Friday, June 21, 2013

Hannibal and Hannibal and Hannibal

When it came out, the Silence of the Lambs was one of my favorite films. It was the rare favorite where my appreciation matched the critical acclaim--the film swept the major Oscars that year, becoming the first and so far only horror film to win a Best Picture Oscar. The two leads, Jodie Foster as intrepid FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, the imprisoned serial killer who helps her solve a big case won Best Actress and Actor, respectively.  It was a de facto sequel to a movie I'd liked when I was younger--Michael Mann's Manhunter--and after seeing the film, I went back and devoured the Thomas Harris novels Silence and Manhunter were based on, Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. The books were actually better than the movies. I was hooked.

About ten years later--Harris is one of those guys who takes his sweet time between books--a sequel to Silence was announced, with the rather obvious title of Hannibal.  The movie deal for Hannibal was secured before the book was written, and supposedly the principals from the movie gave Harris feedback on the book, pre-release.

In Hannibal, something horrible happened to the evil Dr. Lecter. He got Lestated.

Yeah, talking about this guy.

WARNING: Beyond this point there be SPOILERS for the film (and book) Hannibal, and light spoilers for other works in the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Aside from one light spoiler about the pilot of the TV show Hannibal, I leave that unspoiled.

I'll back up. Some years earlier Anne Rice had hit the literary scene with a novel about vampires, called Interview with the Vampire. It was a book, apparently inspired by the death of the author's child, about a melancholy young man who, while contemplating suicide, encounters and is turned into a vampire. The novel was a huge success, but the character who most captured the public's imagination was not the titular vampire, Rice's protagonist, the depressive and morally-conflicted Louis.

The breakout star of the novel, the character people wanted more of, was Louis's sire--and, for most of the novel, the piece's villain--the depraved bon vivant vampire Lestat de Lioncourt. Wanting to focus her follow-up on Lestat, Rice faced a problem: unlike Louis, who only reluctantly drank human blood, Lestat was a genuinely bad guy. In Interview, he feasted on human blood and killed people left and right, with not a care in the world.

To make Lestat a protagonist, you needed to soften him up a bit. So Rice turned to what comic book fans call a retcon. It's short for retroactive continuity--you retroactively change the character's defined history in order to take his story in a different direction. In Lestat's case, that meant that in her follow-up novel, The Vampire Lestat, it's suddenly revealed that unbeknownst to Louis all of Lestat's killings from Interview--all the depraved acts that made him such a dangerous, attractive character--were all instances of him killing very bad people, all murderers or worse.

Now it was OK for readers to follow Lestat around for a whole book, because they weren't following the exploits of an indiscriminate murderer (even though he'd proclaimed to Louis that he was an indiscriminate killer in the first book). Now Lestat was basically a vampire Batman, a vigilante with the guts to put the bad guys down (…in his guts).

So in Hannibal, the novel, Lecter gets Lestated. It isn't as obvious as it was in Anne Rice's work--there's no point where the novel literally tries to sell you "You remember that moment in the previous novel where it looked like this guy killed an innocent victim? Well, what really happened was…" Instead, Lecter's history is expanded, and we're given the understanding that Hannibal, while a serial killer and a cannibal, suffered horribly as a child and only does bad things to rude people. And by rude, we're talking about a range from hopelessly greedy and corrupt to fellow monsters like murderous pedophiles. So killing people and eating them? It's fine, so long as they're bad, bad, horrible people!

Lecter turned from amoral killing machine to gentleman cannibal with a code of conduct, but worse, Clarice Starling turned from iron-willed law woman to a (mostly) powerless victim and moral rag doll. In the book she is repeatedly betrayed by corrupt forces at the FBI--part of a vicious revenge scheme by a prior Hannibal victim trying to flush the good doctor out of hiding. Isolated and disgraced, Clarice finds that the only friend she has left is…you guessed it. After a stomach-turning scene in which Hannibal takes Clarice's primary tormentor, vivisects part of his brain, and cooks it tableside, things take a romantic turn. The whole thing reads like fanfic erotica.

Isn't it romantic?

The novel of Hannibal was well-written--even in what felt like sellout mode, Thomas Harris was still Thomas Harris--but repugnant. The movie, which I only saw when it hit pay cable, was less objectionable, but still not terribly good. Like the book, the quality of the presentation is beyond reproach. The cinematography is really good--Ridley Scott and his cinematographer used the same desaturated look they brought to Gladiator to create some beautiful images.

Julianne Moore, taking the role of Starling over from Foster, does a nice job in a rather thankless role. I know some people have mixed feelings about Moore, but I think that she's solidly in the top rank of actresses working today. She does a great job of giving Starling the same kind of steel that Foster had in Silence (it's actually an uncanny impression at times) but there's not that much that can be done with the character as written. The script, credited to Steven Zaillian and David Mamet, resolves the novel's most problematic part--Clarice doesn't join Team Cannibal at the end--but doesn't change the fact that Starling is largely stuck following the agendas of others for most of the film.

The center of Silence of the Lambs' appeal was the series of confrontations between jailed Lecter and young Starling, matching wits and sharing intimacies in a way that gave Foster and Hopkins room to show off their acting chops. Unfortunately, Hannibal only has a few scenes where Lecter and Starling speak, and during their only face-to-face encounters, Clarice is either injured or sedated--so those conversations don't quite pop the way they did in the previous film. With that a non-factor, any enjoyment there is to be had from the Hannibal film is in how much you like Hopkins' performance as Lecter.

There are a few scenes where Hopkins recaptures the quiet menace that predominated his earlier Oscar-winning performance. For the most part, Hopkins's tone in Hannibal is all to the campier side of his earlier performance. It's like the little swagger-and-grin of "I'm going to have an old friend for dinner" carried out to feature-film length. (Hopkins's third turn as Lecter, in a re-adaptation of Red Dragon, was more of the same.) It's a fun performance, but it makes for a different sort of movie. It isn't a horror movie--Hannibal isn't dangerous to anyone we might view sympathetically, Hannibal's enemies aren't really dangerous to him, and it would be kind of difficult to work up any outrage if one of Hannibal's victims were to get revenge on him anyway.

After Hannibal, the book and film, I was pretty unenthusiastic about continuing with the franchise. Hannibal Rising, a sort of Portrait of the Cannibal as a Young Man prequel, didn't rouse my interest in book or film form. And last year, I greeted news that NBC would be making a Hannibal TV series with a sigh and an eye-roll. The cast looked intriguing, but a) it was a new NBC series, which has been an unpromising label for the past decade, and b) who really needed a serial killer-and-FBI profiler buddy procedural? Let the franchise die, for heaven's sake!

Turns out I was wrong, and there's now a strong competition between Hannibal and The Americans for best new show of 2013. Heck, maybe "best show of 2013," period. As I mentioned before, Hannibal the TV series is a prequel to Red Dragon. It fills in the briefly sketched-out backstory of the protagonist of that novel, Will Graham, the FBI profiler who caught Hannibal Lecter prior to the events in the book. Graham's a talented profiler who, because he can empathize with serial murderers, is able to reconstruct their crimes in his mind. In a change from the canon established in the books and films, rather than being an area psychiatrist Graham met once or twice before realizing he was a serial killer, in the TV show Hannibal Lecter's tasked by the FBI with monitoring Graham's sanity.

British actor Hugh Dancy portrays Graham as someone simultaneously tough-minded and incredibly vulnerable, the character's empathy is treated both as a murderer-finding superpower and as a mental disorder that isolates Graham from the rest of society. Dancy's vulnerability plays well off of Mads Mikkelsen's Lecter. In sharp contrast to the theatrical flair employed by Hopkins and even by Brian Cox (the original cinematic Lecter, who originated the role in Manhunter), Mikkelsen underplays Dr. Lecter just a little bit.

His cannibal speaks in the measured, concerned tones of a psychoanalyst. The core of the character stays the same--he remains an aesthete whose clothes, furnishings, and food must all be just so, he remains a polymath with an insane amount of knowledge and Wolverine-like sense of smell, he remains intent on messing with the minds of the people he meets, and he remains a brutal killer. However, there's no taunting to Mikkelsen's Lecter, no grinning superiority, none of the Truman Capote/Katharine Hepburn sass that Hopkins brought to the role. He's a much more realistic monster.

The scene that really sold me on Hannibal, the TV series, repurposed a famous bit of dialogue from the book Red Dragon. Let's see the scene as it appeared in the book, performed by Brian Cox as Lektor (yeah, that's how they spelled in the script, not sure why):

In context, Graham's on the phone with the imprisoned Lekter because he's hoping to get some insight into an active serial killer, nicknamed the Tooth Fairy. Lektor's tone as he discusses how God must feel powerful when he kills people is mocking--he's trying to mess with Graham's mind--but it's also a rant from someone who's clearly crazy. Now check out the TV show, where (basically) the same dialogue is repurposed as part of a therapy session between Graham and Hannibal:

The genius of the TV show is that Mikkelsen's Lector doesn't make that screed about God sound crazy--it's all part of an odd but somehow normal discussion they have about the fact that Graham's killed a man in the line of duty (the same Garrett Jacob Hobbs Cox's Lektor mentions in the first clip).

This reimagined core relationship is supported by a top-class production. Hannibal is consistently the best-looking show on television. The ritualized murders depicted on the show are frequently as beautiful as they are disturbing (and boy, are they disturbing--it's pretty shocking that they're willing to show these things on broadcast television). It wouldn't be surprising to see some of these crime scenes exhibited in a museum because the art design is just that strong.

While the caseload of highly aestheticized ritual murders Graham is faced strains credulity, the show offsets it by underplaying the show's procedural aspect, Indeed, Hannibal often feels like a show that occurs off to the side of one of the big CBS crime procedurals, with their wisecracking forensic experts and police team dynamics. The focus of the show stays on the unstable profiler and his friend/shrink/serial killer, who both don't quite fit in to that world.

Mikkelsen and Dancy are ably backed by Laurence Fishburne, who plays Dancy's FBI boss Jack Crawford, and the rest of the regular cast is top-notch. The first season, which just concluded, drew in a large number of fine guest performances, including excellent turns by Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres, and Lance Henriksen. If you missed it--and lots of people did, the series only barely secured itself a second season--go catch up on Amazon or iTunes. If you can stomach the gruesome crime scenes, the rest of the show is a real treat.

Final scoreboard:
Hannibal (book) -- not recommended
Hannibal (2001 movie) -- weakest possible recommendation
Hannibal (2013 TV Series) -- very highly recommended.

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