I was working at a movie theater in Florida when Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” opened. It was released with no fanfare, and it was a non-event at the box-office. I was in high school at the time, and I would make an effort to see everything that played at our theater. I had no idea what to expect from “Manhunter,” and Mann’s name was not on my radar in the same way that it is today.
As a result, I walked in cold and walked out positively flattened by what I saw. I went out afterwards and I went to a bookstore and I got a copy of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. I saw the film at least two or three more times in the fourteen days we played it, and I told several friends about it, taking them back to see it with me. When Silence Of The Lambs was released, it was already on my radar, and the news that Gene Hackman had optioned the rights and planned to make a film out of it only made it more attractive. I read it as soon as I could get my hands on a copy, and once again, I found myself captivated by the story being told. I loved the book, and I was bummed when Hackman dropped out of making it. When the film finally did come out, I was immediately a fan, amazed that I could handle two very different interpretations of Hannibal Lecter.
I loved the matter-of-fact version that Brian Cox played in Mann’s movie, just as I loved the way Hopkins turned him into an overt monster, a bright-eyed bag of crazy who couldn’t help but dig into the agents he met. His ability to burrow deep into the brains of these people is a fascinating realization of what Harris wrote, and I wasn’t surprised at all when he become the iconic version of the character. He wasn’t the only possible interpretation, but it was obvious as the film blew up into an international sensation that Hopkins had staked a claim of ownership on the part.
Unfortunately, I think the success of “Silence” as a film ruined Thomas Harris as an author. Red Dragon has Will Graham as its lead, and Silence sees Clarice Starling take center stage. While I know it feels obvious, the idea of following up those two books with a third novel in which the two of them work together to find and capture Lecter seemed like a natural idea. I suspect that Harris didn’t feel like doing the obvious thing, and that he was also horrified by the way people embraced Lecter as an anti-hero, and he wrote Hannibal to rub their noses in it instead of giving them the dramatic payoff that the series was building to. The book, and the Ridley Scott film that resulted from it, are pretty much a giant wet fart right in the face of everything Harris had written before that. He tried to burn the character down, like Arthur Conan Doyle throwing Sherlock Holmes to his death. There is a naked contempt that crept in starting with Hannibal, and I’ve felt ever since that Harris has checked out. He was never a particularly prolific author, but the success of those first two books (not counting the unrelated Black Sunday) pretty much stopped him cold. His only book since, Hannibal Rising, was a bizarre prequel story that tried to humanize the character further, another major miscalculation. What Red Dragon and Silence have in common is a keen understanding both of serial killers and of the profilers who have to be able to peek into their diseased minds to find them. His work basically created a mountain of lesser imitators, and those two books have resonated through much of pop culture for the last twenty-plus years.
Desperate to exploit his work further, Hollywood couldn’t resist remaking “Manhunter” with a bigger budget and a movie star cast, and as much as I love Edward Norton as a performer, I didn’t see the point of the movie “Red Dragon.” Still don’t. It’s not an awful film by any means, but it felt like Brett Ratner was opening a McDonald’s, following a prescribed template that had been laid down by both Mann and Demme. He even used the same cinematographer who shot Mann’s film, which explains why some of the compositions are identical. After all, if you got it right the first time, why screw with it? But the remake added nothing to the conversation, and if anything, it just diluted the brand even further.
I honestly just gave up. I didn’t see any reason to stay invested in the world that Harris created. If he wasn’t going to stay fond of his work, then why would I bother? And when the announcement was made that Bryan Fuller was working to refigure the whole thing as a TV series, I just found it annoying. It wasn’t even a case of having no interest; I found the idea actively distasteful. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to watch yet another run through familiar material, watered down to television and focus grouped to death.
I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong.
I should have trusted Bryan Fuller. He is a damn fine writer, and he’s one of those producers who has a real sense of how to build a show from week to week. He’s also been cursed by outthinking the general audience, leading him to create several shows that were canceled well before they should have been. “Dead Like Me” was a damn fine show, well executed, but the back to back punch of “Wonderfalls” and “Pushing Daisies” should have made him a giant in the industry. Instead, they made him one of those guys who seemed to have limitless potential that the business simply didn’t know how to handle.
I don’t blame him at all for deciding to tackle some properties that came with a built-in sense of awareness. His “Mockingbird Lane” was a misfire, but a compelling one. I’m not sure I think it would have worked in the long run, but as a pilot, it was loaded with style and it made something far more interesting than I would have expected out of “The Munsters.” At this point, I would imagine Fuller would like to be part of a show that lasts more than 20 episodes, one where he’s allowed to really push, and based on the first two episodes of “Hannibal,” it appears that he finally found the exact right match for his sensibilities.
Despite the title, the emphasis so far has not been on defanging Hannibal Lecter, played with a barely-contained distaste for everyone by Mads Mikkelsen, and I think the show has been cast perfectly. Hugh Dancy is Will Graham, and the show picks up with him at an early point in his involvement with the FBI. Graham’s gift for empathy is already firmly in place, but it makes him fragile. This is not the same Graham that we saw in “Manhunter,” and at first I thought they might have started with him already too shaky. Instead, it looks like the first major character arc is going to be watching Graham find his legs as an agent, building up the emotional suit of armor that will carry him through his career, and I really like the way just these first two episodes already seem to have etched a pretty dense inner life for him as a character.
Seeing how they’re addressing the rest of the characters that Harris created, I’m intrigued. Laurence Fishburne is a great choice for Jack Crawford, and I like the instant antagonism that comes from his need to use Graham and his understanding of just how dangerous that might be. Recasting Freddie Lounds as a woman instead of a man is one of those choices that seems arbitrary until you see how Lara Jean Chorostecki plays Lounds. Her manipulations in pursuit of a story in the second episode make her an instant valuable member of the cast, someone we’re going to want to check in with repeatedly. So far, I get the feeling we’re just starting to explore other characters like Dr. Alana Bloom (the wonderful Caroline Dhavernas) and Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), and I am excited to see how they’re filled in as characters over the course of this first season.
What really excites me is that for the first time since “Silence,” this feels like the real Thomas Harris. This feels like a show that fully explores the potential of this world, and the dynamics of these characters. Right away, Lecter and Graham’s sparring relationship is fascinating, and we can see already just how much Lecter is pushing buttons and pulling strings for his own entertainment. The show is dark, as dark as any cable show that’s on right now, and there was a reveal in the second episode that creeped me out in a way I haven’t experienced with any network TV program since I first fell in love with “The X-Files.” If this is the show that Fuller is making, then I’m in. I’m ready. I believe. Both David Slade and Michael Rymer have done really effective work as directors setting a tone and establishing a visual language for the show, and it looks like this series is willing to go as dark as they need to in order to tell the story properly. No punch feels pulled. No image seems compromised.
Will it work for 13 episodes? Will it work for multiple seasons? I have no idea, but for me, the entire process by which I decide to get onboard for a show comes down to faith that they’ve demonstrated enough of a sense that they know what they’re doing that I am willing to follow from week to week. I finally feel like there is a reason to watch Will Graham again, and for the first time in over 20 years, Hannibal Lecter is a figure of menace once more instead of a parody, a joke, a defanged pissy boyfriend or a toned-down avenging angel. The Hannibal Lecter I first met on the pages of two books over two decades ago was a monster, pure and simple, and I finally feel like that monster is loose again.
Our own Alan Sepinwall’s been sharing his take on the show so far, and he’s been discussing the show with Dan Fienberg on their always-excellent podcast. Make sure to check out what they’ve got to say about it as well.
How about you guys? Did you give the show a chance, or are you willing to try? And if you are watching it, are you as struck by what they’re accomplishing as I am?