It seems that filmmakers simply cannot leave Dr Hannibal Lector alone to dine in peace. He first appeared on screen played by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter adapted from author Thomas Harris’ initial novel Red Dragon, but it was the Oscar-winning film of Harris’ follow-up book The Silence of the Lambs (which was essentially a re-write of the first but with a female lead) that really made Anthony Hopkins’ incarnation of the cannibalistic serial killer into a global phenomenon. After that, Lector rather took over Harris’ stories and became the (anti) hero of Hannibal and then the prequel Hannibal Rising, which were of decreasing quality. Both were made into films (Gaspard Ulliel playing the younger version of the character) and Hopkins further reprised the role in a second adaption of Red Dragon.
Now that cinema has picked the bones of Dr Lector clean, it’s time for television to have its go with a brand new project entitled – oh, how imaginatively – Hannibal. But it’s not a new adaptation of the novel/film of that name, nor is it a new run at the prequel: although set prior to the events of Red Dragon, it’s not as far back into Lector’s childhood. Instead it takes as its jumping off point certain references from Harris’ first book referencing how a young FBI profiler by the name of Will Graham – cursed with exceptional empathy and insight into the minds of serial killers – first met and eventually exposed Lector.
The latter stage is a long way off as the new NBC series developed by Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Heroes, Dead Like Me) opens with noted and respected psychiatrist Lector (played here with considerable cold relish and underplaying by Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen) meeting Graham (Hugh Dancy) and his boss Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) for the first time to consult on a series of abductions and killings.
For me the best of the five films was always the first, Manhunter; not just because Brian Cox made such a terrific understated Lector, but because it was the first time that we’d seen the now-clichéd character of the forensic profiler. In the first film the role is taken by a very young and intense William Petersen who would later go on to headline the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and both Petersen’s performance and the way that the film followed Graham’s burrowing into the mind of his prey made a huge impact on me – it’s still one of my favourite films. (Edward Norton was also rather good in the otherwise inferior second version which was sadly unbalanced by the need to pump up Lector’s role to make the most of Hopkins’ star status.) So while I grew bored and put off by the progression of the film series, the idea of revisiting this part of the Lector story and in particular the chance to spend more time with Will Graham (ironically, rather than Hannibal) genuinely appealed to me. If they could pull it off with any aplomb, that is.
So how is the new Graham? In a word: genuinely excellent. I found Dancy’s playing of the role both completely original and utterly compelling. Yes, it’s the dark and tormented investigator tossing and turning in his bed unable to escape reliving the details of the case, but I can’t recall ever seeing that trope played so well and so vibrantly as it is here. The new adaptation also layers on an Aspergers’ element to the role that was hinted at by Petersen’s original portrayal, but here is done full bore to impressive effect. Fan as I was of Petersen and even of Norton, I’m entirely sold on Dancy’s portrayal as the best of the lot.
The problem with a story centring on a character who uses empathy and imagination to project himself into the mind of a killer is that while fine in the pages of a book, this isn’t necessarily the most visual concept for a film or television show. Even Michael Mann – despite his reputation as one of the most conspicuous screen stylists of his time – did this very plainly, preferring to trust the script and allow the actor to sell the process rather than augment it with prominent cinematic tricks. Not so here in the latest version for TV: we get instead a very stylish and artistically (even beautifully) done representation of Graham rolling back time in his mind and projecting himself into the place of the killer, so literally that we are left with some (intentionally) deeply disturbing scenes in which the hero of the piece is splattered in blood, seen massacring a family or choking the life out of a young girl. It’s quite near the knuckle stuff especially for television, but that’s really the point: if it’s difficult for us to watch then just imagine how bad it is for someone to actually go through this level of transference in their own mind. No wonder Will Graham is so disturbingly angst-ridden, in this case it’s genuinely well-earned.
This deep into the review and virtually no mention of its eponymous character yet? Well, that’s in keeping with the way that he’s treated by the show itself. Mikkelsen doesn’t make his bow until halfway into the episode, which is just as well as even a low-key version of Lector still threatens to blow away the rest of the cast and story if not carefully managed. Here he’s introduced very archly in mid-cuisine and of course our imagination goes into overdrive about the meat in the dish. But there’s very little that’s overt at this stage and instead it’s his playing opposite Dancy’s Will Graham that grips. It is very well scripted and immaculately performed – an initial coldness quickly developing into mutual intrigue if not friendship – and the way that the story gets Lector to assist Graham by giving him an ‘anti-example’ of everything the current killer is not about is really very smart indeed and lives up to everything that Harris’ book implied about their early relationship.
There was never any doubt in my mind that Mikkelsen wouldn’t be a terrific antagonist: he’d already shown how show-stoppingly good he can be in evil mode as Bond villain Le Chiffre, and then last year he proved himself arguably one of the best actors working in the world today with A Royal Affair and The Hunt. And he doesn’t disappoint here in his first TV role in almost a decade, producing something that both delivers on a visceral level for those of us already knowledgeable about and creeped out by the Lector of the films, and yet also produces something memorably entirely different from the previous players of the part.
As for the rest of it, Fishburne (who ironically replaced William Petersen at the helm of CSI) provides a formidable presence as Crawford, someone who is a believable and credible leader of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences unit and also a skilful manipulator and player of people to get what he wants. It’s a far better role for him than his part in CSI ever way and without question the most interesting, conflicted and layered depiction of the character on screen so far, with all due respect to Dennis Farina, Scott Glenn and Harvey Keitel who were given proportionately less to do with the part.
While yet to make much of an impression in the pilot episode, it’s interesting to see that some of the supporting characters from Harris’ novel have swapped genders for the TV series, such is the need to bring a female presence into an original story almost completely devoid of them other than as victims. Sidney Bloom is now Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) while loathsome hack Freddy Lounds is now blogger Fredricka Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki). The role of forensic specialist Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park) is expanded and Crawford also gets a wife, Bella, played by Suits star Gina Torres. Notably Graham’s wife and son are absent from the TV series, presumably to allow some romantic development later in the series. Geek fans of a certain age will also prick up their ears to hear that the part of Dr Lector’s own psychotherapist is to be played in a multi-episode arc by none other than The X-Files star Gillian Anderson.
All of this has so much promise – so much so that I really want to see it work out and develop over a very long run – that I’m almost not the right person to review it, since my partiality flew out of the window in almost the first minute. It was, perhaps, trying a little too hard to be shocking in its depiction of some quite horrific events, and made jumps in the narrative that were for purely artistic effect, but overall there’s enough intelligence behind it all to persuade you that they know what they’re delivering and can pull it off without it becoming another ‘psycho-monster of the week’ melodrama. Certainly it looks good and is impressively polished and styled on the screen. So far there’s a genuine sense of unsettling horror in the same classic old-school tradition that made The Silence of the Lambs such a success, rather than the over-the-top ghoulishness of the 2001 film or the plain masochistic nastiness of recent horror franchises like Saw and Hostel that have been so inexplicably popular.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the series can maintain the standard that it sets here both in terms of production, originality and most of all in the delicate nature of the Graham/Lector balance without slipping too far over in the way that the films inevitably did. If the TV version can pull it off and maintain the standard its set for itself in this first outing, then this will be well worth sticking with and could be something rather excellent albeit not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish.
But it’s a big task its set for itself, and it could all go horribly wrong at any moment – which is of course half the appeal of watching something like this in the first place.
Hannibal airs on Sky Living on Tuesdays at 10pm, with repeats during the week and also available on Sky Go and Sky On Demand. The DVD/Blu-ray release of season 1 has not been scheduled as of the time of writing.