NBC has a new drama to watch on Thursday nights: “Hannibal.” Taking place at the point just before the start of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon (the first book in the Lecter series), “Hannibal” seeks to establish the relationship between detective Will Graham and psychologist Hannibal Lecter, before Lecter’s incarceration. Only half way through the first season, “Hannibal” has stirred up a mass of praise, though some of it is clearly undeserved. The show is fun to watch, but for anyone that has read the novels closely it is quite frustrating.
In this series, the most that can be said is that each episode is extremely visually appealing. The amount of work put into the sets, murder scenes, and overall appearance is astounding and obvious. “Hannibal” puts and artsy spin on the overplayed and static world of television murder programs. Couple this with an astounding cast (give or take a few moments) and the basis for a grand experience is set firmly. Unfortunately, this is where most of the praise should end.
The acting in “Hannibal” is for the most part phenomenal, from stars Hugh Dancy (as Will Graham) and Mads Mikkelsen (as Dr. Hannibal Lecter) to Laurence Fishburne (as Jack Crawford). However, while the actors are incredible, the characters leave a lot to be desired. For a prequel series, one would think it logical to remain as true to the original characters as possible. This is not the case. For one, tabloid writer Freddie Lounds has lost a few bits of his anatomy (along with the Y that once ended his name). Freddie, in this context, has become a woman. The original Lounds is a man, in both the book and the two film adaptations. In terms of chronology, that kind of upsets the original story plot. But gender isn’t the only thing toyed with here. In Red Dragon (book and movies), Lounds is nothing more than a pest. Yes, he took some pictures he wasn’t supposed to, but he’s a tabloid journalist: it is in his nature. In “Hannibal”, the job title “tabloid journalist” is a euphemism for a blood sucking, conniving, and manipulating tick of a human being. What was more or less harmless “journalism” in the original story has become such a hunt for any kind of story that the “Hannibal” Freddie has already caused the death of more than one person. Such character change is a bit over the line for a prequel.
Minor characters aside, show creator Bryan Fuller has taken several liberties in his presentation of Graham and Lecter. The way Graham is portrayed in “Hannibal” seems to be an exaggeration of traits explained in Red Dragon. In the original story, it is true that Graham had the unique gift of morbid imagination, and that he was troubled by it. But “troubled by” and “incapacitated by” are two incredibly different things. In “Hannibal,” Graham suffers from more social disorders and anxiety than described in the book. It seems as though this version of Graham would live without human contact if given the choice. This is hardly the Graham that original author Thomas Harris described. For a reference, Edward Norton portrayed Graham very well in the film version. Also, where is Graham’s family? In the book, Graham had a wife and son. In this series he has dogs, and apparently no emotional ability to maintain a family. This is a problem since his family is probably one of the biggest plot points in all of Red Dragon. Removing such a huge plot point kind of undermines the series’ ability to call itself a prequel.
As for the shows namesake, Hannibal himself is fairly accurate, save for a few issues. The biggest issue is mainly in the way Hannibal carries himself. Something about Mikkelsen’s delivery, while exquisite, is just off. This may have something to do with the fact that he’s not Anthony Hopkins. Taking on such an iconic role is going to have its downsides, and the perfect image of Hopkins as Hannibal clouds Mikkelsen’s potential. That aside, the way the character is written seems off. He murders for culinary masterpieces, but the way he disposes of bodies and reacts to investigations seems far more reckless than any described in the novels. However, though annoying, it does not totally detract from the overall quality of the program.
Acting aside, what really must be taken into account when watching this series is its longevity. “Hannibal” takes place just before the beginning of Red Dragon, but still close enough to have Hannibal Lecter at the forefront. This leaves very little room for a series any longer than, at best, one or two seasons. In fact, only two or three murderers occurred prior to Hannibal’s arrest, one of whom was the subject of the first two or three episodes of the series. Once these murderers are tried and done with on screen, the series must end. It can’t continue for ten seasons because there just isn’t enough material, and it has an absolute end point. There is no point in getting into Red Dragon because it’s been done already. So, the show might be okay to watch for now, but it definitely won’t last long.
Lastly, there is one overly distracting detail that has come up in a few episodes: the creator is quoting the books and movies. At one point Hannibal (in the series) tells Graham that he shouldn’t feel bad about killing a murderer, because murder can be enjoyed; after all, God enjoys it. Hannibal proves it, telling Graham to consider the fact that He dropped a roof on “thirty of his parishioners” right as they were “struggling through a hymn”. This whole conversation here is directly from Red Dragon, said by Lecter behind bars (well, technically behind glass). Now, it is understandable that the show creators would want to nod to the origins of the series, but this is just too much. If this is supposed to be the prequel to Red Dragon, then they can’t take such a poignant scene and reuse it. Hannibal Lecter wouldn’t repeat himself, much less tell the same story again to make the same point. The idea of quoting the origin story of this origin story is a nice one, but this particular instance is just obnoxious. In some cases, like Lecter commenting on Graham’s aftershave, it works (even though it shouldn’t, since Graham has no family yet so it doesn’t make sense) but it just doesn’t here. Sometimes, it’s just incredibly distracting and upsetting for anyone that has actually read the novels, let alone seen the movies.
Overall, “Hannibal” may very well be worth watching so long as you don’t hold fast to the original story. It is very visually appealing, but that is where the greatness ends. Thinking about the series too much will make you hate it, and it definitely isn’t a place you should start. As with anything, the best place to start is the beginning.