“No one is ever likely to replicate the tone of ‘Hannibal.’ ”
So I confidently declared in 2001 reviewing Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal,” his movie of Thomas Harris’ third novel about Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter.
One should always be wrong sometimes – the more confidently the better. It’s the only real way to learn. I wasn’t just wrong about a blanket Hollywood inability to replicate the gruesomely aestheticized tone of Ridley Scott’s movie version of “Hannibal” – a tone so bizarre and extreme that in 2000, when it was made, Jodie Foster felt she had to drop out of the project. In our new century, it has gone way beyond replication on television. It has been taken, in every wildly distinctive particularity, to even more bizarre extremes.
In Scott’s movie, it was a fantasy about Hannibal Lecter in which Ray Liotta played a fellow who was virtually sexual harassment incarnate. In the final scene of the film, Lecter has surgically removed the top of his skull, sliced off chosen pieces of his brain tissue, sauteed them in a dining room chafing dish and served them back to their grinning former owner.
“Hannibal” is, in some ways, the OMG TV show of all time. It has not been possible to watch “Hannibal” in its three seasons without a periodic jaw drop and an involuntary mutter of “what the …”
I have never before seen anything quite like it. It has become routine on prime-time TV for that scene of final horror in the movie “Hannibal” to be shown in onscreen variations on “Hannibal.” In, for instance, the second episode of “Hannibal” this season, Hannibal wasn’t removing brain parts but muscle tissue from a previously amputated arm, sauteeing it with wine, butter and mushrooms and serving it back to its former owner.
But let me confess to you that such blatant horror wasn’t what dropped my jaw, pushed me to the front of my couch and had me muttering “what the …”
It was the first two episodes’ absolute contempt for the apparent narrative rules of network prime-time crime television.
“Hannibal” was finally canceled in its third season by NBC on Monday. Its ratings had become anemic. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it disappearing entirely just yet, after its run is finished this summer. So much lunacy and radicalism may yet urge someone else to pick it up – so flamboyant has it become and so favored by its growing cult.
I found, in reading Emily Nussbaum’s fine piece in the June 29 issue of the New Yorker, the exact quote I was looking for to encapsulate how freakishly different “Hannibal” has become from everything else that has ever been on network television. As with Ridley Scott’s surreally elegant movie only more so, it isn’t just the cannibal horror of it all that’s shocking; it’s the visual gorgeousness of James Hawkinson’s cinematography, along with the singular hallucinatory style of it all.
What Nussbaum quotes is the show’s creator and show-runner Bryan Fuller in RoberEbert.com explaining that “when he hires directors for the series, he tells them ‘this is not an episode of television. This is a pretentious art film.’ ”
Exactly. That’s a joke but it’s kidding on the square.
What I had originally wanted to write about the first episode of “Hannibal” this season is that, with Brian Reitzell’s droning electronic music and the show’s archly stylized dialogue, “Hannibal” reminds me of nothing so much as Tad Daniewlewski’s obscure 1962 adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit.” That starred Viveca Lindfors and, significantly, featured an electronic music score by the great pioneer in the field, Vladimir Ussachevsky.
We are, increasingly here, talking about a prime-time show on a regular broadcast network that even dogs and cats can watch without paying a cent extra to anyone.
I can’t underline enough how much of the show’s basic aesthetic seems to be derived from Scott’s 2001 adaptation of Harris’ novel “Hannibal,” even though the show itself only significantly credits Harris’ novel “Red Dragon,” the first Harris novel where characters Lecter and haunted FBI agent Will Graham first appeared.
Even so, it still reminds me every week of Sartre’s hell in that 1962 movie adaptation of that play.
Here are a few samples of dialogue from Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” this past Thursday:
• “Friendship with Hannibal is blackmail elevated to the level of love.”
• “Religion is not all that it’s cracked up to be, Mr. Verger. I don’t need religion to appreciate the Old Testament Idea of Revenge.”
• “Did I die” asks Will Graham’s superior Jack Crawford, after a throat slicing run-in with Lecter. “You did a lot of things” replies his dying wife. “Dying may have been one of them.”
What the previous “Hannibal” episodes this season elaborated on was Lecter’s lecturing to scholars on Dante’s hell in Florence, Italy.
Entirely glossed over was the presence of Gillian Anderson, a former psychotherapist to Hannibal Lecter who is now either his wife or therapist or lover or all three. Whatever she is, she is, in an apparently hypnotic way, trapped in a hell of Hannibal Lecter’s devising – a hell all the more hellish because she still seems to harbor the delusion of Free Will.
Mads Mikkelsen plays Lecter with hopelessly foreign disengagement. We’re watching weekly visions, dreams, flashbacks, flash-forwards and endless lunatic narrative ribbons of “what the …”
All of it is guided by showrunner Bryan Fuller who once gave us the entirely different – but similarly radical and distinct – “Wonderfalls.”
No one should be surprised that NBC finally decided, after this summer, they couldn’t continue to underwrite so much shameless lunacy.
But as television art, the art it all seems most akin to is music – especially classical music of the Baroque Era.
I can’t wait to see what well-heeled TV patron now steps up and decides to underwrite another maniacally strange season of Bloody Baroque Variations on a Theme by Thomas Harris.