Despite Starling’s status as an iconic part of a larger franchise, until now only The Silence of the Lambs ever really did her justice. The ending of the novel Hannibal was famously controversial, with Clarice’s final fate as Lecter’s brainwashed lover seen by many as a betrayal of everything she stood for. And while I will argue that it was misunderstood, that the conclusion was the inevitable result of the Faustian bargain Starling made by allowing Lecter inside her head in the first place, it’s undeniable that she was relegated to a reactive supporting role with very little agency, a sin that the film adaptation was also guilty of.
No such problem here. As portrayed by Rebecca Breeds, this is the Clarice Starling you loved in Silence. Courteous, tough and direct when she needs to be, singularly skilled at negotiating with killers yet grappling with all-too-human demons and vulnerabilities. She’s an immediately interesting, likeable presence. And there is no danger of her being overshadowed; while Clarice sets up an appealing enough supporting cast, it never loses sight of whose story this is.
Jodie Foster will always cast a long shadow, but Breeds captures the essence of the character without ever falling into a hollow impersonation. It’s a fantastic performance that holds the show together even when the writing falters.
It’s too early in Clarice’s run to fairly say whether it will be as good as Hannibal was. The other show overcame a shaky start to become an all-time great with a fervent cult following still hoping for a belated revival. Whether Clarice can stoke the same passion from viewers remains to be seen, but while its tenuous relationship to the literary source material may be frustrating to Harris fanatics, particularly those enamored by how Fuller’s show engaged with the books, it’s only fair to judge Clarice on its own terms. And who knows? If it’s successful, maybe it will be the spark Netflix needs to revive that other Harris TV adaptation. For now though, plan to call on it; the world is more interesting with Clarice in it.