How Hannibal Silenced its Critics

The idea of a Hannibal Lecter prequel was first dismissed as tired franchise-milking. Two seasons on, here's how it proved sceptics wrong...

Warning: contains spoilers for Hannibal seasons one and two and the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon.

So, season two has ended and fans are left to comfort each other and pick up the pieces in the wake of one of the most brutal, shocking and satisfying finales ever. During season one, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal threatened to become something pretty excellent, but chilling moments and great characterisation were bogged down by an ill-advised case-of-the-week structure. in season two, things changed and what we got instead was a twisting, turning, disturbing and utterly thrilling narrative about madness, love, connection and the very human capacity for evil. We said farewell to some characters and welcomed others (take a bow, Mason Verger) but they all seemed incidental to the central dance-of-death, as Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham’s twisted love story flew to dizzying new heights and horrifying lows.

Season two had so many strong moments, it’s hard to know where to begin. The Hannibal vs Jack showdown that began and ended the season, Dr Chilton’s spectacular framing, the unfortunate fate of Beverly Katz, Mason Verger feeding his own face to the dogs, Abel Gideon being served his own severed leg for dinner and of course, the savage bloodbath that was the season finale. Hannibal has now officially become appointment viewing to rival Breaking Bad and Game Of Thrones.

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However, it was not long ago that the concept of a Hannibal Lecter prequel TV series was laughable. The franchise had fallen far from the glory days of The Silence Of The Lambs, descending into a succession of repetitive, over-the-top sequels. By the time Hannibal Rising was met with a universal shrug in 2007, it was clear that this was a franchise that no longer held much interest for the general viewing public. Even obsessive fans had to admit that it was time to let the good doctor go.

And yet, there remained a niggling feeling. After all, it was not as though there was no story left to tell. Arguably the most interesting relationship in the whole series seemed to have been forgotten by its own creator. One of the many things that made the original novel Red Dragon so compelling was the tension between Hannibal Lecter and the man who caught him: troubled FBI agent Will Graham. Over the course of that brilliant novel, Hannibal and Will play a dangerous game with each other; Will attempts to draw information out of Hannibal in order to catch a killer while Hannibal directs the killer in question to attack Will. Though the Red Dragon is killed, in the end Will Graham ultimately loses — he is a disfigured alcoholic whose wife is about to leave him. A single throwaway line in The Silence Of The Lambs confirms that Will’s situation did not improve, but that is the last we hear of him. Clarice Starling becomes the object of Hannibal Lecter’s obsession and Will Graham is literally never mentioned again.

After the macabre and controversial ending to the third novel, Hannibal, it was hard not to imagine a further instalment where Will Graham came out of retirement to track down the man who ruined his life. One last mind game, and a denouement that could see Will Graham, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling go head to head. The concept is enough to make any fan of the franchise salivate. Incidentally, this is the rough idea Bryan Fuller is working towards in his series, and that fact alone illustrates exactly what sets Hannibal apart from the endless other reboots appearing on TV.

While perhaps an initial reason behind producing a Hannibal Lecter series was the prospect of milking more cash from a dead franchise, Bryan Fuller’s passionate love for the source material has saved it from being anything close to that. Instead of a simple re-tread, we have been gifted with a rearrangement that manages to include enough delectable references to the originals while forging an identity entirely its own.

Fuller has embraced the operatic, grandiose style of Thomas Harris with aplomb. I have heard criticism that the show’s dialogue can at times seem unnatural, but to believe that would be missing the point; everything about Hannibal is heightened, more beautiful and more macabre than reality. When we watch the show we see the world through Hannibal Lecter’s eyes, in all its beauty and horror. Having recently finished re-reading the trilogy, I am surprised at just how faithful the TV series is stylistically. Whole patches of dialogue are lifted directly from the novels. Internal monologues are re-contextualised into the musings of the characters on particular events. And then there are the characters themselves.

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In Mads Mikkelsen’s hands, Hannibal Lecter is no longer the showy monster Anthony Hopkins played to perfection. This Lecter is calm and controlled to a fault, able to speak volumes with a single look or tilt of the head. Furthermore, there is now a genuine physical danger to him as well, a strength and agility never conveyed by Hopkins. On the other side of the coin, Hugh Dancy inhabits all of the fear and self-doubt at the core of Will Graham, and makes us feel for him. The audience believes that Graham is capable of all the things Lecter says he is, yet we also believe in his inherent goodness and refusal to become what Lecter wants him to be. Hannibal talks over and over in the series about wanting people to be the best and truest versions of themselves.

Well congratulations Bryan Fuller, you have succeeded in making that the case with your two iconic protagonists. Is Mikkelsen better than Hopkins? That’s a matter of taste, as both performances are equally valid and effective portrayals of the same character. It’s easy to read the novels and imagine the distinctive tones of either actor every time Lecter speaks.

Just about every horror property is now becoming a TV series; Bates Motel and Rosemary’s Baby have already aired, with Scream, Friday the Thirteenth, The Omen, and The Exorcist on the way. The news of every one of these was met with a collective sigh of exasperation. But Hannibal has proven that in the right hands and with the right balance between respect for the source material and willingness to shake things up, a good reboot can work wonders, breathing new life and relevance into a property long thought to be past its use-by date. Throw in some audacious twists and brilliant guest stars, and you have television gold. Hannibal’s clear intent to take the viewer on a visceral ride while also invoking deep thought has pushed it into the upper echelon of appointment viewing and, considering its competition, that is no mean feat.

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