Cannibalism strikes at the darkest fears of the human soul. It is therefore no surprise that Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter was rated by the American Film Institute as the greatest villain in Hollywood history, beating out Darth Vader, Goldfinger, the Joker and the Wicked Witch of the West herself. And while most cannibals consume their foes in an effort to absorb their power, Dr. Lecter chooses to eat people simply because they are rude. It is therefore not surprising that Lecter is somewhat charming, and often outright hilarious. When played correctly, Hannibal will woo you, make you laugh, and then…well…eat you up.
Dr. Lecter began as a secondary character in the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs and eventually evolved into the star of the series in the next two books Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. Each of these films has been adapted into film at least once, ranging in success from critical and commercial flops to Academy Award-winning accolades. And while readers and moviegoers have followed the early years of Hannibal’s reign of terror as well as his late career comeback, we have not had much of a chance to see the evil Dr. Lecter in his monstrous heyday. With the new series Hannibal, NBC has decided to treat audiences with a recounting of Hannibal’s various conquests as a psychologist, serial killer, culinary connoisseur, and advisor to the FBI. And while Hannibal is a wonderfully acted, well-scripted and incredibly eerie program, it has somehow failed to connect with audiences as well as NBC hoped. As the various networks announce which shows they will cancel and which they will renew, Hannibal hangs in a strange limbo as the studio decides the good (bad) doctor’s fate. So while we await the decision, let’s take a moment to review Hannibal’s career.
Thomas Harris, a former police beat reporter, introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter in his 1981 novel, Red Dragon. The book follows the story of FBI investigator Will Graham, who uses his knack for thinking like a serial killer to track them down. Graham rose to fame as the man who discovered that Lecter was the infamous “Chesapeake Ripper.” Graham is now trying to hunt down a new serial killer known as the “Tooth Fairy,” a shy and troubled man with a cleft named Francis Dolarhyde. Graham begins visiting his old adversary Dr. Lecter, now in captivity, for assistance tracking down Dolarhyde. And while Lecter is ostensibly helpful, he secretly opens a dialogue with Dolaryhde himself and plots against Graham. This book is the only Lecter tale that has been adapted to the screen more than once. Michael Mann of Miami Vice fame brought the story to the big screen in 1986 with his adaptation Manhunter, starring Brian Cox as Dr. Lecter. Cox’s portrayal was excellent, but overshadowed in the public mind by that of Anthony Hopkins. For Hopkins third and final (so far) appearance as Hannibal, legendary hack director Brett Ratner remade the film under the novel’s original title. This later film features strong performances, but seems redundant and strange considering it is framed as a prequel to Hopkins previous portrayals of the characters and yet all of the actors are clearly a decade older.
Harris’ follow-up book, Silence of the Lambs, more prominently features Hannibal Lecter. Again, Lecter is a side villain who is enlisted to help the FBI hunt down another serial killer on the loose. This time, the story centers around a young FBI recruit named Clarice Starling who is looking for a “Buffalo Bill,” a killer who skins female victims for a sinister and disturbing purpose. Starling and Lecter develop a strange, emotionally intimate relationship that is perhaps the most interesting element of the novel. In the last act, Hannibal uses his devious wiles to escape captivity and return to his cannibalistic ways. Director Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of the novel starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter is almost universally regarded as the definitive portrayal of Hannibal. His creepy “quid pro quo” interplay with Jodie Foster as Agent Starling has come to define what we love and despise about Dr. Lecter. The film was lauded by critics and audiences and Dr. Lecter became an pop culture phenomenon. His infamous “fava beans with a nice chianti” tongue rattle has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Thanks to his enormous popularity, Hannibal Lecter would became the central character for the next two novels and their subsequent film adaptations.
Harris’ follow-up novel Hannibal is our first chance to see Dr. Lecter on the loose, causing havoc in full swing. With Lecter as the veritable protagonist of the piece, unchained by the constraints of being locked in a cell, Harris breaks the well-established template of the previous two stories. Various parties are on the lookout for Hannibal, including disfigured former patient Mason Verger and a self-serving Italian police officer hellbent on receiving the reward for Dr. Lecter’s capture. Meanwhile, Lecter is stalking his old “friend” Clarice Starling, who finds herself strangely drawn to the villainous Doctor. Along the way, we learn a bit about Dr. Lecter’s past, which begins to humanize the inhuman monster of the previous two stories. We are introduced to Lecter’s “memory palace,” an amazing inner world where Hannibal organizes and explores his brilliance and madness. Hopkins returned to the role in director Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Hannibal 10 years after the release of Silence of the Lambs. The film’s tone was strikingly different from Demme’s film, and Scott plays it as high camp in the guise of high art. Gary Oldman as Verger is really the villain of the piece, and manages to steal the show from Hopkins. Julianne Moore does her best to fill Foster’s shoes in the part of Clarice Starling, but leaves the audience longing for her predecessor.
Harris’ final (so far) novel in the Lecter tetralogy is Hannibal Rising. As the title indicates, the book is a prequel to the other stories, chronicling Hannibal’s childhood and eventual descent into cannibalism and insanity. We learn that Hannibal witnessed the death of his family at the hand of Nazi aggression and was manipulated into eating a broth made from the remains of his beloved younger sister. As Hannibal becomes a young adult, he hunts down the men who destroyed his family and consumes them as an act of revenge for forcing him to eat his own sister. We begin to understand why Lecter does what he does, and begin to almost sympathize with him. The 2007 cinematic adaptation of the novel is widely regarded as the weakest film in the series and performed poorly with audiences and critics.
In contrast, NBC’s Hannibal represents a high watermark for the series. Charming Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen, who made a splash with American audiences as the evil LeChiffre from Casino Royale rivals even Hopkins in his portrayal of Dr. Lecter. Although he series centers around the Will Graham character from Red Dragon, Lecter once again steals the show. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is dapper, haunting, hypnotizing and infinitely urbane. The show follows Hannibal’s heydey as the “Chesapeake Ripper,” as he brilliantly manipulates the FBI while serving as an advisor to them. Along the way, the showrunners come up with wonderfully disturbing “killers of the week” for Hannibal and Will to hunt down together. It is surprising how much NBC manages to get away with on this show, as some of the killers are even more gruesome than the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo. Perhaps the most terrifying and entertaining portions of the show are Hannibal’s dinner parties, where he serves his victims to his guests, who unwittingly gobble up their fellow men and women with gusto. These scenes take a dastardly cue from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, who was coincidentally played by Hopkins in Julie Taymor’s cinematic adaptation of the classic play. Like any good prequel, the audience’s knowledge of what is to come gives the show its sense of dramatic tension. And that tension runs high.
At the end of the day, this is perhaps the best incarnation of the Hannibal the Cannibal saga and its a shame that NBC might be giving it the axe. But then again, NBC has a record for misguidedly cancelling shows that no one in their right mind should have cancelled (Star Trek anyone?). As viewers await NBC’s decision, Hannibal needs your help now more than ever. So crack open a bottle of chianti, boil some fava beans, and give the show a watch. If you like it, make sure to Tweet NBC not to serve Hannibal his last meal.