Hannibal – a cannibalistic combination of psychoanalysis, crime and lessons in etiquette

A spoiler-free introduction to the TV series prequel starring Mads Mikkelsen as the notorious Dr Lecter

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Antihero Hannibal Lecter is arguably the most iconic sociopath in literature and film alike. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the deadly psychiatrist-cum-cannibal in Silence of the Lambs is remembered by all, perhaps most notably with his chillingly hissed line, “Hello, Clarice”. Understandably then, it was with some trepidation that die-hard fans of the films heard the news that NBC had commissioned screenwriter Bryan Fuller to concoct a TV series prequel to creator Thomas Harris’s first Lecter novel, Red Dragon.  

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Hannibal delves deeply into the psyche of Will Graham, played by Hugh Dancy (Black Hawk Down, Hysteria). Graham is deeply troubled by his ability to empathise with serial killers and a “bundle of neuroses and personality disorders”, says writer Bryan Fuller. “Graham… is so unique and full…  [he] was our chance to be loyal to the source material”.

The first season of Hannibal explores the complex relationship that develops between Graham and Lecter after the troubled detective becomes a patient of Lector’s and the pair form a partnership hunting serial killers. Fuller humorously describes the connection between the two as, “a bromance”, made all the more authentic by the fact that seasoned movie villain Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) and Dancy were already great friends, having met on the set of King Arthur.

Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) unwittingly delivers the lamb to the lion when he enlists Lecter to help Graham, and his misplaced trust in the good doctor leads to Lecter’s manipulative attempts to isolate his new patient. A tug of war over Will ensues, between the “devils on both his shoulders…  as they attempt to bend and not break him”.

Although the series contains scenes of graphic violence, Fuller maintains this is “not exploitative”, rather it is “hard art” and true to its source material. Admitting that NBC was very “generous” in sanctioning the writers to push the boundaries, he said that they were promised a free reign if they signed with the network, who wished to do something “bold”, which Fuller maintains “allows for a purer experience” between the audience, the actors and the writers. That is to say, the Hannibal we see is a true representation of their vision, a risky move by the network – but a dream for any script writer.

Mads Mikkelsen was keen to bring his own interpretation of the sinister doctor to the screen, disregarding Anthony Hopkins’ version. This has breathed new life into the character, envisioning him before incarceration as a practising psychiatrist – sophisticated and polished. His interpretation of the sociopath dresses well, possesses a keen intellect and is quietly dangerous, like a snake poised to strike. Mikkelsen has the ability to demonstrate micro emotions at will, allowing the psychiatrist’s expertly placed mask to slip for a millisecond, betraying Hannibal’s displeasure at rudeness or his triumphant glee as he revels in his own cunning, revealing a menacing egotism that is startlingly authentic.

Although unquestionably dark, there are subtle veins of humour running through each episode that work to relieve some of the, at times, suffocating pressure. Each chapter is named teasingly after a French dinner course and there are smatterings of hysterical hilarity as tensions between characters reach breaking point. There’s even an app which invites those brave enough to dine with Hannibal Lecter ‘how to cook human’, and is masterminded by acclaimed chef José Andrés, who was also consulted on how to properly prepare human flesh for the recipes that appear in Hannibal.

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A cannibalistic combination of psychoanalysis, crime and lessons in etiquette, Hannibal is an impressive interpretation of Harris’ characters, and for those who desire a little originality, there are some new villains set to appear who are equally as disturbing as those first imagined by Harris himself.