On Dr. Hannibal Lecter: The Man, The Myth and the Icon Reborn

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Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of cultured but cannibalistic Baltimore psychiatrist and serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s macabre 1991 classic The Silence of the Lambs is one of cinema’s all-time great sniper attacks by a talented but criminally undervalued actor, a singular, stunning star turn that announced Hopkins, then a meandering sort of Shakespearian journeyman, as a talent deserving, nay demanding, of the love of masses both popular and critical. His psychotic doctor was so charming, so calculating, so insidious, so unknowable, so alien and yet strangely relatable, equally capable of thoughtful commiseration and unspeakable acts. Audiences, who had never quite seen a character such as this on screen, were spellbound.

Lecter the character was a more known commodity at the time of Lambs’ release than was Hopkins the actor – one of Thomas Harris’ novels featuring the good doctor as a memorable although peripheral character, Red Dragon, had already made it to the screen in the form of Michael Mann’s surgical, unsettling, criminally ignored 1986 thriller Manhunter – but Hopkins’ precise, mesmeric performance, coupled with the character’s innate and rich deliciousness, launched Hannibal into the pantheon of screen villainy. Nearly a quarter century later, Hopkins’ performance endures, its potency hardly cut by an intervening two decades which saw producer Dino De Laurentiis, who clutched his rights to the Lecter character like flotsam on the open ocean, strip mining Lambs’ success in a series of handsome but underwhelming ancillary adaptations, including one proper sequel – 2001’s loony but interesting Ridley Scott-directed Hannibal – with Lecter as the leading man on a murderous bi-continental walkabout, and two prequels, one of which was an uneven, borderline redundant screen treatment of Red Dragon featuring Hopkins instead of Manhunter’s Brian Cox.

Dragon naturally pumped up Lecter’s presence from Manhunter‘s devilish glorified bit part to a level much more befitting an iconic villain. 2007’s mercenary, wholly unnecessary Hannibal Rising, which charted Lecter’s formative years as a post-WWII cannibal-in-training, became the first Lecter-adjacent film since the mid-‘80s to not feature Hopkins in the role, and rightly tanked at the box office. I’m convinced that if there was a way Hopkins, then pushing 70 and freshly knighted, could have been persuaded to portray a homicidal teenager in spite of all his damned stature and personal dignity, De Laurentiis probably would’ve moved mountains to make it so. Despite diminishing returns, the character still had juice, and seemingly always would.

But if audiences were experiencing Lecter fatigue, perhaps they weren’t alone. For all his acting chops, Hopkins has never been too discriminating a chooser of roles. When he was suddenly, finally, a hot commodity, the temptation must have been strong to strike while the iron was hot, regardless of how the character read on the page. What mattered to producers and audiences was the combination of this actor playing this monster, and nothing else. This leaves aside entirely what a serendipitous, practically once in a lifetime film The Silence of the Lambs was, in terms of the talent in front of the camera (not only Hopkins but two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, plus fantastic character actors like Scott Glenn and Ted Levine) and with Jonathan Demme, a quirky craftsman with vision (of both the creative and tunnel varieties) at the helm.

Demme, Hopkins and company took both the story and the Lecter character with deadly seriousness, and created something indelible, a spring-loaded psychological nightmare for the ages, with a measured but unpredictable, and thus endlessly compelling, monster as the calm eye of its storm. All subsequent Lecter properties have necessarily suffered greatly by comparison to Lambs, and Hopkins’ sublime original performance has, in an odd way, become its own nagging impediment to different interpretations of the character, even by him. Whether caged and conniving in Red Dragon or unbound and mischievous in Hannibal, Hopkins, perhaps reading producers’ notes, began to play Lecter with a more flamboyant air, as more of a crowd-pleasing, overt antagonist, and some of the character’s inherent shading and complexity got swallowed up.

I value all three of the Hopkins/Lecter movies on one level or another. The successors are both well done, relatively involving and efficient, effectively acted (by Lecter-orbiting pros like Ed Norton, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman), appropriately gruesome, and, at times, gloriously overheated (think of almost any of Hannibal’s Mason Verger trimmings, or Ralph Fiennes’ delirious turn as Red Dragon’s Big Bad, Francis Dolarhyde – itself a role originated, and in my opinion perfected, by Tom Noonan’s icy portrayal in Manhunter). It’s just that the first film was art, and the other two mere approximations. The Silence of the Lambs was perfect. It casts too long a shadow.

Now, out of that shadow, like some kind of dark miracle, steps a modern update for television also called Hannibal, the second season of which premieres on NBC tonight (Friday) at 10 ET. Though subject to all the pre-conceived baggage that any latter-day Lecter adaptation carries with it, Hannibal defiantly charts its own course from the start, away from the iconic Hopkins interpretation and toward a study of the doctor that skews closer to his literary origins as brilliant, clinical, calculating, refined and aloof. Here is the monster presented in full flower, a former surgeon turned respected psychiatrist, with inscrutable motives and an abiding curiosity about both his patients and humanity as a whole, who he can categorize and deconstruct but not empathize with.

Only hinted at before in the movies or source novels, Hannibal is the story of Lecter in the years just before his scandalous exposure and capture, when he was a practicing Baltimore psychiatrist, a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences division, a locally famous patron of the arts and high society gourmand, and, yes, a cannibalistic serial killer known as “The Chesapeake Ripper”. If Hannibal focused only on this character as reimagined, with the courage of its convictions, the show would still be fascinating. Instead, it is all that and much more.

Co-creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller is known for endearingly oddball cult television series like Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies, each of which was fiercely loved by a relatively small audience before being canceled prematurely. In those shows, Fuller balanced an affinity for the darker side of life (and, often, afterlife) with sardonic humor and outright whimsy, to great effect. Dead Like Me, in particular, remains one of my favorite shows of the new millennium. A seasoned observer could be forgiven for seeing his name attached to Hannibal Lecter’s and thinking it would prove, charitably speaking, a tonal mismatch. Instead, Fuller follows Jonathan Demme’s lead, treating his subject with respect, sincerity and utter seriousness, which results in, for my money, the most psychologically twisted and tangled, richest in character, and, above all, effortlessly compelling twelve hours of television I saw all last year.

Hannibal is a marked departure for broadcast television drama, which so often talks a good game of keeping up with the riches of cable only to serve up bland comfort food reheated for the hundredth time. It not only has the courage of its convictions, it dives headfirst into some of the darkest corners of the human mind. Hannibal creates a bleak and barren landscape, visually gorgeous, consistently unsettling and bursting with inventive detail, upon which a collection of broken three-dimensional chess pieces struggle against one another and themselves to do good, to do evil, and, finally, in possession of a man’s soul. Hannibal Lecter is one of the pieces, surely the most dynamic and important player on a board that fatally underestimates him, but he is not that man.

Fuller is a self-professed fan of the original Thomas Harris books, and has here spun their sporadic references to Lecter’s backstory, which is to say his complicated relationship with FBI profiler and troubled Red Dragon protagonist Will Graham, into a meticulously plotted, carefully considered, fully realized world. Fuller and his collaborators are seeking to tell the part of Lecter’s story that somehow never had been done before, arguably the most interesting part: the monster, living his life, plying his trade, seeking connection, coiled and unassuming and dangerous, hiding in plain sight. In Manhunter and Red Dragon, we meet a Will Graham who is mentally and emotionally wounded, who is guilted into consulting with Hannibal Lecter against his will because their combined insight is the FBI’s best hope of catching the terrifying and notorious serial killer “The Tooth Fairy”.

Lecter and Graham have a complex history with one another, alluded to in the books just enough to set the scene. Fuller puts their relationship front and center, actually making Graham the series’ main character. As Hannibal begins, Graham is a teacher, not an agent, approached by Behavioral Sciences chief Jack Crawford to consult on an a confounding murder investigation because of a rare cognitive gift, referred to by others as “perfect empathy”: the ability to, using contextual clues and forensics, emotionally connect with any person, no matter how morally repugnant, to both see the world and reconstruct a terrible crime through his eyes. Graham, played with heartbreaking intensity by British actor Hugh Dancy, wastes no time in getting too close to the investigation, actually shooting dead the serial killer being hunted – “Minnesota Shrike” Garrett Jacob Hobbs – at the end of the pilot. The show’s conceit for Graham as a character is that perfect empathy is a double-edged sword, one that cannot exactly ever be turned off, and one that tends to slowly poison its wielder through repeated use and exposure.

Graham is presented from the start as an unreliable narrator, an exposed nerve of a man who wants desperately to help others but is increasingly unable to trust his own mind, particularly once memories of Hobbs’ death, which often manifest themselves in the form of a great hulking elk, begin haunting him. Into this breach steps a respected consulting psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, played with perfect intellectual detachment and foreboding by acclaimed Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who sees in Will not a kindred spirit but rather a fascinating test subject suitable for all sorts of laboratory environments, and maybe, he is surprised to learn, something even more.

Mikkelsen plays Lecter at almost a 180-degree remove from Hopkins’ portrayal, dialing back the latter’s cheerful air of superiority and establishing a believable but enigmatic presence in the world he must inhabit, presentable if not outwardly warm. In future seasons, if Fuller gets his wish to follow this path to the gates of Red Dragon and beyond, Mikkelsen may modulate his performance to better accommodate Lecter’s growing cheekiness and incarcerated abandon, and that will be thrilling in its way to witness. But in the early stages, his Hannibal is still a psychiatrist who cares about and more often than not tries to help his patients, however mundane, uninspiring, and, frankly, unworthy they may be to him. In Will Graham, he sees a colleague, the potential for friendship, and a test subject that could either provide his life’s work or undo it utterly.

One of the series’ great strengths is how seriously it takes psychiatry, and the depths to which it is content to challenge the working order of its characters’ psyches. Graham sees Lecter, who was referred to the unit by in house consulting psychiatrist Alana Bloom (Fuller vet Caroline Dhavernas in a role I’d like to see expand in season two), who has her own attachment to Will – not so much a flirtation or budding romance as a professional fascination and need to protect him. As driven, morally equivocal department head Jack Crawford, Laurence Fishburne gives her much reason for pause. Crawford continues to push Will to do his special work as the crime scenes become ever grislier and more macabre (seriously, some of the “case of the week” murderers the team investigates as the season’s arc unfolds around them have to be seen to be believed), striking an imperfect balance between caretaking the man’s sanity and overexposing him to horror in an attempt to save lives in the field. Later in the season, it is revealed Lecter is seeing his own psychiatrist (Gillian Anderson), who is understandably wary of him but, as it turns out, is not quite wary enough.

On and on it goes, as minor characters in the books (such as tabloid reporter Freddie Lounds and Lecter’s narcissistic eventual jailer Dr. Frederick Chilton) become flesh and blood humans, and cornerstones like Graham, Lecter and Crawford take on new dimensions barely hinted at in their previous cinematic incarnations. The acting is superb across the board, particularly Dancy’s madness-tinged fragility, Fishburne’s compromised arbiter of authority, and, of course, Mikkelson’s understated grand menace. Fuller has been up front in his desire to push Hannibal as far it can go, secure in the knowledge that with this ace cast, engaging, unpredictable writers’ room, and a technical team (cinematography, sound, music, even a “food consultant” to construct Hannibal’s gorgeous/gruesome dinner parties) doing marvelous work, the story itself will never run out of steam or let them down.

By his reckoning, the events of Red Dragon would play out during season four, and all that the preceding seasons have set up would build to a titanic payoff. I can already barely imagine the tension of this Graham and Lecter pairing forced to work together again after all the manipulation and betrayal that has passed between them, or the pathos of Freddie Lounds in mortal danger again after all we’ve experienced with her, or how The Tooth Fairy, arguably Harris’ most ominous creation, would fit into this updated vision. To face those questions, of course, first we have to get there, and why dwell on the promise of the distant future over the pleasures of the imminent, especially when what Fuller’s cast, crew and writers have already accomplished with season one is at times so extraordinary?

So Hannibal Season Two premieres tonight (Friday) at 10 ET, and I obviously cannot recommend enough that you watch it. If you miss it, DVR it. If you miss that, watch it On Demand or online. Lovers of horror or psychological drama should, ahem, eat this show up. The unfortunate truth is that Hannibal needs numbers beyond what its enthusiastic existing fans can probably provide in order to survive, although those fans, and the fact that the show is a European co-production with Dino De Laurentiis’ widow, Martha, executive producing, helped precipitate season two in the first place. Now, after months of speculation and anticipation for yours truly, which included a fresh re-watch of season one on beautiful blu-ray (where I had more opportunity to analyze composition, study character and ruminate on plot points that I missed the first time around, plus outtakes!), the premiere is finally here, and the air seems thick with possibility.

Lecter has already ostensibly taken care of his greatest problem, at great personal cost to what qualifies as his soul, and if he intends to continue his murderous ways (you get one guess) suspicions seem to be naturally trained on him now. Will the monster fully reveal himself and turn on his unwitting attackers? Will Will Graham have the last laugh? How will this show maintain the same high level of intensity, creativity and craft as a known quantity? I don’t know, and I cannot wait to find out. There’s no show quite like Hannibal on television, in my opinion, or at least not one that is its equal. I suggest you enjoy it while you can. Perhaps with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

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