Connective Tissue: How Bryan Fuller Utilized and Reinvented 30 Years of Lecter Alumni, by Alexander Miller
It’s obvious television’s undergone a revolutionary change in recent years and Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal might be one of the most daring series to have seen the airwaves. One might assume that “daring” refers to the radically expressive portrayed scenes of graphic mayhem, cannibalism and wanton bloodletting. What makes Hannibal so bold is Bryan Fuller’s fearless method of curating and adapting the now infamous characters/stories from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series, molding them into a syndicated format that maintains a defiant sense of originality while following the original narrative structure of Harris’ work. Fuller forged his original narrative thread by incorporating the original characters conceived by Harris; as well as images/quotes from prior films in the Lecter/Harris series. These elements are merged in a way that cleverly winks as an homage and serves as a narrative framework for the show. Rejuvenating what could be familiar territory is lesser hands; however, Fuller serves his unique form of fictional bricklaying that is part of a new foundation in this second golden age of television.
Fuller’s stylized execution that makes the series so brilliant lies in his respect for the novels and films from which he is drawing inspiration. One might make the mistake that a “television friendly” show centered on Hannibal Lecter would be dumbed down, with reduced violence, especially when you consider it’s a property of NBC, airing at primetime. As viewers of the show have seen the opposite turned out to be true, and Hannibal’s level of gore and carnage far exceeds the violence of all five films made beforehand. Hannibal’s Baroque style, narrative intercutting, experimental imagery complements the shows sophisticated characters as well as (of course) the show itself. The intensely surreal visual density is indeed flattering to the eye; Hannibal also advances the character’s intellectual awareness by its unpredictably intelligent dialog. Fearless of alienating a demographic of a lesser intelligence, characters regularly discuss psychological paradoxes, philosophy, Renaissance art, religious iconography, Dante, and notably in the third season the Pazzi Conspiracy. If people say that Hannibal is an intelligent show they could be referring to its creative interpretation, content, dialog, and technical refinement, it’s a loaded series. What other program is gutsy enough to scrutinize the work of Dante, utilize drastic narrative cross-cutting of dramatically expressive slow motion, and black and white photography?
Numerous elements make Hannibal so exciting and the variety of films preceding the series – and how they have influenced the show – is one of the contributing factors. We get to look at the work Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, Brett Ratner, and Peter Weber, in addition to the many actors and their varying interpretations of these characters and their connection to their creator Thomas Harris.
Coincidentally, the first installment featuring Hannibal Lecter was directed by another pioneering figure in television; Michael Mann. After heralding a new era for the cop show genre with Miami Vice (1984) and his stellar debut Thief, Mann solidified his status as an auteur with his second feature film Manhunter. Because Michael Cimino’s 1985 film The Year of the Dragon was a failure, producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose wife Martha De Laurentiis is the producer of the Hannibal series) opted to change the title of the movie from Red Dragon to Manhunter. Michael Mann’s characteristic attention to procedural detail pays off with great effect. Mann balances Manhunter with equal attention to criminal investigation as well macabre, psychological terror.
Seeing as Hannibal (TV) draws the bulk of its material and characters (namely its protagonists) from Harris’ Red Dragon, we can recognize that Fuller and Hugh Dancy are channeling William Peterson’s performance from Manhunter. William Peterson is an undervalued actor and his performance as a weary and psychologically plagued FBI profiler has undoubtedly shaped Hugh Dancy in Hannibal. It almost seems like the methodical portrayal of Dancy’s profiling is reminiscent of the systematic directing style of the series founder Michael Mann in that they’re both defined by their meticulous attention to detail
Michael Mann, one of contemporary cinema’s most talented agents, probably didn’t expect that the supporting character in his second feature would transform into an iconic figure in horror films. Anthony Hopkins may have been inaugurated into horror hall of fame after giving fava beans and Chianti a frightening connotation in The Silence of the Lambs. However, Brian Cox was the first actor to play Hannibal Lecktor (no official reason for the change in spelling) and his succinct performance is much more restrained than Hopkins’. However, Lecktor in Manhunter is secondary, albeit an expansion from the dozen or so pages in Harris’ novel. Cox may not be as energetic, but his conservative interpretation of menacing undoubtedly resonates.
Although Brett Ratner’s 2002 film Red Dragon is one of the most flawed in the series (next to Hannibal Rising) and is less than the sum of its parts, audiences still flocked to the film. Due to the momentum generated by preceding features people lined theaters to see Red Dragon. Blindsided by its excellent cast and contemporary style Red Dragon had enough to fool some into thinking it was a good film despite the fact it was lazily conceived nonsense.
Although Red Dragon flaunts an excellent cast, Hopkins seems to be going through the motions playing the “good doctor.” His accent seems to change with regularity, and he’s bringing enough ham to the table to earn his check, but it’s obvious his heart wasn’t in the films following Silence. If Ridley Scott didn’t reduce Lecter into a caricature, Ratner’s swaggering excess certainly did. Thankfully, Mads Mikkelsen had resuscitated the show’s titular character before the name Hannibal Lecter descended into a horror figure composed of catchy mannerisms the likes of Freddy or Jason. Imagine how overjoyed Hopkin’s must be when a zealous fan compliments him for Howard’s End, instead of hearing bad Lecter impersonations and teeth sucking?
Brett Ratner dropped the ball throughout the duration of his colossal misfire that was Red Dragon, his first fumble (among many) was wasting a cast of A-list performers, neglecting to apply any of their superior acting abilities to his film. Harvey Keitel makes for a credible Crawford, but his performance is closer to impersonating a police officer than acting like one. Edward Norton, whose talent is squandered as Will Graham feels less like a profiler and more like an impatient, high school student shuffling his feet waiting for his class to end. Fiennes, another gifted actor, brings some excitement to the screen as the Tooth Fairy, but Thomas Noonan’s portrayal in Manhunter reigns over Fiennes’. Thomas Noonan is perfectly cast as the Tooth Fairy; his quiet psychosis transforms him into an equally sympathetic and terrifying subject. You can usually find similarities with most of the reprised characters in Hannibal, with the exception of a few key players. Richard Armitage invited a breath of fresh air as Francis Dolarhyde. He conveys a hard, tortured and intense exterior while communicating a twisted sensitivity that’s consistent with the character.
Laurence Fishburne’s commanding screen presence makes for an impressive reinterpretation of Jack Crawford. Fishburne brings a calm intensity, matched by a physical force that elevates the character from an office jockey to seasoned field operator as well as a veteran agent in the bureau. An additional character renovation by Fuller’s team is the portrayal of the tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds. Stephen Lang is appropriately sleazy in Manhunter, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does more of the same in Red Dragon. Lara Jean Chorostecki embodies the millennial era of journalism by updating Lounds to a fashion savvy, tabloid slinging blogger. Staying true to form while contemporizing of the series, Fuller’s rewriting of these characters is notable for respecting Harris’ creation, the films that followed them and his original construction. This was his design.
Dr. Chilton was a relatively small character in Manhunter, played by Benjamin Hendrickson. Anthony Heald is thoroughly repellent, revisiting this part in both The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon. Most recently Raul Esparza in Hannibal played Chilton as another cruel self-serving phony academic. Given the shows, elaborate structure Chilton’s character is allowed to roam into more territory (along with almost all of the revised characters) than in the previous films.
Season two introduced us to the deviant masochist and pedophile Mason Verger; first played by guest star Michael Pitt whose sickly boyish features made for a unique take on the repellent Verger character. Not to mention the first time we get to see the character on screen previous to his facial mutilation.
Michael Pitt was a strong presence during his brief tenure on the show and after his stellar performance in Boardwalk Empire it was something of a letdown to see his part replaced by Joe Anderson in the show’s third season. Anderson, taking over for Pit wasn’t as much of a letdown as the character in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001) and Fuller’s series are rendered unrecognizable by their self-inflicted injuries. It is apparent Anderson is echoing Gary Oldman in the show; regardless, it still suits the direction of the series.
Another recurring player in the show is Verger’s manservant Cordell. Željko Ivanek brought his sullen demeanor to Ridley Scott’s 2001 film; as always, Ivanek is a pleasure to watch. In a stronger light of the series, Glenn Fleshler is a more physically intimidating and sociopathic assistant to the mutilated meat-packing baron. Opposed to being a meek aide to Verger, Fleshler is an agent for his Verger’s sadistic agenda, acting as his hands due to Verger’s own inability to carry out his fiendish revenge plot on Lecter.
The character of Jack Crawford is another engaging figure in the adaptations of Thomas Harris TV/film saga, brought to life by Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn, Harvey Keitel and most recently Laurence Fishburne. Inspired by real life special agent John Douglas, one of the first profilers working in the FBI, coached Scott Glenn during the production of Silence of the Lambs. Dennis Farina (recently been discovered by Michael Mann in his debut film Thief) plays Crawford as an active and proficient FBI agent, and his gruff energy erupts by the finale. Silence of the Lambs; easily the most successful Harris film is guided by superlative direction and performances. Scott Glenn is up against some standout performances, so it might be easy for people to overlook how sturdy his portrayal of Jack Crawford is.
Bryan Fuller and his team of writers have worked wonders with Harris’ creations and by some standard exceeded them and the films based on his works. Of all the films in the series it seems like one character from the best of series is left out, I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering “where is Clarice Starling?”
The lack of her presence might have something to do with MGM holding on to the rights to The Silence of the Lambs. It is speculated that Hannibal won’t be around for fourth run, and season three might be its last. Given the following the series has, and the MO of streaming services picking up hit shows and giving them a second life one wouldn’t be surprised if Hannibal is back on the table. If MGM doesn’t let the rights to their 1991 film, it doesn’t seem like it will slow Fuller’s creative ability to sculpt new material if Hannibal gets a lease renewal. One could speculate that Fuller’s intuition prepared him to write Miriam Lass into FBI training. If we don’t see Clarice Starling, I’m sure the writers can integrate Miriam Lass into the narrative with the same percentage of influence and originality can be applied creating a new storyline with Lass. Nevertheless, we are still wondering if there’ll be a fourth season, given the velocity of the show’s popularity I would put my chips on “yes.”
The collective program of influence in Hannibal is unlike anything modern audiences have ever been exposed to. If someone had told me that there would be a show on primetime television with characters who debate the work of Dante, profile serial killers, try to eat each other, featuring more arterial spray than Kill Bill and Shogun Assassin combined, with a visual style that exceeds most modern auteurs working in mainstream cinema. This revolutionary turn in television is jarring to cinephiles; a serialized rendition of an established series that has undergone an evolution over the course of twenty plus years that exceeds the previous films with contemporization and respectfully articulated story altering. Hannibal is dark, violent, and horrific but it’s also the most intelligent show on television. Its aesthetic rendering of preexisting material that is a part of our cinematic vernacular is as brazen as its perilous exhibition of repellent subject matter. And the subversive irony is that it melds cannibalism, torture, and carnage into a sickly seductive trail leading viewers into the darkest territory presented on primetime television all the while enabling our sympathies to engage in, even admire this murky world built by (if you subscribe to the theory) television’s foremost auteur Bryan Fuller. The actors are new, the material is upgraded, story arcs are transformed but everything is palatable, familiar while the series earns the respect of fans newcomers, and critics alike.
Hannibal works because of respect, and innovation paired with a course of brash originality; and in the spirit of the series’ crafting it feels proper to conclude by stating that Fuller’s achievement wasn’t a coincidence. This was his design.