Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A MOST LOVELY NIGHTMARE: HANNIBAL's Radical Reinvention of an Iconic Monster

“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”  Edgar Allan Poe/”The Raven”

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way.  The third reboot of a pop culture icon whose identity had become fused to one person.  A second attempt at a prequel story which had been a financial and critical failure the first time around, which would lead into the third version of the story that first introduced this character to the world.  Which would theoretically progress toward a remake of that character’s most well-known exploits, which are already regarded as canonical works of grand guignol horror.

Oh, and it would all be on network television. In prime time.

And that was my initial thought process when I heard that NBC had commissioned Bryan Fuller to create an expanded universe through which Hannibal Lecter could romp.  In an era in which the entertainment industry is obsessed with rebooting pre-existing properties (often to greatly diminishing effects), spinning off a character as memorably chronicled as the good doctor seemed like a desperate move of creative bankruptcy.  Hannibal is Anthony Hopkins!  And the Goldberg Variations!  Quid pro quo!  Liver and fava beans!  And c’mon, it would be a prime time network show.  With commercials!  Years of watching HBO had clearly taught me that networks plus commercials equal creative death.

(If this line of reasoning sounds familiar to those of you who read my Mad Men essays, you’re not dreaming.)

So I ignored this obviously inferior work of televisual storytelling.  That is, until a good friend (prompted by a discussion about our mutual love of serial killer mythology) started prodding me to give it a try.  And then, during a discussion about Cotard’s Syndrome, she mentioned how that medical condition had featured in an episode of this new Lecter-centric show.  I’m a firm believer that sometimes the cosmic consciousness throws multiple instances like this at you because it’s trying to send a message.  So when the first season of the show became available on Amazon Prime Video (during a period where I had some time to kick around), I finally dove in.

And as I soon found out, once you dive into the world of Hannibal, there’s no returning to the surface.

It’s hard to describe in words just how flabbergasted I was by Hannibal’s greatness, at the deep and seductive spell it casts on the viewer.  The early episodes display some of the hallmarks of the network formula (a killer of the week approach, comic relief sidekicks, etc.), but those begin to fade into the background as the show progresses through its first two seasons.  And even such well-worn devices gain a new and vibrant life through James Hawkinson’s lush cinematography.  Those stock murder scenes are each arranged as a work of art, blood-spattered tableaus in which the victims gain a sort of metaphysical transcendence through literally being transformed by death.

Indeed, no other current television show luxuriates in its visuals like Hannibal does, the decadent, nightmarish palate an extension of Lecter’s refined, hyper-gothic/modernist aesthetic.  It’s almost like Fuller and company have turned the character of Hannibal Lecter into a virus, so deeply does his presence infect every aspect of the storytelling process.  (Even the opening credits suggest Lecter as not a person, but a great wash of blood taking on human form, or as his psychiatrist Bedelia du Maurier puts it “You are wearing a very well-tailored ‘person suit’.”)  Brian Reitzell’s hypnotic score is both perfect complement to the visual scheme and a creature unto itself, its slow burn phrasing and often atonal excursions creating an almost tactile sense of alluring dread.  And this stylistic drive is only heightened throughout the first 26 episodes; Season 2’s nightmare landscape is some of the most avant-garde material to ever be broadcast on a major network…or even a cable network.

Of course, aesthetic formalism alone doesn’t carry Hannibal.  At its dark heart is Mads Mikkelsen’s sleek predator of a title character.  Trying to reinvent the character of Hannibal Lecter is no small matter, so indelibly stamped upon the cultural consciousness is Anthony Hopkins’s award-winning turn as everyone’s favorite cannibal.  While the filmic serial killers of the ‘70s and ‘80s served as larger than life boogeymen providing vicarious thrills, the advent of Hopkins as Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs changed that dynamic for good.  Michael Mann’s Manhunter serves up a Lecter (Brian Cox) in cameo form as a cold, vengeful, would-be puppetmaster, but Hopkins brings a jet black humor and maniacal playfulness to the role.  And Silence also introduces a twisted moral code to the character, as his motivations for killing originate from a sense of perverse justice (in the words of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal “He preferred to eat the rude.”)  Thus, Hannibal Lecter becomes our favorite boogeyman, a dark avenger of our conscience, a projection of our ideals and our fears.

Which is what makes Mikkelsen’s take on the character so fascinating.  Gone is the arch humor and almost camp charm of before.  In its place is an icy magnetism and a dark eroticism.  This heightened sexuality is one of the most compelling aspects that Mikkelsen brings to the role.  The budding pseudo-romance between Hopkins and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling (made more explicit in the film sequel with Julianne Moore) infuses those proceedings with a whiff of sexual tension, but Hopkins’s Lecter is much more of a mentor figure and surrogate father to Starling than a sex symbol.  Mikkelsen’s Lecter, on the other hand, is a creature of stealth erotic power, his distinctly European background and unconventional looks adding a deep sense of otherworldliness to his character.  But in many ways, he’s also a complete blank, an abyss that threatens to swallow up all who stare into him.

And stare at least one person does.  For even though the show is called Hannibal, its portrayal of FBI profiler Will Graham is what cements its status.  Graham has always been a somewhat problematic character in the Lecter mythos.  Manhunter’s William Peterson smolders in the neon-noir landscape, but he’s so subdued that it’s sometimes hard to connect with him (a tricky balance that Michael Mann protagonists often walk.)  In Red Dragon, Edward Norton is a bit more relatable, but there’s something missing from his performance, almost as if we’re watching him play himself (this happens sometimes with Norton.)  It’s only in the hands of Hugh Dancy that Will becomes a fully-realized person.  Part of this is due to the extended character development that a 13 episode season affords.  But part is also the writing and the actor.  From the start, Dancy is a bundle of nerves (it’s off-putting at first, yet logically developed as time goes on), a mildly autistic savant haunted by his enhanced perception, a man who’s been close to the edge one too many times.  In conveying these complex emotions, Dancy brings a palapable vulnerability to Will, one which greatly engenders audience sympathy.  And the first person perspective of his mental crime scene reconstructions is easily the best representation of his tortured mindset that the character has received.  We witness several different character perspectives throughout the two seasons, but we’re clearly meant to identify with Will.  So when the virus that is Hannibal Lecter begins to burrow into his mind, we’re fully accompanying him on his descent into madness.  On his descent into the abyss.

There’s so much more to talk about, but this essay has its own limitations of time and space.  So in preparation for Hannibal’s Season 3 premiere on June 4th, I’m going to attempt to one up the Mad Men series I recently completed by penning a new essay for each of Hannibal’s 26 episodes.  I might also delve back into the Lecter film mythology here and there, although I can make no promises as to the extent of that exploration.  But this should all be a lot of fun.  Or insanity.  Or both.           

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