by Nicole Willson
(This will be spoilery, both for the TV show and for the films based on “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” You have been warned.)
When I first read that NBC ordered a series based on Hannibal Lecter, I rolled my eyes. I may or may not have muttered “The 90s called — they want their pop culture icon back.” I mean, really. Hadn’t this character been run into the ground already?
But then I started reading things about it that piqued my curiosity.
The show was created by Bryan Fuller, who was behind “Dead Like Me,” a short-lived cable show I’d enjoyed a lot. And then I saw that Scott Thompson had been cast in a supporting role. Scott Thompson, from “Kids in the Hall”? Playing a character who was described in all the books as a grumpy old man? This was definitely different.
The show itself would be set in a time prior to the events of the novel “Red Dragon.” Nobody would know who — and what — Lecter really was at the beginning of the show. Nobody but the audience. This was an approach to the story that I hadn’t seen before.
And here comes Blasphemy Time: I don’t think that any of the Hannibal Lecters in the films did justice to the character as he’s depicted in the books. Yes, I know Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for the role. But I don’t think his portrayal in “The Silence of the Lambs” has aged well at all. The Dr. Lecter in my head is subtle and smooth. Hopkins — at least in SotL — is all campy and over the top. I don’t know how Clarice didn’t burst out laughing at him, because he’s like what Truman Capote would have been if he’d been a serial killer. I think that Hopkins’s Lecter is much better in “Red Dragon;” he has more of the subtle restraint I think the role really needs.
(I know there’s a fan belief that Brian Cox is a vastly superior “Lecktor” in “Manhunter,” but: Meh. I generally like him, but I see none of Lecter’s sleek, brilliant sophistication in Cox’s portrayal.)
My initial resistance worn down, I tuned in for the show’s premiere last year. The show was nothing at all like what I expected. It’s about as far from the typical gritty TV crime drama as it’s possible to get. It’s bloody and violent and so very, very dark, but it’s also surreal and haunting and oddly beautiful. I wasn’t too sure about it after the first couple episodes, but eventually it reeled me in.
One thing: You will have to suspend the shit out of your disbelief. You will be saying “Like THAT would ever really happen” all the time as you’re watching. I know that’s pretty much SOP with any TV crime drama, but “Hannibal” cranks it up to eleven. But if you can let that go, it’s worth the ride.
Another thing: You’ll have to forget everything you know about the Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter storyline in the books. The show takes the bare bones of that situation — Graham consulted with Lecter a time or two before realizing that Lecter was in fact the killer he was pursuing — and runs wild with it.
I didn’t realize just how caught up I’d become in the show until they recently killed off a character I liked more than I knew. But the performances have been top notch across the board. Mikkelsen is a little taller than I imagined Lecter being, but other than that he’s about as close as anyone’s come to a portrayal of Lecter that matches the impression I got from the character in the novels. He’s sleek. He’s sophisticated. He serves his friends divine-looking gourmet meals. (Don’t ask what’s in them. Just don’t.) He’s so good at passing himself off as a sympathetic person that only a handful of characters have recognized what he really is.
And while I don’t think Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham would work at all in a straight adaptation of “Red Dragon,” he’s perfect for this particular take on the story — vulnerable because of his awful gift of being able to visualize crimes just from looking at the bloody aftermath, deeply tormented as he makes the connection between the killer he’s hunting and Lecter (that odd creature up above is Will’s mental manifestation of this terrible realization), but tough and steely as he fights out of the trap Lecter set for him.
Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne, also gets a much richer portrayal than he ever has in the movies. I never found any of the film Crawfords compelling, but I could see why Clarice Starling might risk a lot for Fishburne’s version of the character. I’m glad the show didn’t brush aside his wife Bella’s fight with cancer as the film adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs” did, because it means I get to see the wonderful Gina Torres at work.
The show does not shy away from depicting the thing that Dr. Lecter is most famous for doing. Don’t assume that if you’re a smug vegetarian like me, you’ll get away unscathed — the “human mushroom garden” in season one put me right off of portobellos for a good long while.
As is too often the case with shows I like, “Hannibal” gets very low ratings and I was honestly surprised that it survived to a second season. I really hope that if it gets axed by NBC, some other network grabs it up. I started off as a skeptic, but now I am definitely a Fannibal.