Review: HANNIBAL Says Goodbye

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
Review: HANNIBAL Says Goodbye

I woke up at 4:39 this morning, thinking of Hannibal, the man, the series, and the serial killer, awash in blood and viscera.

Through three seasons of Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen has redefined the character created by novelist Thomas Harris. The serial killer made an impressive debut in Red Dragon, first published in 1981. He was a cold-blooded homicidal maniac who gave FBI profiler Will Graham nightmares, in part because Hannibal tried to kill him, savagely. As downplayed by Brian Cox in Michael Mann's version, Manhunter (1986), he's chiefly memorable for the reaction he provokes in Graham (William L. Petersen), prompting him to race out of the prison where he's just interviewed him.

Later, in Harris' The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal becomes a much more important player. His is still a supporting role -- Harris was more interested in developing FBI trainee Clarice Starling and serial killer Buffalo Bill -- yet his character was fleshed out more fully, his motivations becoming more clearly defined. Jonathan Demme's film version won Anthony Hopkins an Academy Award, even though the actor's on-screen appearance was of relatively short duration (about 15 minutes of the total 118-minute running time). It's an indelible performance, though, making the character more hissable, more murderous and, simultaneously, oddly sympathetic.

Harris, whose first novel was the rigorously thrilling Black Sunday (basis for a very good film), devoted his fourth novel entirely to the serial killer, newly-hatched as a cultural icon. Whereas his first three books were quality page-turners, imploring the reader to race through them, always wondering what would happen next, Hannibal (1999) proved to be self-indulgent and stifling, caught up in long passages of Hannibal's "memory palace" and the punishing transformation of Clarice Starling into another character altogether.

Ridley Scott's clumsy film version picked up on the idea of making Hannibal more sympathetic and drove it home with blunt force, built on Anthony Hopkins' evil charm. It certainly has memorable moments, but mostly it's an empty windbag, declaring itself to be profound, even as its silliness becomes overbearing.

Still, the book had been a massive bestseller and the movie made more than $350 million. The decision was then made to make a new version of Red Dragon, directed by Brett Ratner, which expanded Hannibal's presence. It feels like a very stylish casserole, using the same basic ingredients as the original with a bit more fire and 21st-century cool.

Hannibal Rising, Harris' followup novel, deserves a footnote as the writer's most rudimentary book, a connect-the-dots prequel that dives into Hannibal's youth and how he became a serial killer. Harris adapted the book for a film version starring Gaspard Ulliel that was similarly forgettable.

All that to say, my expectations for Hannibal were not terribly high. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has built a fan base by creating the TV shows Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies, but neither gave me any idea that he could bring something new to the now-iconic serial killer.

I was wrong.

Fuller and his team constructed a slow-motion universe of dark, foreboding evil. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), and other familiar characters return, but they've each been carefully reconstructed with fresh eyes. But it was Hannibal himself whose appearance I dreaded/anticipated the most; Mads Mikkelsen has been a personal favorite for years, and I worried that this new showcase on a U.S. broadcast network might shroud his subtle skills.

NBC_Hannibal-150830-350.jpgI needn't have worried. Mikkelsen's Hannibal is every bit as diabolical as Thomas Harris must have originally envisioned him. While the series often dawdled throughout its run -- it's very challenging to keep a deliberately-paced show engaging when it's divided by advertisements interrupting the action every 5-7 minutes -- what poured through was the intensity of the characters. Will Graham is a miserably depressed soul, and that attracts Hannibal. What began as a psychological curiosity in the first season has steadily progressed, to the point that this season their relationship could more accurately be described as a love affair.

As it happen, the third season has regurgitated multiple plot points from both Hannibal, Red Dragon, and even Hannibal Rising, making one wonder where the series could possibly have gone if it hadn't been cancelled early by NBC. But repeating plot points, however familiar, has still been enthralling to watch, chiefly because Will is such a sour puss and Hannibal is, well, Hannibal, a macabre genius.

With the expansiveness of a series to play in, Mikkelsen and the creative team have brought out different facets of the character. His wardrobe and his culinary skills were fully fleshed out during the first two seasons, when he became Will's running partner and then (virtually) his replacement. During the third season, he was imprisoned, but for the finale, he was freed with the idea that he would help Will catch serial killer Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage), thus allowing the season to culminate with an epic battle. Through it all, there has been a different, distinctive Hannibal, one whose mind is always working; it's easy to imagine brain cells frying and sizzling as they collide into one another in frenzied bursts of activity. He always seemed five steps ahead of everyone else.

Hannibal did not always hit the high notes, often cracking in favor of extreme bloodshed -- how did a show on a U.S. broadcast network get away with so much violence? -- and too many false surprises and convoluted plot twists to count. It's fair to say, however, that the season, and the series, ended on a high note, one that will, undoubtedly, continue to haunt with pleasure and a touch of evil.

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Bryan FullerHannibalHugh DancyMads MikkelsenThomas Harris

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