First Impression of ‘Hannibal’

The star of the new NBC television drama series "Hannibal" Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter is shown in this undated publicity photographLest we forget, Hannibal Lecter was never really meant to be a main character. He’s only in a couple of scenes in the original ‘Red Dragon’ novel, though they proved so memorable he was promoted to a more significant, though still supporting, role in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. It was only by the third novel that he became the co-lead.

When I first read Thomas Harris’s brilliant trilogy of crime novels featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal) many years ago I did think (perhaps naïvely) we’d seen the last of him. All three books had already been adapted into films, notably the now-classic ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, and the very slow-working Harris hadn’t made any mention of continuing the saga.

However not long afterward, the original book, ‘Red Dragon’ was remade with Anthony Hopkins in the lead, in an attempt to maintain some kind of consistency with the other Hopkins films. While made for purely financial reasons, ‘Red Dragon’ is actually quite a good film, a more loyal adaptation of the book that doesn’t suffer from its insertion of extra Hannibal scenes. I’ve always preferred it to the rather dated (and horribly sound-tracked) ‘Manhunter’, the original Lecter film.

So now four films had been produced from the three books, but that still wasn’t the last we’d hear from the doctor. Some years later a new novel, a prequel, ‘Hannibal Rising’ appeared, and was produced concurrently with its film adaptation (with Harris penning the screenplay too). Apparently Harris only wrote it after being pressured by film producers, who were willing to tell the story with or without his help. The book was well written of course but ultimately a prime example of the problematic nature of prequels. Did we really need to know the whole troubled youth of this now-familiar serial killer? It was essentially just an unnecessary expansion of a flashback sequence described adequately in the third book. The film was rather poor and forgettable.

But still, we haven’t seen the last from Hannibal Lecter. Now he’s returning to screens yet again, this time in the form of a TV show, rebooting the whole saga.

Even as a fan of the books, when this new take was first announced I wasn’t particularly interested, but as the cast and crew began to form it started looking more and more intriguing.

This first episode focuses firmly on Will Graham, the protagonist of ‘Red Dragon’, but takes place prior to the events of that book. Graham is an expert criminal investigator pursuing a serial killer whose been murdering young women. His real talent lies in putting himself in the mind of the killer; however the task is proving too much for him so his boss Jack Crawford (Lawrence Fishburne) arranges for psychiatrist Dr. Lecter to assist him. Lecter himself doesn’t show up until a good time into the episode.

The pilot episode, directed by David Slade (‘Hard Candy’, ’30 Days of Night’) is a very stylish affair, with unusual editing touches employed to take us inside Graham’s mind as he examines and deduces. It’s also sensibly opted to not try and emulate ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ at all, in fact it’s much more in debt stylistically to ‘The Shining’. There’s only one clear nod to ‘Silence’, with Lecter being introduced to the same piece of Bach played during his escape.

The events depicted in this episode haven’t really been shown in adaptations before, and are only described in the book by characters as past events. The natural decision has been made to update to the present day too. This is the first time we’ll get to see Will Graham and Lecter interacting with Graham having no knowledge of Lecter’s true nature. While the story is mostly being told from Graham’s perspective, it does assume the audiences’ familiarity with Lecter, and explicitly shows us his dark side.

They’ve bagged a really top-notch cast for the series, with Hugh Dancy giving us a great new take on the troubled Will Graham, an underrated character in the saga, alongside Laurence Fishburne providing solid support, and Mads Mikklesen, star of ‘Casino Royale’ and virtually every well-known Danish film in recent memory as Lecter. Indeed, I was surprised at Mikkelsen’s casting announcement as I thought he was too high-profile for a network TV show. We don’t see a great deal of him here but he’s going for a new take on the character (a fairly thankless task on paper, given Hopkins’s phenomenal portrayal), and it looks as though he won’t suffer from comparisons. He’s a fantastic choice for the role, and I’m intrigued to see what he can do with it.

The decidedly adult nature of the stories being transposed to network TV was cause for some concern, however this first episode goes some way to put those thoughts to rest, with plenty of gruesome scenes shown. Indeed, as the third season of ‘The Walking Dead’ has demonstrated, virtually any level of gore is now deemed acceptable with a TV-14 rating in the USA.

What’s also very promising is showrunner Bryan Fuller’s statement that they’re implementing ‘a cable model on network television’. Meaning they’re only producing 13 episodes per season, going for quality over quantity, and I hope, opting for a serial drama format rather than an episodic one. If ‘Hannibal’ turns into Graham and Lecter hunting a different killer every week it probably wouldn’t be particularly good, but it doesn’t look like that’s the plan.

Based solely on this debut episode, ‘Hannibal’ has been a pleasant surprise, and I’m looking forward to see where it goes from here.

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