Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Monster of Florence

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The cast of Hannibal

Like most great acts of trickery, narrative and otherwise, the television series Hannibal hinges on a feat of sleight of hand. At first glance, its source material could hardly seem more clear, since it’s there each week in the opening credits: “Based on the characters from the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.” Yet the more I watch it—and this is my favorite network drama in years—the more I’m convinced that its real influences lie elsewhere. Once you get past its florid title and grotesque gallery of murderers, the novel Red Dragon is essentially a realistic thriller, with some of the most detailed and convincing procedural elements that the genre ever produced. (I’ve seen books on writing that recommend studying it as a sourcebook on forensic technique.) It’s no wonder that Michael Mann, our most obsessive cinematic chronicler of men at work, was drawn to it: Manhunter, which puts its director’s name directly in the title, remains the most faithful filmed version of this story that we have. Bryan Fuller’s interests, to put it mildly, are somewhat different. There’s hardly a credible moment of forensic analysis or laboratory procedure anywhere to be found on this show: the investigative team is there primarily to provide subtle comic relief, and most of the crimes are solved, literally, by an act of Will.

Because the title of this show, after all, isn’t Red Dragon, but Hannibal. And as the series has unfolded, it has become manifestly clear that its real thematic touchstone is the novel of the same name, along with its notorious adaptation by Ridley Scott. In itself, this is a daring choice: neither the novel nor the movie Hannibal ranks high among anyone’s favorites, unless you’re Stephen King or David Thomson, and even if you like aspects of both, as I do, it’s hard not to see it as the point when Harris’s tendency toward the overwrought and gruesome overwhelmed his keen instincts as a crime reporter. Yet it’s those very excesses that seem to fascinate Fuller. The show’s lineup of serial killers of the week has grown increasingly baroque, to the point where Francis Dolarhyde, who merely slaughtered two families in their homes, might find it hard to make an impression. Characters from the novel Hannibal, like Mason Verger and his sister Margot, are given big roles, and the show’s visual aesthetic—all dripping blood and dark, candied surfaces—has more in common with the later Harris than the stark, clean lines of the early books. And the fact that the new season draws liberally on Lecter’s adventures in Florence signals that it intends to dive even deeper into those gothic trenches.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Yet Hannibal, the show, pulls it off, when the book and movie mostly didn’t. And this is thanks largely to its clarity of purpose regarding the character of Lecter himself. Harris’s last two books suffer from his growing identification with Lecter, along with a curious misreading of his appeal. As Martin Amis was among the first to point out, Hannibal frees Lecter only to turn him into an arch consumer with a taste for expensive brand names, rather than the severe, poised monster he was at his best. Here’s his airline meal on the plane ride home:

An elegant yellow box trimmed with brown from Fauchon, the Paris caterer. It is tied with two ribbons of silk gauze in complementary colors. Dr. Lecter has provisioned himself with wonderfully aromatic truffled pâté de foie gras, and Anatolian figs still weeping from their severed stems. He has a half-bottle of a St. Estephe he favors. The silk bow yields with a whisper…

This kind of thing can go on and on—and it does. In his cell, Lecter seems like a being of infinite possibility; in Florence, he’s a fop and snob whose choices are designed to tickle the most superficial of bourgeois instincts, a primate of the Ponte Vecchio.

And while the series doesn’t shy away from showing us Lecter’s decadent lifestyle, it benefits from a more reasoned understanding of his evil. Lecter, for once, is the villain here: we’ve seen him destroy lives and inflict pain to an extent that the books themselves never acknowledged. By ridding itself of Harris’s ambivalence toward his own creation, the show is better equipped to walk its fine line between real dread and campy decadence. One of the pleasures of Hannibal is how close it always seems to crossing over into parody, and it’s deliciously aware of this. The dialogue is so mannered that you feel you could put together an algorithm to generate it on demand: “Morality doesn’t exist. Only morale.” But by keeping itself at arm’s length from its title character, which it regards like a beautiful but deadly wasp in a jar, it allows us to delight in Lecter’s extravagances while not asking us to buy into his values. The result is one of the weirdest, perversely singular shows around: for a series that seems perpetually on the cusp of cancellation, last night’s season premiere was almost willfully uninviting to new viewers. Whether the show can maintain that balance for much longer remains to be seen, and even as it stands, it’s doubtful if it would work at all for an audience that hadn’t been taught how to watch it. For now, though, it’s great, gut-wrenching fun, even if it only pulls it off by the skin of its teeth.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2015 at 9:05 am

2 Responses

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  1. Your words are beautiful ! I just did my first recap (on Hannibal also, actually) and I’m still figuring out how to incorporate my own thoughts without just giving a play by play. I love your comparison to Hannibal as a wasp in a jar!


    June 6, 2015 at 3:00 pm

  2. @Samantha: Weekly recaps can be challenging. I’ve been tempted to try them for Hannibal, but haven’t had the time so far. Good luck!


    June 19, 2015 at 9:29 pm

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