Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bryan Fuller

Choose life

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Inside Out

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”

Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)

The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.

Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.

A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:   

There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.

And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.

The monster in the writers room

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Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

Note: Spoilers follow for the season finale of Hannibal.

When it comes to making predictions about television shows, my track record is decidedly mixed. I was long convinced, for instance, that Game of Thrones would figure out a way to keep Oberyn Martell around, just because he was such fun to watch, and to say I was wrong about this is something of an understatement. Let the record show, however, that I said here months ago that the third season of Hannibal would end with Will Graham getting a knife through his face:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

This wasn’t the hardest prediction in the world to make. One of the most distinctive aspects of Bryan Fuller’s take on the Lecter saga is his willingness to pursue elements of the original novels that other adaptations have avoided, and the denouement of Red Dragon—with Will lying alone, disfigured, and mute in the hospital—is a downer ending that no other version of this story has been willing to touch.

Of course, that wasn’t what we got here, either. Instead of Will in his hospital bed, brooding silently on the indifference of the natural world to murder, we got a hysterical ballet of death, with Will and Hannibal teaming up to dispatch Dolarhyde like the water buffalo at the end of Apocalypse Now, followed by an operatic plunge over the edge of a cliff, with our two star-crossed lovers locked literally in each other’s arms. And it was a worthy finale for a series that has seemed increasingly indifferent to anything but that unholy love story. The details of Lecter’s escape from prison are wildly implausible, and whatever plan they reflect is hilariously undercooked, even for someone like Jack Crawford, who increasingly seems like the world’s worst FBI agent in charge. Hannibal has never been particularly interested its procedural elements, and its final season took that contempt to its final, ludicrous extreme. In the novel Red Dragon, Will, despite his demons, is a competent, inspired investigator, and he’s on the verge of apprehending Dolaryhyde through his own smarts when his quarry turns the tables. In Fuller’s version, unless I missed something along the way, Will doesn’t make a single useful deduction or take any meaningful action that isn’t the result of being manipulated by Hannibal or Jack. He’s a puppet, and dangerously close to what TV Tropes has called a Woobie: a character whom we enjoy seeing tortured so we can wish the pain away.

Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

None of this should be taken as a criticism of the show itself, in which any narrative shortcomings can hardly be separated from Fuller’s conscious decisions. But as enjoyable as the series has always been—and I’ve enjoyed it more than any network drama I’ve seen in at least a decade—it’s something less than an honest reckoning with its material. As a rule of thumb, the stories about Lecter, including Harris’s own novels, have been the most successful when they stick most closely to their roots as police procedurals. Harris started his career as a crime reporter, and his first three books, including Black Sunday, are masterpieces of the slow accumulation of convincing detail, spiced and enriched by a layer of gothic violence. When you remove that foundation of realistic suspense, you end up with a character who is dangerously uncontrollable: it’s Lecter, not Harris, who becomes the author of his own novel. In The Annotated Dracula, Leslie S. Klinger proposes a joke theory that the real author of that book is Dracula himself, who tracked down Bram Stoker and forced him to make certain changes to conceal the fact that he was alive and well and living in Transylvania. It’s an “explanation” that rings equally true of the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, which read suspiciously as if Lecter were dictating elements of his own idealized autobiography to Harris. (As far as I know, nobody has seen or heard from Harris since Hannibal Rising came out almost a decade ago. Are we sure he’s all right?)

And there are times when Hannibal, the show, plays as if Lecter had gotten an executive producer credit sometime between the second and third seasons. If anything, this is a testament to his vividness: when properly acted and written, he dominates his stories to a greater extent than any fictional character since Sherlock Holmes. (In fact, the literary agent hypothesis—in which the credited writer of a series is alleged to be simply serving as a front—originated among fans of Conan Doyle, who often seemed bewildered by the secondary lives his characters assumed.) But there’s something unsettling about how Lecter inevitably takes on the role of a hero. My favorite stretch of Hannibal was the back half of the second season, which looked unflinchingly at Lecter’s true nature as a villain, cannibal, and destroyer of lives. When he left the entire supporting cast to bleed slowly to death at the end of “Mizumono,” it seemed impossible to regard him as an appealing figure ever again. And yet here we are, with an ending that came across as the ultimate act of fan service in a show that has never been shy about appealing to its dwindling circle of devotees. I can’t exactly blame it for this, especially because the slow dance of seduction between Will and Hannibal has always been a source of sick, irresistible fascination. But we’re as far ever from an adaptation that would force us to honestly confront why we’re so attached to a man who eats other people, or why we root for him to triumph over lesser monsters who make the mistake of not being so rich, cultured, or amusing. Lecter came into this season like a lion, but he went out, as always, like a lamb.

Eyes without a face

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Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy on Hannibal

By now, Hannibal seems to be nearing its final stretch—its promised lifelines from Amazon or Netflix have failed to materialize—but it still retains its full ability to shock and amuse. The funniest thing about last night’s episode came at the very beginning: unlike every other installment of the show this season, it aired without a viewer discretion advisory warning us of the violent imagery to come. And if anyone really thought that this meant the show was going to soften its content for its move to Saturdays, it took about ten seconds for it to disabuse us of that notion. (If the commercials that aired with it are any indication, the network evidently assumes that most of its viewers now are well over the age of sixty, and have probably seen it all.) “Digestivo,” which marks the end of the Mason Verger arc, as remixed from the novel Hannibal, may be the most violent episode of broadcast television I’ve ever witnessed. My wife watched much of it from between her fingers, and while I had a good idea of what was coming, it was both bracing and horrifying to see Bryan Fuller go further than Ridley Scott or Thomas Harris himself ever dared. I was pretty sure, based on the source material, that I was going to see a moray eel going down Mason’s throat; what I didn’t anticipate was the prospect of him eating Lecter, piece by piece, using Will Graham’s transplanted face. It isn’t an image that I relished, exactly, but it deserves a slow clap from anyone who thought Fuller might lose his nerve toward the end.

Ultimately, of course, both Lecter and Will were spared, at least for now. Mason wakes up from surgery wearing someone else’s face, but it turns out to belong to Cordell, the world’s most sadistic nurse and transplant surgeon, and it quickly slides off to the floor. It’s an unbelievably gruesome sight, and it reminds us of how willing Hannibal has always been to capitalize on our deepest fears about disfigurement. Decades ago, Pauline Kael made a similar point while discussing the polarized critical and audience reaction to Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars:

The danger is to the eyes. If the killer had gone for the throat, probably the movie wouldn’t be so frightening and wouldn’t be considered immoral…Laura Mars violates our guardedness about our eyes. The most dreaded thing that can happen to what many regard as their most sensitive organs happens in this picture; like Un Chien Andalou, it attacks what we’re watching the movie with.

Hearing Kael refer to the eyes as our “most sensitive” organs reminds me a little of what Woody Allen said about the brain: “It’s my second-favorite organ.” And Hannibal isn’t above making us fear for what might happen below Lecter’s waist. (The most disturbing moment in the episode, at least for me, was Mason’s speech about the actual cannibal Armin Meiwes, which reminds us that real life can produce monsters as horrible as anything fiction could devise.) But the face, like the eyes, has a special status in our nightmares, and by targeting it, as Kael cannily notes, it’s as if the show is attacking us at the very place at which we’re joined to the narrative.

Caroline Dhavernas and Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

And so much of the power of visual storytelling is derived from the filmed human face that destroying it feels like an assault on the idea of emotional connection itself. I noted years ago that the later films of Tom Cruise, who is in many respects our most interesting movie star, play like a series of variations on the theme of masks and facial disfigurement. He wears a mask in Eyes Wide Shut and Vanilla Sky, the latter of which, along with Minority Report, all but erases his features, and even a franchise as escapist as the Mission: Impossible films is built on masks and their removal: the most delicious mislead in the entire series comes at the start of M:I-2, when Cruise peels away his face to reveal Dougray Scott beneath. Cruise returns to these images of masks and disfigurement so obsessively in his best films that it’s hard not to see it as a reflection of his ambivalence toward his own good looks. That’s what makes him so fascinating as a star: no actor, as Taffy Brodesser-Akner noted in The New York Times Magazine, has ever worked harder for our pleasure, but it’s all built around a core of secrecy and withholding. And the destruction of the most famous male face in the world, even in fantasy, seems designed to force us to think about the nature of our feelings about it. (Cruise, for what it’s worth, seems to have moved on: he allegedly turned down the lead in Iron Man because it would have required him to wear a mask for much of the movie.)

It’s a theme that Hannibal has mined from the beginning, and it’s right there in its sources. Mason Verger is defined by his lack of facial features, and it feels intuitively right that Lecter makes his improbable escape in The Silence of the Lambs by peeling off another man’s face and wearing it like a mask. Much of Hannibal, the show, has been devoted to the systematic removal of the masks that Lecter wears, or what multiple characters have called his “person suit”—a veiled nod to the literal person suit that Buffalo Bill will later construct. And there’s a strong possibility that the show, if it had been renewed, would have taken it even further. At the end of Red Dragon, which Hannibal is about to retell in loving detail, Will Graham all but loses his face:

[Dolarhyde] pinned Graham with his knees, raised the knife high and grunted as he brought it down. The blade missed Graham’s eye and crunched deep into his cheek.

And the damage was permanent: in The Silence of the Lambs, Crawford says that Graham’s face “looks like damned Picasso drew it.” None of the prior cinematic versions of this story have dared to follow through on this climax, but I have a feeling, given the evidence, that Fuller would embrace it. Taking Hugh Dancy’s face away, or making it hard for it look at, would be the ultimate rupture between the series and its viewers. Given the show’s cancellation, it may well end up being the very last thing we see. It would be a grim note on which to end. But it’s nothing that this series hasn’t taught us to expect.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2015 at 9:14 am

Typhoid and swans

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

Last year, when Community was abruptly served its walking papers by NBC, I wrote the following on this blog:

Community has been canceled. It was a move that took a lot of us, including me, by surprise, and it was announced just as I’d absorbed the happy news that Hannibal was coming back for at least one more season…At a moment when the show seemed so confident of renewal that it ended the season with an episode that all but took it for granted, it’s gone.

Later in the same post, I noted: “Of course, the peculiar thing about watching a cult series these days is that you just never know what might happen.” Still, my overall tone was pessimistic, if not outright dismissive, about the hopes for its revival in some other form. Which just shows how much difference a year makes. Within minutes of yesterday’s announcement that Hannibal had indeed been canceled, speculation was already turning to which online or cable outlet would be picking it up for a fourth season. It made the cancellation seem less like a death sentence than like a suspenseful interlude as we wait to see the conditions under which the characters will survive—or pretty much what Hannibal itself does on a regular basis.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. Bryan Fuller, who never had a series run for even two years until now, seems to have had few illusions about the show’s prospects: the current season is burning through material so quickly, not just from Red Dragon but from Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, that it feels like Fuller is trying to cram as much as possible into his available window. Still, even the tangible possibility of the show getting picked up elsewhere represents a curious mental adjustment for viewers. In the old days, attempts to save threatened shows were the province of grassroots campaigns, with fans bombarding networks with letters, muffins, or bottles of tabasco sauce. Sometimes it worked; usually it didn’t. Now revivals that would have once seemed utterly out of the question are on the table, thanks not to fan enthusiasm but to a shifting media landscape, with players both new and old eager to produce quality content for an existing audience. Next year alone, we’re going to see continuations of both The X-Files and Twin Peaks with their casts and creative crews intact, including a new episode of the former by Darin Morgan, which is basically the full realization of all my fanboy dreams. And it means that just about anything seems possible. (The glaring exception, somewhat hilariously, remains Firefly, which has nothing going for it except a rabid fanbase and the patronage of the most powerful director in Hollywood.)

Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks

And as Lecter himself once said: “Typhoid and swans—it all comes from the same place.” In a way, this is all the bright side of the aversion to risk that characterizes so much entertainment these days. Hollywood is obsessed with sequels, reboots, and remakes for movies that were perfectly fine on their own, but television has enough shows that were canceled before their time to make a return to an old idea seem less like a sign of creative bankruptcy than a gift from the gods. It’s probably too much to ask a company with obligations to its shareholders—and executives praying not to get fired—to make much of a stand for great content for its own sake: we can only wait for those moments when their interests happen to align with what we care about, even if it’s by accident. That’s the funny thing about the entertainment industry. The same corporate mindset that thought people wanted to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is also responsible for bringing David Lynch back to the Black Lodge. On an individual level, it’s possible that development executives can differentiate between the two, but it all runs together on a balance sheet. And the primary difference between Twin Peaks and Spider-Man, aside from their cost, is their gestation period. It takes only a couple of years for a comic book franchise to start to look attractive again; with a cult television show, it’s probably closer to twenty. But even that timeline is starting to accelerate.

So how would a fourth season of Hannibal look? Fuller doesn’t have the rights to The Silence of the Lambs, which would be the logical next step in the series, but he’s hinted that he’s not particularly worried about this. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says: “There is a pocket in one of the novels of some really rich interesting character material that I’m inverting and twisting around.” He goes on to explain what he means, off the record, and the reporter tells us, in a coy parenthesis, “It is is indeed radical.” There’s no telling what he has in mind, but my own hunch is that it involves a throwaway line about Will’s fate after the events of Red Dragon:

Will Graham, the keenest hound ever to run in Crawford’s pack, was a legend at the Academy; he was also a drunk in Florida now with a face that was hard to look at, they said.

I’d love to see this version of the show, as much as I’d love to see Fuller’s take on Clarice Starling. Yet even if we never get it, there’s reason to be content. The Silence of the Lambs is already a great movie. Thanks to Fuller and his collaborators, we also have a more satisfying filmed version of the rest of the Lecter saga than we’ve ever had before. Taken together, it’s a body of work more than worthy of the novels that inspired it. That’s a tremendous achievement. And it happened despite, not because of, what fans loved about this show in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

June 23, 2015 at 10:26 am

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

The monster in the mirror

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “If you were a horror movie villain, what would be your hook?”

In horror movies, we’re supposed to relate to the victims, but some of the genre’s most enduring works implicate us into an uneasy identification with the monster. I’m not talking about the films that invite the audience to cheer as another mad slasher takes out a platoon of teenagers, or even more sophisticated examples like the original Halloween, which locks us into the killer’s eyes with its opening tracking shot. What I have in mind is something more like Norman Bates. Norman is “nutty as a fruitcake,” to use Roger Ebert’s memorable words, but he’s also immensely appealing and sympathetic in the middle sequence of Psycho, much more so than John Gavin’s square, conventional hero. The connection Norman has with Marion as she eats her sandwich in the parlor is real, or at least real enough to convince her to return the stolen money, and it fools us temporarily into thinking that this movie will be an adventure involving these two shy souls. Because what defines Norman isn’t his insanity, or even his mother issues, but his loneliness. As he says wistfully to Marion: “Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies. They moved away the highway.”

Which is only to say that in Norman, we’re confronted with a weird, distorted image of our own introversion, with his teenager’s room and Beethoven’s Eroica on the record player. Other memorable villains force us to confront other aspects of ourselves by taking these tendencies to their murderous conclusion. Hannibal Lecter is a strange case, since he’s so superficially seductive, and he was ultimately transformed into the hero of his own series. What he really represents, though, is aestheticism run amok. We’d all love to have his tastes in books, music, and food—well, maybe not entirely the latter—but they come at the price of his complete estrangement from all human connection, or an inability to regard other people as anything other than items on a menu. Sometimes, it’s literal; at others, it’s figurative, as he takes an interest in Will Graham or Clarice Starling only to the extent that they can relieve his boredom. Lecter, we’re told, eats only the rude, but “rude” can have two meanings, and for the most part, it ends up referring to those too lowly or rough to meet his own high standards. (Bryan Fuller, to his credit, has given us multiple reminders of how psychotic Lecter’s behavior really is.)

Kevin Spacey in Seven

And if Lecter cautions us against the perversion of our most refined impulses, Jack Torrance represents the opposite: “The susceptible imagination,” as David Thomson notes, “of a man who lacks the skills to be a writer.” Along with so much else, The Shining is the best portrait of a writer we have on film, because we can all relate to Jack’s isolation and frustration. The huge, echoing halls of the Overlook are as good a metaphor as I’ve ever seen for writer’s block or creative standstill: you’re surrounded by gorgeous empty spaces, as well as the ghosts of your own ambitions, and all you can manage to do is bounce a tennis ball against the wall, again and again and again. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t looked at a pile of manuscript and wondered, deep down, if it isn’t basically the same as the stack of pages that Jack Torrance lovingly ruffles in his climactic scene with Wendy, and whenever I tell people what I’m working on at the moment, I can’t help but hear a whisper of Jack’s cheerful statement to Ullman: “I’m outlining a new writing project, and five months of peace is just what I want.”

There’s another monster who gets at an even darker aspect of the writer’s craft: John Doe in Seven. I don’t think there’s another horror movie that binds the process of its own making so intimately to the villain’s pathology: Seven is so beautifully constructed and so ingenious that it takes us a while to realize that John Doe is essentially writing the screenplay. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was sensational enough to get him out of a job at Tower Records, but despite the moral center that Morgan Freeman’s character provides, it’s hard to escape the sense that the film delights more in its killer’s cleverness, which can’t be separated from the writer’s. Unlike Jack Torrance, John Doe is superbly good at what he does, and he’s frightening primarily as an example of genius and facility without heart. The impulse that pushes him to use human lives as pieces in his masterpiece of murder is only the absurdist conclusion of the tendency in so many writers, including me, to treat violence as a narrative tool, a series of marks that the plot needs to hit to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that the two are morally equivalent. But Seven—even in its final limitations, which Fincher later went on to explode in Zodiac—is still a scary film for any writer who ever catches himself treating life and death as a game.

Written by nevalalee

October 31, 2014 at 9:01 am

The Long Game

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Last week, while writing about the season finale of Hannibal, I laid out a pet theory about television shows that have a tendency to kill off their lead characters:

When it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that [Bryan] Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thrones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.

In other words, when someone dies, there’s always a tradeoff involved, and a smart show will only eliminate a protagonist if the short-term benefit outweighs the long-term cost of no longer having that character around. This rule doesn’t really work for a show like The Vampire Diaries, which finds myriad ways of resurrecting its key players, but until recently, it did a decent job of explaining events on Game of Thrones. The characters who died tended to be either figureheads who were more interesting in what they represented than in their actions within the story; initially compelling players who had been increasingly sidelined; or ostensible leads who weren’t all that engaging in the first place. And I felt confident that if a character—or actor—was actively enriching the show by his or her presence, the series wouldn’t lightly throw it away.

Well, so much for that theory. (In financial terms, the model worked fine when tested against past data, but fell apart outside my historical sample.) If last night’s episode was especially shocking, even for a show that seems designed to regularly break its viewers’ hearts, it’s partially because of the ways in which the series has diverged unexpectedly from the books. To hear readers tell it, Oberyn doesn’t seem to have been a particularly memorable character on the page, but Pedro Pascal’s performance has been one of the small delights of an often meandering season, and his departure feels like a real loss in a way that previous fatalities have not. Another series, after seeing what it had on the screen, might have revised the storyline accordingly—it wouldn’t be the first time that a character was granted a stay of execution because of the charisma a performer brought to the part—but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been cruelly faithful to Martin’s overall vision. There really wasn’t any way to keep Oberyn around, and it’s in the collision between what the show was slowly discovering on its own and the brutal necessities of its source material that makes the outcome so painful.

Pedro Pascal on Game of Thrones

I’m not really complaining here: it’s that very tension between the unpredictable nature of television and the demands of the text that makes this show special. Still, Oberyn’s death bothered me beyond any reasonable measure, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I’d grown so attached to the character—or because his demise was so graphic. (You know when a show has set a new standard for violence when I start to long nostalgically for Hannibal‘s more aestheticized form of bloodshed.) Game of Thrones is a good show that I’m glad to have the chance to watch, but there’s also a sense in which it uses its virtuoso moments of gore and reversal to cover up the lack of momentum elsewhere. A lot of the fourth season has felt like it was stalling for time: events at Castle Black and across the Narrow Sea have been stuck in a holding pattern, with much talk and declamation leaving the characters more or less exactly where they were before, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they’re playing for time. For all her power, Daenerys can’t go anywhere or do much of anything yet because we still have four more books of material to cover, and the result has turned one of my favorite characters from the early days of the series into something dangerously resembling a bore.

In retrospect, I think it may have been a mistake to divide the third novel across two seasons: it buys Martin more time to finish the books, but it leads to a lot of thumbs twiddling between the squishing of heads. To its credit, Game of Thrones has always nailed the big moments, and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week’s episode, which, if the pattern from previous seasons is any indication, should be a real barnburner. Over the long term, though, the show needs to find a more sustainable rhythm if episodes like “The Mountain and the Viper” are going to play like the dramatic culminations they are, rather than another instance of Martin and company jerking the audience around. This may require even more radical departures from the structure the books have imposed, and even a willingness to drop certain plot threads altogether—while building up the rest—until the time comes to integrate them again into the main story. This isn’t a radical notion; serialized television drops and picks up characters all the time, and the space it gains allows the show to develop its heart more fully. Game of Thrones spends an inordinate amount of time, even now, reminding us that certain characters exist, when that space might have been better spent showing characters like Oberyn simply existing, if only until they depart from the stage for good.

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June 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

The known unknown

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Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Over the last three weeks, I’ve had the chance to watch and reflect on three very different season finales. There’s the Community finale, which was obviously intended to set up the prophesied sixth season but ended up serving as an unintentional cap on the whole series. There’s the Hannibal finale, which would have worked beautifully—if devastatingly—as the climax of the entire show, but which gets to lay the pieces for at least one more stretch of episodes. And there’s the Mad Men “finale,” really a sort of pause between two halves, which exists only because of AMC’s protracted scheduling arrangements. All, in their own ways, are effective installments of television, and they fall neatly along the spectrum of uncertainty that all shows are forced to navigate. Delivering seven to thirteen hours of narrative under such constraints is a monumental enterprise, analogous to carrying out an extended military operation, but just as war often hinges on luck and good hunches, working on a show requires no small amount of intuition, an ability to live, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, with the known unknowns. And it’s a skill that the best showrunners seem to internalize, often based on hard experience of renewals and cancellations.

Few series creators have been through as much as Bryan Fuller, for instance, who has seen three separate shows—four, if you count Mockingbird Lane—canceled before their time. As a result, he’s developed an almost inhuman ability to stick to a plan while keeping his options open, and he’s turned into the best man imaginable to pilot a show like Hannibal, which is obliged to plot a tricky course between the canon of the original novels and the vagaries of its own survival. One of the things that makes it such a fascinating series is that it’s periodically required, based both on its source material and the narrative’s internal logic, to blow up its own premise, usually at the end of each season, which requires even more flexibility than usual. Season three is obviously going to be a very different beast in terms of location and trajectory, and last week’s finale serves to wipe the slate clean, giving Fuller and his team a free hand in terms of who returns next year. (As his walkthrough of the finale on The A.V. Club makes clear, even such critical questions as the identity of the second person in that final shot were left up in the air until the very last minute.)

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

And this kind of ability to modify one’s plan in real time, while making the result seem inevitable, is a crucial prerequisite for running a show, in which so much is out of anyone’s control. This may be why television writers, rather than directors, have always been in the positions of greatest power: it requires a creative personality capable of pulling coherent stories out of cast changes, truncated episode orders, and whatever fresh hell the network can devise. Community wasn’t quite able to pull it off, although it struggled valiantly in the attempt, and if Hannibal has done a better job than most, this may due to a few strokes of good fortune. At least one major plot point this season hinged on a key performer’s schedule, and the survival of certain characters may have less to do with the needs of the narrative than with the availability of particular actors. (Otherwise, when it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.)

The ideal case, of course, is one in which that kind of intuition and flexibility, honed over years of uncertainty, is finally given a fixed goal. In some ways, AMC’s decision to split the last run of Mad Men over two years, while frustrating to viewers like me, may turn out to be better for the show in the long term. If recent seasons have grown ever more sprawling, with the story of its ostensible lead often sidelined in favor of its vast supporting cast, this latest stretch of episodes returned the focus squarely to Don—and to a lesser extent to Peggy—and did wonderful things in the process. I know that some viewers have soured on the show in recent years, as Don became increasingly unlikable, but this season slowly and gracefully inched him back, while giving vivid moments to all of its secondary characters. It’s a deeply satisfying half season of television, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the skills that Matthew Weiner and company developed over the years when the show’s fate was less sure. Living with seasons of uncertainty has given Mad Men a level of nimbleness that a show like House of Cards will never have, and I can’t help but hear an echo of this in Don’s lovely exchange with Peggy: “That’s the job.” “What’s the job?” “Living with the not knowing.”

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2014 at 9:48 am

Game of spoilers

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Sean Bean on Game of Thrones

Recently, I entered one of the most nervewracking phases of my pop culture life: I’m almost, but not quite, caught up on Game of Thrones. For various reasons, mostly because my diet of television was already overstuffed, I hadn’t gotten around to watching any of the series until last month, shortly after the fourth season premiered. When I did the math, I found that I could catch up quickly enough to watch the back half of the season as it aired if I ran through an episode a night, which is precisely how my wife and I have been spending the last four weeks. Fortunately, it’s the kind of show made for an epic binge, and there are extended stretches, especially in the second season, when you can’t wait to keep going. (Things slow down considerably in the third season, probably because of the decision to split one book across two ten-episode runs, but that’s a subject for another post.) And now that I’m only three episodes away from being able to watch the show in real time, I’m both relieved and a little anxious. Navigating the spoilers for the series so far has been an adventure in itself, and now that I’m so close to the goal, I feel a little like an explorer reaching the end of a series of booby traps—which, as Indiana Jones pointed out, is usually when the ground falls out from under your feet.

Game of Thrones is unique, of course, in that the spoilers theoretically never end. So far, the show has adapted two and a half books from a seven-book series, five installments of which have been published, which means that something like four more years of plot points are already in print. (If it isn’t clear by now, I’m coming to the series before encountering the books, although I expect that I’ll probably read them all before long, especially if I can figure out a good way to read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons simultaneously.) The series has shown a willingness to depart from the books in certain ways, but it’s fair to assume that it will closely follow the overall narrative as laid down in Martin’s novels. As a result, viewers of Game of Thrones have a different relationship to spoilers than with any other show in history. On the one hand, if you’re just a day or two behind, there’s an enormous risk of spoilers online and in social media: even if you manage to stay off Twitter while the current episode airs, there’s always the danger of running into a gif, an offhand reference, or a think piece in the New York Times. On the other hand, beyond that immediate risk, we have what you might call the Experts and Newbies divide, and by the time we’re all on the same page, we’ll be well into the next presidential administration. And even knowing roughly how many years the series is going to run counts as something of a spoiler in itself: no matter how far along the narrative seems, we know that there’s much, much more to come.

Maisie Williams on Game of Thrones

Yet there are also ways, perversely, in which having certain developments spoiled has enhanced my enjoyment of the show. I nearly made it to “The Lion and the Rose” with one big twist still unknown to me, only to have it spoiled the day before by a gratuitous joke in an unrelated article on The A.V. Club. Not surprisingly, I was pretty mad about this—I was so, so close—but I found that it didn’t diminish the episode’s suspense. In some respects, it increased it: Hitchcock famously describes the difference between suspense and surprise, coming down squarely in favor of the latter, and much of my tension during the episode came from my knowledge of what was coming, much as Vertigo works better when its central revelation arrives at the beginning of the third act, rather than at the end. Did it make the episode better? Not necessarily, and I’m sure the creators would have preferred, as I did, that I’d gone in cold. Still, it allowed me to appreciate how cleverly all of the elements of the story were being laid into place, which otherwise would have had to wait until a second viewing, and it didn’t lessen the impact of a virtuoso set piece which ranks among the best things the show has ever done.

And there’s a sense in which our prior knowledge of the show—whether through accidental spoilers or having read the books—adds another dimension to the viewer’s engagement. The best parallel to this is Hannibal, a show based on source material that I do know by heart, and which pushes against its inspiration in ways that have become delightful and surprising. Even the most casual viewer probably knows more or less where Hannibal Lecter’s story is going, and Bryan Fuller’s stated intention to carry the series through Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the climactic Hannibal novel itself tips us off to the arc of the stories for years to come. So far, however, this hasn’t been a weakness but a strength: Fuller has shown a readiness to depart from canon in startling ways, as well as to incorporate new arrangements of the puzzle pieces he has, and for a Thomas Harris fan, that’s part of the fun, whether it comes from a line of repurposed dialogue or a new interpretation of a character we thought we knew. We may have a good idea of the what, but the how remains unknown. And it’s in the how, or in those aspects of style and inspiration that can’t be spoiled in advance, that great television thrives.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

The art of improvisation

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John Coltrane

Yesterday, while writing about what currently stands as my favorite show on television, I concluded: “The only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.” Shortly after typing this line, however, I realized that it was a little misleading. Clearly, this is a show with its eye on the long game, and I hope that Bryan Fuller and his team get the five seasons that they need to tell this story properly. Yet there’s also room for improvisation within the structure laid down by Thomas Harris’s novels and the show’s own narrative arc. Anyone reading the excellent weekly walkthroughs that Fuller has been giving to Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club knows that Hannibal often makes radical changes late in the game. The identity of Will’s secret admirer, for instance, was changed at the last minute to simplify a complicated storyline after several episodes had already been shot, and the shocking revelation at the end of last week’s installment was originally intended to conclude the first season. Fuller’s explanation for this last change is particularly revealing:

I just think it’s so much better for [it to happen] in this way, as opposed to putting [it] as part of the cliffhanger of the first season, because it actually would have taken a bit of the power away from that last moment between Will and Hannibal, which I think needs to have its air.

This only means that the series has both an overarching plan and the freedom to move around within it as the material itself suggests changes and improvements, which is the key to good improvisation. Television, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, provides some of our most fascinating case studies in the tension between structure and serendipity, since so much of it unfolds in public. I’ve argued that a show like House of Cards suffers from its inability to react in real time to its own reception, and in recent years, we’ve seen examples of shows that improvise brilliantly within a strong narrative framework (Breaking Bad) and ones that suffer either from too little structure (Glee) or from an existing plan imposed on reluctant material (How I Met Your Mother). The ability to balance these two extremes is the mark of a great artist, and not just in works of narrative. Improvisation itself is a concept rooted in music and poetry, and from the beginning, it referred to a form of invention within constraints. An oral poet can improvise verse on demand thanks to an existing structure of meter, rhyme, and traditional formulas and epithets, while musical improvisers from Bach to Coltrane know how to wander far and wide while always returning to the rigorous logic of the chord progression.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

In fact, you could make a convincing argument that structure is what makes good improvisation possible. Improv comedy thrives on implicit rules that provide beautiful guidelines for any kind of storytelling: add new information, focus on the here and now, establish the location, and don’t block your partners. A good improviser is always thinking ahead, and one of the keenest pleasures of a great improv set is watching the performers file away details that can recur later to give the scene a shape and a punchline. I’ve said before that formulas and clichés originate as a way of solving problems, and one of their most valuable functions is to provide a framework for exploration: a crime procedural, for instance, is flexible enough to accommodate any number of vignettes and locations, and if you drift too far from the point, the formula is always there to lock you back into focus. Matt Groening likes to talk about the “rubber-band” reality of The Simpsons, which allows the logic to be stretched for the sake of a joke, only to quickly snap back, and much of the joy of its classic seasons comes from that push and pull. (Like any rubber band, though, it gets looser over time, and that loss in elasticity goes a long way toward explaining why the show grew increasingly less interesting.)

There are also times when the illusion of improvisation can be as powerful as its presence. Anyone who has spent time listening to live jazz knows that many of those “improvised” riffs are really just good tricks, kept in the performer’s back pocket and brought out periodically to wow the audience, and that’s true for narrative as well. Some of my favorite movies are those that give the appearance, from minute to minute, of being made up on the fly, only to reveal a meticulous design in the end, as in the best work of Steven Soderbergh or the Coen Brothers. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that both Soderbergh and the Coens edit their own movies under pseudonyms, which implies that finding the right balance between structure and discovery requires an especially intimate engagement with the raw footage.) Done properly, it feels like real life, which also reveals surprising shapes behind apparent randomness. And as a writer, I know that I only feel comfortable going off on tangents when I know that there’s a larger structure waiting in reserve when I need it. The underlying plan can take the form of an existing work, a detailed outline, or a sequence of chords in a fake book, but whatever it is, it allows us to be more daring than we could otherwise be. If we’re not sure how to find our way home, we aren’t likely to stray far from the path, but once we have a good map and compass, we can really explore the territory.

Hannibal rises

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Hugh Dancy in Hannibal

I’m generally a good sleeper, but I’ve found myself tossing and turning on Friday nights. When I close my eyes, I’ll often find myself replaying scenes of hellish beauty and power: bodies grafted into cherry trees, turned into beehives, arranged in murals in the shape of a human eye, sectioned into slices like an installation by Damien Hirst. I know, I know—I shouldn’t be watching Hannibal so close to bedtime. But I can’t stop. After a fascinating but uneven first season, Bryan Fuller’s eerie, poetic, incredibly gruesome meditation on the work of Thomas Harris has turned into the best network drama I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s the least of its accomplishments. The Silence of the Lambs stands alone as a perfect film, and there’s no doubt that much of our fascination with Lecter stems as much from Demme’s movie and Hopkins’s performance as from the original novels. But Hannibal comes close to surpassing its source material in density and imagination. In some ways, it’s a reflection of the difference between film, which only has two hours to immerse us in a story, and television, which can devote thirteen episodes per season to furnishing an entire world. I’ve spent as much time thinking about Hannibal Lecter as any other character in fiction, and it’s only now that I’m starting to realize that I never really knew him at all.

And I’m as surprised by this as anyone. When the pilot first aired, I had a lot of doubts, but with a week still remaining until the premiere of the new season of Mad Men, Hannibal currently stands unrivaled as the richest slice of narrative on television. It’s one of those rare shows in which every creative element rewards scrutiny and reflection. Visually, it’s astounding, with beautiful and baroque tableaux of death that would skirt implausibility, or even parody, if they weren’t designed to force us to see the world from Will Graham and Hannibal’s charged perspectives. The music, sound, and production design are all first rate, and the direction keeps getting better and better. Most of all, we have the writing, which encompasses psychological richness, intricate plotting, and black humor while staying to just the right side of pretentiousness; and the acting, from a quirky, lovingly assembled cast. I was initially skeptical of Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter—he just seemed too villainous to pass as one of the leading lights of Baltimore society—but he’s managed to create a nuanced, terrifying portrayal while still keeping most of his secrets. As Will Graham, Hugh Dancy squeezes surprising notes out of an almost unplayable character. And Laurence Fishburne’s work as Jack Crawford is the show’s subtlest and most rewarding performance, even if it strains credulity that he’d still be in the field after the horrors that have befallen his team. (I also can’t fail to mention Raul Esparza, who has turned Dr. Chilton, unbelievably, into a delight.)

Laurence Fishburne and Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal

At some point, I expect that I’ll go back to revisit the first season, which I was watching at the time with only one eye. In retrospect, though, it feels like nothing so much as a necessary prologue to what the show has finally become. The major weakness of the first season of Hannibal was the problem it faced in playing our prior knowledge of its central character against the version of him that it presented. We know going in that Lecter is a madman who kills and eats other people, and the series took this for granted, to the point where it sometimes seemed interested in developing everything else but the man with his name in the title. The Hannibal Lecter of the first season is more of a sketch than a fully formed figure, and the show leaned a little too heavily on our familiarity with its sources. Now, however, with a season’s worth of narrative in the bank, we’ve seen Hannibal commit unspeakable crimes, staged before our eyes with an unflinching panache that even Harris never dared. This is not a man, as we were once reassured, who eats only the rude: he’s killed people we care about, and he continues to weave a web of incredible cruelty around Will and Jack. As a result, he’s far scarier than the Hopkins incarnation, whose charm shifted the balance of the novels and made nonsense of Harris’s strong moral grounding. It’s impossible to root for this version of Hannibal, but we’re still tantalized by him, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

And it has the effect of retroactively enriching a series of books that I thought I had long since internalized. I’ve been rereading Red Dragon recently—it’s a novel that I seem to pick up every year or two and can’t put down until I’m done—and it’s remarkable how much more resonant it seems when I replay it with Dancy’s haunted face in mind. It’s unclear if Fuller and his creative team will have the chance to cover all three books, as they hope to do: given its modest ratings, it’s a miracle that the series has come even this far, and there are some complicated rights issues to be resolved with MGM before they can touch The Silence of the Lambs. A year ago, I would have been nervous at the prospect of a television show tackling this material at all. Now, though, I’m intensely curious to see what Fuller and the rest will do with it, especially because the way Hannibal has unfolded testifies to this show’s ability to execute a design that requires years for its full completion. If there’s one complaint that can be lodged against the character of Lecter, it’s that he’s too omniscient, too clever, too calculating, with a preternatural ability to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. (If nothing else, it’s unclear how he finds the time to style his victims in such striking ways, both in the field and in the kitchen.) But if every monster reflects its creator, we shouldn’t be surprised to find him at the heart of this methodical, painstaking, ruthlessly clever series. Because the only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.

Written by nevalalee

April 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

Hannibal’s crossing

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Last year, I wrote a long post titled “The sad case of Hannibal Lecter,” in which I lamented the fact that one of the most compelling fictional characters of the past thirty years had been destroyed by excessive backstory and authorial indulgence. Since then, this posting has become one of the most frequently viewed entries on this blog—mostly because of people searching for the Hannibal Lecter mask—and I’ve had a chance to revisit Lecter several more times, notably while reflecting on the movie adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs. What remains unchanged is my original conviction that Lecter is a ferociously effective supporting player who wilts when thrust into the spotlight, a wish-fulfillment character who doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s always dangerous when an author falls in love with his own creation, and in this case, fond father Thomas Harris ended up being Lecter’s worst enemy.

So you can imagine my feelings at the announcement that Lecter is being retooled for a new television series, of all things, focusing on the relationship between Hannibal and FBI profiler Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. Bryan Fuller, the producer given the unenviable task of bringing this show to life, is a smart guy, and it’s possible that he’ll surprise me with an unexpected take on the material. And Lecter will evidently be confined to his cell for most of the series, which is exactly where he belongs. But for the most part, this project seems utterly misguided, an attempt to wring the last bit of interest out of a character who made his most indelible impression in eighteen minutes of screen time. Even if there really is demand for more Lecter, this is a textbook example of Joss Whedon’s axiom: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.”

And yet there’s a bright side to all this. Thomas Harris, despite his self-imposed seclusion, was once the best suspense novelist in the world. There’s a reason why The Silence of the Lambs recently topped NPR’s list of the best thrillers of all time: no one, not even Forsyth, has been better than Harris at his peak. And one of the saddest spectacles in recent literature has been watching Harris waste his talent on Lecter. After the novel Hannibal, there was clearly nowhere else for the character to go—especially once the movie version’s ending departed so radically from the original—so Harris was forced to dig deep into backstory, with the usual sorry results. Lecter’s dialogue used to be razor sharp, if often slightly too clever; in Hannibal Rising, he was reduced to lines like “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.” As Anthony Lane said in his review of the book: “What the hell is going on here?”

But I remain hopeful that the old Harris still exists. We know for a fact that Harris is a slow, laborious writer: Stephen King has spoken of him as “writhing on the floor in agonies of frustration.” But the results were worth it. The more mediocre thrillers I read, the more I come to appreciate the Harris of Black Sunday, Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and even parts of Hannibal: his attention to detail, the density and texture of his prose, the inventiveness of his violence, and his odd compassion. And I’m convinced he can do it again, as long as he leaves Lecter behind. I’ve always thought that a new thriller by Harris, without Lecter, would be a major publishing event, and the fact that Harris seems willing to relinquish his most cherished creation to television—when he wrote Hannibal Rising expressly to prevent an unauthorized prequel from being made—implies that he has finally learned to let go. With Lecter outsourced to Bryan Fuller, could Harris give us another great novel? My heart hops at the thought.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2011 at 8:49 am

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