Fiction: “Hannibal” by Thomas Harris

hannibalSo, similar to my (latest) “review” of Red Dragon, this won’t be a review of the book I read, but more like … well, I’ve realized that while everyone I know is aware of my vast love for Hannibal, many of them seem to be stymied as to the reasons why I love it so much. So, this will be me trying to put those emotions into words.

There are some movies that I love that I remember seeing for the first time, quite vividly. I’ve talked about this in relation to books I’ve read, but the same can be said for films. An example: I had taped Sunset Blvd. off of AMC when I was in high school, but never got the chance to watch it until I went to college. So one night, I couldn’t sleep, and I popped the VHS into my tiny combo TV/VCR unit, and I watched it in the dark. And I mean, three-in-the-morning dark. I may have had my Christmas lights on that I had hung under my roommate’s top bunk for lighting, but I doubt it. To this day, I cannot watch Sunset Blvd. in anything but pitch blackness. I think Billy Wilder would agree with me in that it’s not a movie made for daylight.

So having said that, I do not have a vivid memory for the first time I ever watched The Silence of the Lambs. I had to have watched it for the first time when I was in high school, because I remember doing impersonations of the “fava beans and a nice Chianti” line in drama club, but other than that … no recollection.

I do remember seeing Hannibal when it came out because my best friend Kerri and I went to see it at the movie theater, and I still remember leaning over during the Pazzi murder scene and whispering, “They’re using the blue filter there because — ”  I can’t remember why; she and I and Amelia had been taking Film Studies as an elective, and at one point we knew what all of the different color filters signified. Not anymore!

I also know I watched Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Hannibal Lecter, itself an adaptation of Red Dragon, at least twice because William Petersen played Will Graham in that movie and I was addicted to CSI: Original Flavor for about three years when it was first on.

So by the time I was a sophomore in college, I’d read all three novels – Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal — and I’d watched three movies: Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. And … that’s it. I certainly don’t recall being obsessed with them or the characters by any means; I certainly don’t remember purchasing six posters for Silence of the Lambs and leaving them in my parents’ basement – it doesn’t seem like something I would have done! By the time 2003, 2004 rolled around, my latest obsession at that point was Arrested Development, so .. I still say a murder wizard planted those posters, Dad.

Fast-foward about ten years later, and almost without warning, Alaina gets sucked into and then becomes obsessed with this “reboot” of Hannibal. What, in God’s name, happened?

Well – storytelling happened.

See, [see?] before Hannibal premiered in 2013, here’s what anyone could say about the life of Dr. Hannibal Lecter:

  • When we meet him in Red Dragon, he has been behind bars for at least three years.
  • We know he was nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” in the press for gruesome murders and cannibalizing.
  • We know that Will Graham was responsible for his capture.
  • We know that Hannibal nearly killed Will during said capture.
  • We know that Hannibal was a psychiatrist at one point, and because he still writes for medical journals and has insight into the sociopathic brain, Will goes to see Dr. Lecter in trying to capture the Red Dragon serial killer.
  • There is tension between Will and Dr. Lecter; the reader is left to assume it’s merely due to the fact that Will caught him.
  • Approximately seven years later (? – I might be wrong about that), Jack Crawford sends his new trainee Clarice Starling to ask Hannibal for help on the Buffalo Bill serial killings.
  • Hannibal helps her, but at the cost of Clarice telling Hannibal about her past and secret fears.
  • Hannibal escapes custody and moves to Italy.
  • In Hannibal, we learn about another one of Hannibal’s victims: Mason Verger, who has offered a reward for capturing Hannibal alive so he can kill him
  • Hannibal returns from Italy and, in a weird confluence and sequence of events, ends up kidnapping Clarice who has been suspended indefinitely from the FBI, and then brainwashes her into loving him, and they spend the rest of their lives happily ever after … ?

Even if people are only familiar with the Silence of the Lambs plot, we know that Hannibal is in jail and as far as we can tell, has always been in jail.

The TV show Hannibal? Shows him out of jail.

Shows him as a practicing psychiatrist. With actual patients.

Shows him as a chef. A cannibal chef.

everything is people

The show basically says “Look, we know Hannibal’s going to end up in jail; you know that Hannibal’s going to end up in jail. But how did he get there? What exactly did he do to end up in that hospital? How did Will find out? Why doesn’t Will really want to go ask Lecter for help with the Red Dragon case, because it feels like there should be more there?” and then the show gives those answers to us and they are glorious and more than we could have ever imagined

Look, dramatic irony is my favorite irony – that’s when we the audience know what is going to happen but the characters do not. We know how Romeo & Juliet is going to end, but Romeo & Juliet do not. As famous blogger Cleolinda Jones is fond of saying, “The people in ______ don’t know they’re in ______.”  This can be used for Dracula and for Hannibal.

We know that the protein scramble Hannibal makes for Will on their first date breakfast meeting contains human lung sausage, but Will doesn’t. So if we’re identifying with Will, we become horrified on his behalf. YOU’RE EATING PEOPLE, you yell at the TV.

And then, we become curious – when is Will going to figure all this out?? When does everyone realize not only that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper, but that he’s serving the Ripper’s victims up literally on silver trays? What is Will’s face going to look like when he realizes that not only is Hannibal a cannibal, but that it fucking rhymes? Who copyrights the phrase “Hannibal the Cannibal”?

I mean, Chilton, obvi. He’s the only jackass with the inbred jackassery to go ahead and copyright the fucking phrase. Goddamit Chilton.

(also – the show made us sympathize with Dr. Frederick Chilton, which is an IMPOSSIBLE task. So, kudos, and keep fighting, Fred!)

Bryan Fuller et. al .are taking something so familiar and turning it on its ear. We know where the landmarkers are – Will catches Hannibal, Hannibal guts him with a linoleum knife, Hanni goes to jail, Will recuperates, fast-forward to the Red Dragon escapade – but we don’t know how we’re going to get there. It’s like, we know we’re going to Disney World, but we’re going to drive all across Canada and back first. Wait, that’s not the best analogy. Because what the writers also did was throw in actual quotes and concepts from the books waaay before they’re supposed to happen.

Ex: In the book Red Dragon, Hannibal sends a letter to Will, telling him he (Will) shouldn’t feel bad about killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs, as God kills people all the time. This letter arrives at Will’s fingertips years after the Hobbs case; in fact, in the book, the case has maybe all of three paragraphs given over to it. In the book, Hannibal is taunting Will, because that’s all Hannibal does to Will.

In the first season of Hannibal, the Garrett Jacob Hobbs case is the first one that Will and Hannibal are pulled into together. Because yes, Hannibal is helping Will and the FBI catch the Minnesota Shrike. Except Hannibal (again, quoting the brilliant Cleolinda Jones), is the WORST AT HELPING, and copycats Hobbs’s kills because he was curious as to what would happen. (It’s a long story.) But Will still shoots Hobbs dead in Hobbs’s kitchen, and in the show, it’s episode 2 where Will is in not-therapy with Dr. Lecter, and Dr. Lecter gives him this piece of wisdom in an effort to absolve Will of his guilt of killing Hobbs. Is Lecter still taunting Will? A bit, but under the guise of concerned therapist. He wants Will to trust him so he can turn him into an acolyte in the future.

So many moments I can point at to illustrate the concept of taking something old and making it new, or winking at the audience. Or just having fun with the whole thing – my favorite scene in the entire series, hands down, is when Hannibal is planning a dinner party, and he has a Rolodex of business cards, and a box of recipes. And he’ll pick a business card, kill that person, and take what he needs for his recipe. In between the killings (which we do not see), we flash back and forth between the FBI’s lab, wherein the lab techs are talking about how these six or seven victims are all missing certain organs, and we flash to Hannibal’s kitchen where he’s preparing and vacuum-sealing said organs.

“Intestines were the only organs missing from this body?”
“Yes, so we’re either looking for someone with short bowels, or the Ripper’s making sausage.”
CUT TO: Hannibal making sausage

You guys, I die every time I watch that scene. It’s priceless.

And if we’re talking about black humor, how about that time when there was a live bird inside a corpse which was stuck inside of a dead horse, and that bird when it came out was a freaking starling

Plus the show has beautiful cinematography and the actors are amazing. Bryan Fuller loves playing with gender and race, so in the show, Jack Crawford is now played by Laurence Fishburne. Dr. Alan Bloom becomes Dr. Alana Bloom, who has feelings for both Will and Hannibal. Freddie Lounds is now short for Fredericka Lounds, and she is AMAZING. Bryan’s said in interviews that if he had been able to get the rights to the Silence of the Lambs characters, he wanted to cast a person of color as Clarice, to see how that upbringing would affect the characterization.

It’s so smart, and wonderful, and what I really enjoyed doing re-reading Red Dragon and Hannibal this summer was to see where the writers were able to take scenes or dialogue or narration from the source material and honor it in a completely new way. Plus, this was probably the first TV show where I’ve actually been intrigued by the idea of being scared.

I mean, look, I don’t watch horror movies. I hate them. And while I’ve watched sci-fi horroresque shows, the highest on those lists are going to be The X-Files and Buffy in terms of grossness and being scared for characters. But I came into both of those shows late – I started watching The X-Files in season 5, practically, and the only episode of Buffy I watched when it aired for the first time was “Chosen.” (That’s the series finale; everything else I watched on DVD or FX reruns.) But with Hannibal, it was clear that things weren’t always going to be what they seemed, so I never knew when or if someone was going to die.

In Red Dragon, Freddie Lounds dies. And he dies horrifically. In Hannibal the show, Freddie is now Ms. Lounds, and Bryan Fuller did not want to see that level of violence against a woman. (He’s been very adamant about that as well – not using sexual violence as plot devices. God bless you, Bryan.) So that entire episode, I was all, “WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN? WHO’S — IS — HOW –” and then WHEN THE VICTIM WAS ANNOUNCED I WAS SHOCKED BECAUSE I DID NOT SEE THAT CHOICE COMING AND IT WAS … AND THE PERSON’S NOT EVEN DEAD


I am so glad I watched that episode at my house in the woods by myself, because if I had watched it with people near me, the cops would have been called expecting me to have been murdered.

Okay, two thousand words later, and I still don’t think I did my feelings justice. I was just so impressed with how someone can take such well-known stories and characters, elevate their surroundings and actions to such a wonderful level of art and taste, and yet remain true to the spirit of the source material. I mean, yes, it’s a show about a serial killer. Yes, it’s a show about a cannibal. Yes, people die in grisly ways that we actually get to see on network TV at times, to the utter amazement of me. (YOU CAN SHOW HIS LIPS GETTING BITTEN OFF BUT YOU BLUR A BUTTCRACK ON A RENAISSANCE PAINTING? COME ON, NBC)

But I didn’t watch it for the gore, or the blood, or the violence. I didn’t even watch it for the black humor – that was a wonderful bonus. I watched it because I was so amazed at how something so indelible on pop culture could be reinterpreted and re-imagined into something so breathtakingly new.

And I’m going to miss the fuck out of my crazy cannibal murder husbands show.

Grade for Hannibal, the book: 3.5 stars
Grade for Hannibal, the TV show: ∞ stars

(that symbol is infinity. infinity stars.)


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