Hannibal: Television in the Spirit of Buñuel

As a rule of thumb, network television is the bottom feeder in popular culture while the novel, a medium we associate with classics such as “Don Quixote” and “Moby Dick”, dwells in the heavens. In a striking reversal, NBC television has aired a series called “Hannibal” that while based on the novels of Thomas Harris is far more complex and inspired than the source. As each episode begins, we see the words “Based on the characters of the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris”. Having just read “Red Dragon” to help me prepare this review, I would say the relationship between the source and its offspring is close to the one that exists between a banal tune like “Tea for Two” and how Thelonious Monk interpreted it.

The television show also borrows from the novel “Hannibal”, which like “Red Dragon”, was written after “Silence of the Lambs” in an obvious bid to cash in on the massive book sales that followed Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film. The TV series omitted any reference to “Silence of the Lambs” and to Clarice Starling, a wise move since this overly familiar material would have undercut the goal of seeing the characters with fresh eyes. Once you’ve seen Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins square off, there’s no turning back.

For some Thomas Harris is a novelist to be reckoned with. David Foster Wallace includes “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” as two of his top-rated ten novels. That being said, he is a fan of pulp fiction and includes Stephen King’s “The Stand” as well. (A confession: I consider King to be the finest novelist writing today.) In my view, “Red Dragon” is an engaging police procedural that includes lots of chatter about carpet fibers, fingerprints, blood samples, autopsies and the like. If you enjoy CSI, you’ll probably go for this novel in a big way. Given Harris’s background as crime reporter for a Waco, Texas newspaper, he is obviously familiar with the terrain.

When Bryan Fuller decided to develop “Hannibal” for NBC, he started with a fresh sheet of paper. Incorporating the main characters in the Harris trilogy except for Clarice Starling and adding a few, he changed the focus away from clue gathering and decided to see the characters in an entirely new light. Will Graham, the FBI profiler who is the hero of “Red Dragon” after the fashion of Clarice Starling, is transformed into the best friend and psychiatric patient of Hannibal Lecter who we meet in season one as a consultant to the FBI on cases involving deranged serial killers. It is only toward the end of season two that the FBI discovers that Lecter is one himself.

Not only does Lecter give Graham advice on the killers he is trying to apprehend, he treats him in therapy sessions that are the most gripping scenes in this entirely gripping series. Mads Mikkelsen, the acclaimed Danish actor, plays Lecter in an entirely different manner than Hopkins who was directed to appear supercilious and haughty. Instead Mikkelsen’s Lecter is always solicitous and empathetic even when he has been sent to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Where Hopkins wears a smirk, Mikkelsen’s face remains statically passive except for the occasional faint smile. The overall effect is that of a poisonous snake eyeing its prey.

In Harris’s novel, Will Graham is the standard issue detective who is very good at chasing down clues in the time-honored mode of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. For example, he figured out that Lecter was a killer during a visit to his home when he happened upon a book about battlefield wounds that had images bearing a striking resemblance to those suffered by the victims of the serial killer he was tracking.

Bryan Fuller’s Graham is borderline Asperger’s as his superior officer Jack Crawford observes in the very first episode. Graham has the innate gift of being able to mentally recreate the crime scenes of the various serial killers the FBI is pursuing from the POV of the killer himself (or herself in one instance). For Graham, this gift is a mixed blessing. Although it might lead to a killer being apprehended, each time his mind is taken over by that of the killer it becomes a traumatic experience that leaves him increasingly shell-shocked. As a character, he has much more in common with those that Anthony Perkins used to play—a neurasthenic basket case that one character in the series aptly described as “twitchy”.

British actor Hugh Dancy is perfect as Will Graham. Like many fine actors, he is of extraordinary intelligence having studied poetry at Oxford University. His performance is not that of a square-jawed, fearless hero but much more of a tortured soul who would prefer to live an untroubled life on the side of the road. His only moments of happiness occur when he is fishing or tending to the pack of stray dogs he has adopted and keeps in his isolated cabin in the Virginia countryside.

In season two, Graham has been falsely convicted of murder and committed to the same asylum that Lecter will end up in later. This time the roles are reversed. Lecter is the visitor and Graham is the man in a jumpsuit behind bars. One conversation should give you a feel for their relationship:

Lecter: Hello, Will

Graham: Dr. Lector

Lecter: Lost in thought?

Graham: Not lost, not any more (he has come to the conclusion that Lecter is the killer he has been tracking.) I used to hear my thoughts inside my skull with the same tone, timbre and accent as if the words were coming out of my mouth.

Lecter: And now?

Graham: Now I hear voices that sound like you. I can’t get you out of my head.

Lecter: Sometimes friendship can involve a breach of each other’s separateness.

Graham: You’re not my friend. We have a light of a friendship from a million years ago. That’s how far away from friendship we are now.

I understand that the late David Foster Wallace was a major literary light of the past twenty-five years or so but I find Bryan Fuller’s dialog a lot more compelling than anything Thomas Harris ever wrote. It should be recognized that as a gay man, Fuller had an ability to suggest a homoerotic bond between Graham and Lecter that Harris would have never considered. In an interview with NewNowNext, Fuller is asked: “Can you talk about the homoeroticism between these two characters that are not gay?” His reply:

I’m not sure about Hannibal. I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer. Whereas Will Graham is very definitely heterosexual, but that does not necessarily prevent us from a homoerotic subtext. It’s practically text in a couple of episodes just because we really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are.

Among the characters added by Fuller is Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier, another homicidal psychiatrist who is played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson—the Dana Scully of X-Files. In season three, she hooks up with Hannibal Lecter who has absconded to Italy, loosely following the plot line of Thomas Harris’s “Hannibal”. Scully’s performance is one for the ages. She is as amoral as Lecter and just as psychopathic. She also is a junky. Anderson is directed to deliver her lines in a breathy, affectless monotone that suggests a female vampire. Indeed, she and Lecter are at their happiest serving roasted human organs to their various guests in Florence.

Rounding out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford. He is the relatively untroubled partner to Graham and charged with the difficult task of keeping him from going off the deep end completely.

Beyond the writing and the performances, the show is distinguished by visual effects that put it on a par with the surrealist films of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel. A recurring leitmotif is death in the guise of a stag with immense antlers, sometimes with the body of a man. Although I doubt that Bryan Fuller had it in mind, the image is strikingly similar to the cover art of Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 Columbia Records performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”.  There are also visually striking images of the various rococo arrangements of corpses throughout the show as each serial killer, including Lecter, aspires to high art based on the meanest instincts. One of them is a totem pole that is discovered in the Pacific Northwest and is made up of various body parts intricately woven together. The macabre work puts anything that Damian Hirst ever created to shame.

“Hannibal” is graced by classical music, mostly from the era ranging from Monteverdi to Berlioz. In particular, various Requiems serve as the perfect accompaniment to plots revolving around sin, mortality and redemption. Additionally, the original music composed by Brian Reitzell is as inspired as the material it is meant to highlight, evoking perhaps by coincidence Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. His orchestration uses gamelans and percussion to the most hair-raising effect. Reitzell was formerly the drummer for a punk band called Red Kross that used to open for Black Flag. He has come a long way.

“The Red Dragon” is a reference to the tattoo version of William Blake’s painting “The Red Dragon and the Women Clothed in Sun” that serial killer Francis Dolarhyde wears on his back.  Obsessed by the work, Dolarhyde imagines himself as being transformed into the beast, something that is hastened by the sacrifice of families he has observed in home movies sent to his workplace, a film processing company.

Dolarhyde’s madness is rooted in the abuse he suffered from his grandmother as a small child when she humiliated him sexually after he wet his bed. He is also tormented by a cleft palate that schoolmates used to tease him about mercilessly. In the fourteen-room house that he inherited from his grandmother, he is constantly haunted by her cold and reprimanding manner especially when he is attracted to a blind co-worker. If this sounds familiar, it should. While Thomas Harris is averse to interviews that would inquire about his inspirations, there is little doubt that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” not only informs this work but everything Harris has written.

As a gothic tale, the elements are tried and true. You have someone obeying a compulsion to murder because of a childhood trauma. In the denouement to such tales, there is always a psychiatrist explaining what made a Norman Bates, a Francis Dolarhyde or a Michael Meyers go mad.

While Harris dwells at length on Dolarhyde’s descent into madness, Bryan Fuller is far more interested in why Lecter became a criminal. In many ways, the road to cannibalism is less a function of brain chemistry than it is of a rational choice at times seemingly inspired by Nietzsche. As a kind of Renaissance man who plays the harpsichord and prepares gourmet meals of exquisite refinement even if they consist of human organs, his Lecter is a man who considers murder to be a kind of existential act. In 1924 Leopold and Loeb murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in the “crime of the century”. Their motive was to show their “intellectual superiority”. They fancied themselves as Nietzschean “supermen” even though their crime had little to do with his philosophy (nor did Hitler’s Third Reich, for that matter.) Throughout the series that extended over three years and that concluded this year, Hannibal Lecter always speaks of killing as a way of asserting one’s will to power. If this seems like madness, it is not that far removed from imperial foreign policy whichever thug is carrying it out.

Although this does not rob the show or the novels of the pleasure they can afford, there is something quite dated about men or women ending up in mental hospitals instead of prison because they are insane.

For all practical purposes, the insanity defense is a thing of the past. It was first introduced in Great Britain in the 1840s, a time of child labor and other cruelties that figure large in the novels of Charles Dickens. A psychotic individual named Daniel M’Naghten was the first to benefit from an insanity defense when he was tried for the 1843 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Robert Peel. When a physician testified that M’Naghten was insane, the prosecution agreed to stop the case and the defendant was declared insane despite protests from Queen Victoria and the House of Lords.

The M’Naghten Rule can be simply described as a “right and wrong” test. The jury was required to answer two questions: (1) did the defendant know what he was doing when he committed the crime or (2) did the defendant understand that his actions were wrong?

When psychotic individuals were on trial without a prior history of professional treatment, it was somewhat more difficult to find them not guilty by reason of insanity but it could be done. Now it makes no difference if someone has been under treatment for a psychiatric illness. So what happened?

In a word, John Hinckley.

After Hinckley was found not guilty by insanity for his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Committees of the House and Senate held hearings regarding use of the insanity defense within a month of the verdict.

Within three years of Hinckley’s acquittal, Congress and half of the states enacted laws limiting use of the defense and one state, Utah, abolished the defense outright. In 1986 Utah was joined by Montana and Idaho, two other “frontier justice” states.

Suffice it to say that every single person who is demonstrably paranoid schizophrenic goes to prison instead of a mental hospital nowadays after killing someone. The only way to avoid going to prison is obviously to go on a murder spree when you are in uniform. You might even get a medal for that. As such, Philippe Broca’s 1966 film “King of Hearts” remains the gold standard for understanding the topsy-turvy world we live in. It starred Alan Bates as a British soldier who takes refuge in an insane asylum to avoid the German enemy. It has a second cousin in Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” with Captain Yossarian sitting naked in a tree to avoid bombing missions. In a world gone mad, it is only the mad who appear sane.

All three seasons of “Hannibal” can be seen on Amazon streaming.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.