Elegant Horror: An After-Dinner Discussion of Hannibal

It took me a while to get around to it, but I’ve finally seen the first season of Hannibal and now I feel compelled to share my thoughts on it. I don’t usually do reviews, really, but I feel so torn between what I like and don’t like with this that I feel I need to get it down somewhere. Besides, it’s probably about time I blogged something that wasn’t just self-promotion.



My reason for avoiding the TV series for so long was because I love the books so much. Well, the first two, and the third a bit (for different reasons). I never bothered with Hannibal Rising. Mostly because I didn’t want to know Hannibal’s back story; I found him a more intriguing character the less I knew about him. In fact, it bothered me that in one book he claimed nothing made him the way he is, and then in another we see this isn’t true. Okay, he could have lied, but he was far scarier as a character, as a concept, when he just was. All of which is the same reason I didn’t want to watch the TV series.

But now I have.

I loved it. At first. I thought it was excellent. I had issues with a few details but nothing major, nothing but personal preference, but as the series went on so these gathered and began bugging me more and more. Fat flies buzzing around a corpse, albeit a beautiful one.

What I liked about it…

 It’s gorgeous.

Really, it’s very stylishly shot. I heard it described as “elegant horror” and that’s a very apt description. The opening credits are great and some of the set pieces… man, they were stunning. Grotesquely gorgeous. You just know the effects team had a lot of fun with this show. It made a girl mounted on antlers look like art, and those angels in the motel room were breathtaking. And that totem pole? My God, the totem pole. For me, I was sold from episode two, the row of fruiting bodies, a delightfully disturbing image that will stay with me for quite some time. And I was a huge fan of that stag motif, and how it developed as the season drew towards its conclusion. Lovely horrible images, all of them.

The food 

I know this is wrong, but some of those meals looked delicious. It’s a masterstroke, I feel, focussing on the appeal of these meals. Hannibal is a man of taste, if you’ll excuse the pun, so you won’t see cannibalism presented as some primitive loon gnawing on a bone or scraping brains out of a skull with his fingers. These were culinary masterpieces, attractive on the plate and consumed with obvious delight by quite a few of the characters. Really, it makes you hungry…until you remember where the meat may have come from. And the ‘may have’ is important, too: each of these dishes are served with an effective side dish of ambiguity so that you can’t know for sure what it is they’re eating (or what it is you, as viewer, like the look of so much). I mentioned this on Facebook recently and was surprised (reassured and delighted) to see a few people confessing to deliberately eating while watching the show. Hannibal, it seems, is not just a story to enjoy on screen but a dinner party to take part in and relish.

The characters 

My biggest worry, that I’d learn too much about Hannibal, was thankfully unfounded. Despite the title, he remained pleasantly peripheral throughout, retaining some of his mystery (well, as much as he could considering most of us came to this with prior knowledge) and allowing other characters to take centre stage. At his best, he was intelligent and polite and almost someone you’d like to be friends with (an idea that came up a few times in the episodes and was handled very well, I thought). He’s most interesting, to me, when he’s amusing himself at the expense of others, and to see some of this revolve around helping Will provided an enjoyable tension. It’s something we see in Red Dragon and, of course, with Starling later, and it’s one of the show’s strengths that this carried over so well from the novels. I once wrote an essay about Hannibal as anti-detective (studying crime literature at uni was one of my favourite units) and was pleased to see this role of his made more overt in the TV version. Plus Mads Mikkelsen is great, such a restrained quiet presence. My favourite portrayal of Hannibal Lecter.

 I also liked the other characters. As much as I like Hannibal, I was always much more drawn to Will Graham and Clarice Starling (which might be another reason Hannibal Rising didn’t appeal so much) and Will is nicely fleshed out here. His imbalance was played up a little too much for me, but on the whole a good presentation and, more importantly, interesting. I thought Hugh Dancy played him with just the right measure of vulnerability and yet, when acting in a killer’s place, was convincing as a man who might do terrible things. 

Laurence Fishburne provided an excellent version of Jack Crawford, more the boss figure I had imagined in the books than the one we get in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, albeit from a different racial background in an effective example of colourblind casting (at least, I hope it was, rather than a case of politically correct box-ticking). He was likeable, but he was also someone with a job to do who saw Will as a tool to help him get that job done. Freddie Lounds was nicely re-imagined as a woman and still suitably annoying (not a criticism of Lara Chorostecki, she does a wonderful job). Alana Bloom gives us another gender-swap and one that’s a big plus as far as I’m concerned as I’m slightly in love with her character (the beautiful Caroline Dhavernas helps) and Gillian Anderson as Hannibal’s psychiatrist was a wonderful treat; a stillness to her performance suggested a lot more going on below the surface and I hope her character develops in season two. 

Some genuine scares 

The girl who doesn’t know she’s alive and can’t see faces was awesome. Some of the dream sequences were spectacularly disturbing. And the stag man will forever haunt me. Not to mention the reminders that we live in a world where some very bad crazy shit really happens. This show managed to scare far more effectively, with just a few moments in an hour episode, than entire horror films seem to manage these days. Perhaps an example of less is more?

 Echoes and resonances 

For the most part I thought the echoes of what we already know, coming to the TV show after the books and films, were handled very well. Even when a line or two was lifted directly from the text or films regarding events yet to happen, they contributed to the tone and added to a sense of overall cohesion. The opening episode’s cannibalism underscores all that follows, we have relationships between Hannibal and his patients that we’ll see echoed later in The Silence of the Lambs, issues of identity, sexuality, and insecurity, Bella Crawford’s cancer… it all serves to build to what we already know is coming.

It reminded me of Millennium

I loved that series (until it got all conspiracyish and X-Filesy) and so there was a certain sense of nostalgia to Hannibal that I liked. And it was good to see Lance Henriksen pop up in a cameo, too, as if to confirm the links.

 What I didn’t like… 

Eddie Izzard 

I love him, I do. He’s hilarious. Which is why I couldn’t see him as a deranged surgeon, slash, poor man’s Hannibal Lecter. His portrayal of a serial killer was a bit close to the cliché crazy we get in bad films, and his story too similar to what we see in the Harris novels.

Echoes and resonances 

There’s an irony in listing this again, I suppose, but sometimes the echoes were overused, with one episode ripping-off way too much from The Silence of the Lambs to the point where I had to stop thinking of these as prequels and more a sort of parallel version of events. Once I got my head around that it became a little easier to accept the Starling double (and Jack’s later willingness to do the same thing again despite how it turns out) and the unnecessary use of Chilton (not to mention his extensive unconventional surgery), and, most significantly, Will’s arrest. Speaking of which…

 The ending 

I found this quite a let down. I’m all for a bit of dramatic tension in having the audience know more than the characters, but trying to sustain that for an entire episode? We know Will’s innocent and Hannibal’s guilty so I found it painful and dull to watch everybody else not know, and while the final shot was interesting it does rub against the ‘truth’ of the books. As I said, accepting these as retellings and re-imaginings in a parallel Harris world helps resolve this, but as prequels there’s too much going on that jars, at least for me.

 Final thoughts 

I feel better for writing all of that down and now, overall, I feel the pros far outweigh the cons and I eagerly await the second season. I just hope it doesn’t rely on pulling too much from Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, et al. I don’t really want to see a younger Starling or her father, and I really don’t want to meet Dolarhyde. Maybe Mason. Maybe. But really I’m hoping for something new.

So serve me up some seconds, I’m hungry for more.

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