My Intellectual Love Affair With Hannibal

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Hannibal is a perfect example of true excellence in writing. It’s horrific, hideous, and intensely intellectual. It gets up, close, and personal with its audience with the intention of ripping out our hearts, messing with our heads, and forcing us to endure nightmarish horrors right along with its characters. In a way, Hannibal deals with us the same way Hannibal Lecter deals with his victims – by luring us into a false sense of security, forcing us to confront our own belief systems, and then viciously turning on us.

The show works on a multitude of levels, which resonates on several in particular – in its character development and consistencies, its emotionally abusive twists, and in its subtle intricacies.

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Character Development

Hannibal Lecter has, from the start, been totally consistent in his manipulative, sadistic, and abusive behavior, all under a façade of gentlemanly interest that takes us aback whenever we actually ponder the evidence of his crimes (“my sister was still breathing when her lungs were torn out!”). Our inability to comprehend, much less identify with him, makes his actions incredible to us, since we can’t fathom the depths of his evil. He is a total psychopath with zero compassion or humanity, who esteems no one enough not to kill them, and takes vicious pleasure in ensuring others’ continued and prolonged suffering for his own amusement. He is the most iconic “human” depiction of the Devil ever inscribed in fiction or brought to life on-screen: a merciless, soulless monster hell-bent on tormenting other souls.

If we thought he was unbelievable last season, with his careful entrapment of Will Graham, driving him to near-insanity and framing him for all his crimes, last night’s episode absolutely convinced us of what a truly evil bastard he is, when he took a woman’s life in his hands and saved it, just so she can continue to be a source of intense mental anguish (and a distraction) for Jack Crawford – and so she can suffer a long and humiliating death from cancer. Man, that is a whole other level of screwed up.

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But the brilliance in this method is that as moral, sane human beings, we continue to search for a shred of human decency in him, but have yet to find it. We know what a monster he is, but he still shocks and horrifies us with it. We know Hannibal caused a patient to attack Bedelia and then convinced him, within sight of her, to swallow his own tongue, therefore introducing her into a moral quandary of cover-ups and lies; then, he insisted on maintaining their professional relationship just to dump salt in the wound and keep her close enough to impose future torment, if need be (“I hesitated to even discuss this with you…”).

We know he injected Will Graham to induce seizures, fed him things that further progressed his brain tumor, and finally framed him so brilliantly for murder that Will is half convinced he actually did it.

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We know he incited Abigail’s father to violence and saved her life merely to manipulate and abuse her; we know he formed a façade of fatherly attachment to Abigail only to turn on her when it suited him – and in such a way that she experienced the full anguish of betrayal.

And that is where the strength in the show lies; Hannibal is consistently the villain and consistently evil; there is no excuse for his behavior, no moral justifications for it, no attempt to make us feel sorry for him, and no soul-searching remorse over his actions. In a world of de-fanged vampires searching for redemption, and bad guys who were potty trained wrong, Hannibal is a refreshing if sadistic reminder of the nature of true evil. The writing makes no apologies for him and doesn’t shy away from having every action he takes be totally selfish.

Even more remarkably, it doesn’t diminish the intelligence of his victims – Abigail discerns his identity too late to save herself, but she still knows the truth of him months before anyone else; Beverly alone gets close enough to the truth to unravel Hannibal’s lies – and dies because he is so predictably evil as to be unpredictable to any sane mind. Her death isn’t a weakness, it’s the result of strength. Hannibal only kills the people he sees as a threat to his deceptions. Those that remain pawns in his game are weaker than those that are no longer in the game.

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The Symbolism Beneath the Façade

The show’s creator, Brian Fuller, sees Hannibal as an incarnation of the devil, and has woven in themes of deception (the Serpent), temptation (the Fall), and consumption (Satan consuming souls, as Hannibal consumes the bodies of his victims). The first season established this pattern with symbolism in Hannibal’s office, often requiring characters to retreat from the moral high ground on his bookshelf balcony and join him in the scarlet-papered room beneath (a hell of his and their own making), where most of his abuses and manipulations took place.

One of the more ingenious moments this season (so far) is Hannibal stitching a demented artist into his own murderous work of art. Having observed and “admired” the murderous arrangement of bodies, Hannibal takes total control of the soul through verbal manipulation and convinces him to willingly be forever immortalized in his creation; he sews the man into a literal interpretation of hell – just as Satan admires evil, entices the evil-doer to further action, and then abandons him in a hell of his own making.

Luring others into evil actions while evading capture is one of Hannibal’s usual methods of operation; he incites and orchestrates acts of violence as much as he participates in them, and particularly enjoys forcing others to abandon their moral high ground; it gives him pleasure to see the ethically driven psychologist withhold evidence from the police, to entice a morally questionable therapist to condone unorthodox procedures, to manipulate a victim into becoming a murderer. He attacks each of them at their weakest points and those he cannot corrupt, he kills.

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A Fantastical Sort of Intelligence

This is a show as delectable as it is repulsive, as hideously ugly as it is sickeningly beautiful; a series that places intelligent and attractive people against horrific crimes, that indulges in as many sick twists as it does flights of fantasy. It isn’t concerned with logic or reasonability so much as it is the darkest feats of imagination, but it is crafted in such a way to keep us continually emotionally uncomfortable – both in the diabolical, awful nature of its crimes and in its brutal characterization. It uses low lighting to create in us a sense of unease and discomfort, beautiful food to distract us from the monster in the fine suit, and disquieting manipulations that make us want Hannibal to get caught, and also afraid of what will happen when he is caught. It’s as enticing as it is hard to watch, and that’s partly what makes it magnificent.

Disclaimer: I don’t recommend this show to sensitive viewers. It’s gory. It’s sick. It’s envelope-pushing. It’s twisted. And, I love it.

19 Replies to “My Intellectual Love Affair With Hannibal”

  1. I’m a Hannibal fan as well. The writing is incredibly intelligent, it’s visually stunning, the acting is fantastic. I do struggle with the violence though. I do appreciate that Hannibal doesn’t portray violence and guns as being in any way cool (like so many Hollywood films do) but it’s at the very limit of what I can cope up with.

    One of the things that I love about you as a blogger is that you’re willing to explore things that a lot of Christians would automatically dismiss as bad and without any kind of merit. That’s meant as a compliment because I’ve felt judged for liking shows like Hannibal and Game of Thrones and Buffy in the past. I really admire your obvious intellectual curiosity 🙂

    This is somewhat off-topic but if Hannibal ever gets round to adapting The Silence of the Lambs (and hopefully it will!) who do you think would be a good choice for Clarice Starling? I don’t have a clue myself but ever since Bryan Fuller mentioned that David Tennant gave a brilliant audition of Lecter I’ve often wondered if he’s got him in mind for Francis Dolarhyde.

    1. I don’t like the violence on Hannibal either… or maybe I should say the gore, because lately it’s been more about the grisly aftermath than the actual violence itself (I guess that’s one good thing about having Will Graham behind bars and not at the crime scene – less visual replays of the crime!). And I admit freely that I look away at times – the man tearing himself out of the human mural made me cringe more than anything I’ve (not) seen in a long time!

      Your comment about me being willing to explore things other Christians might run away from made me smile, because I debated whether or not to admit to loving this show, much less talk in-depth about it. But I don’t want to be a hypocrite and hide my true self behind a fake face of piety. This is who I am, I’m not ashamed of what I watch, and if I find truth in an unexpected place, I intend to share it. It has shocked people in the past and will continue to shock them in the future, but I want to be a light in dark places. I see truth in “Hannibal,” just as I saw it in “Buffy,” and I’m not ashamed of it.

      Ironically, Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media department) had a blog post this past week about the “good old days,” and mentioned Hannibal as part of our society’s increasing tendency toward tolerating extreme violence on television. I answered the post, discussed it a bit, and then added that despite its violence, I think Hannibal is one of the best written shows on television. I talked a little bit about the Satan symbolism and left it at that. I didn’t do it to be contradictory, but to illustrate that there’s more to the show than just the violence. I think sometimes they err a bit too much on the side of caution.

      I hope the show reaches that point too, although they’ll have to fight MGM for the rights to Clarice Starling! Apparently, they sold Clarice’s rights to another network that planned on doing a television series around her years in the FBI (why, I don’t know – frankly, she’s not interesting without Hannibal Leceter). I don’t know who would make a good foil for him as Clarice. Jodie Foster is so engrained in my mind as the character, it’s hard to think about a television actress that could do her justice. She would have to have presence on-screen and be … what, 30? I’ll have to think about it.

      As for David Tennant, I can’t imagine him as Lecter. Part of me is curious as to what that would have been like, but I’m glad they chose Mads – he is a very imposing figure on-screen and that helps make Hannibal frightening. BUT… Tennant would indeed be a brilliant Francis Dolarhyde! I expect he’s very capable of being creepy when he wants to be.

  2. I do love how Hannibal is unrelentingly evil. People in general like their villains to have a touch of humanity, something they can relate to, a reason for their evil doings. For Hannibal, there is no reason strong enough in the entire world for what he does. He does it because he can and because killing and eating his victims is the one thing that excites him. He gains power through that type of control. Hannibal is terrifying in the purity of his evil, and the way he is able to fool so many people.

    I actually see him as something of an anti-Christ figure. When the anti-Christ comes, he will fool almost everyone into thinking he is their friend and savior. But deep down, he is pure evil and only seeks to devour the earth and all its inhabitants.

    This show is brilliant. I can’t stand all that much violence in my films anymore, but I watch Hannibal because the writing is brilliant and because it speaks to the Christian intellectual in me about the very nature of evil and its motivations.

    Excellent post!

    1. His lack of humanity (or “motive,” as Will Graham) would say is what makes him so dangerous and evil — he has no motive other than his curiosity and delight in torturing others; he is the ultimate villain. (Tulkinghorn from Bleak House is a lesser kind of similar evil — torment for the act of torment itself, devouring souls in his wake, but not, as Hannibal does, literally.)

      Hannibal enjoys control and superiority; those he kills weren’t strong enough or intelligent enough to evade him — that’s why he has a grudging sort of respect for Bedelia. She was smart enough to escape — for now.

      Ooh, that’s an interesting parallel! I like it — just as Hannibal fools some, he can’t fool all — as the AntiChrist will fool some, but not all. Terrific analogy. 🙂

      1. I wonder what he thinks of Beverly. I mean, she found him out. She made it all the way into his lair, which I doubt anyone has done before. If anything, her intelligence coupled with her foolishness will make him even more cruel than he already is, if that’s possible.

        I always wonder what Will Graham is to him. Why Will? Is it because he’s an Empath? Has Hannibal never encountered one before and so Will intrigues him? Especially now that Will knows who and what he is and is still powerless to do anything about it. His fascination with Will Graham intrigues me because that will be his downfall.

        And yes, Tulkinghorn is terrifying for many of the same reasons as Hannibal. He just doesn’t kill and eat people.

        Glad you liked my analogy! I’ve been pondering it for a little while now, and the connection is so very clear to me.

        1. She did find him out, but he doesn’t respect her intellect since he KNEW she was on the right track and laid a trap to bring her right to him. He basically told her in the lab to look “underneath” the surface to find the truth; she did and noted the missing kidney, which led her back to Will (whom she admitted she was consulting on the case), which meant he knew she had suspicions about Hannibal. His turning up at home when she was there was no accident — he knew her curiosity would lead her to investigate him. It was a game of cat and mouse in the basement that gave him pleasure — because it’s his house, his basement, his tools, his advantage.

          And… I hope she’s dead when he does what he’s going to do to her. Brian Fuller let that detail slip in a recent follow-up interview when confirming her death and… wow, the next episode is primarily going to be people reacting to her death and the manner in which she is found.

          His fascination with Will is indeed interesting; it’s irrational and dangerous, as Bedelia pointed out — it’s his weak spot, the one victim he can’t let go of, his inferior thrill-seeking Se making him reckless due to his intense belief in his superior intelligence to everyone else. I think he sees Will as weak due to his emotionality, so it’s almost like a cat playing with a crippled bird — Will is a source of sadistic pleasure for him that he torments for his own amusement. Hannibal HATES weakness. I think it’s partly her weakness that made him decide to kill Abigail. For awhile, he may have seen her as a potential protege, but she was weak — she felt guilt and remorse over her actions, which to him implies weakness. So she had to die.

          If I didn’t know Dr. Chilton has to make it alive through Silence of the Lambs, I’d suspect him of winding up dead next — he’s way too close to the truth for Hannibal’s comfort, and, I suspect, will be instrumental in revealing the truth.

          1. I do not want to know what he does to Beverly. We’ll see if I can even watch next week’s episode. I’m sure, whatever it is, that it’s gruesome.

            You know how they say less is more? That’s the way it is with Hannibal’s Lair. Do we really want to see what it looks like? Or do we merely want to see the reactions that everyone else has to it? I’m in the latter group, just like not actually seeing the Joker’s pencil trick. We’re left with the emotional impact without having seen it ourselves.

            Do you think he would keep Will alive if it ever came down to brass tacks with them? It won’t ever happen, but in this pretend scenario, let’s say Hannibal captures Will. Would he keep him alive? And to what purpose? What would be his motivation to either kill Will or keep him prisoner? I’m curious as to your thoughts.

          2. Um… let’s just say she’s not exactly in one piece when they find her. *ahem*

            I do enjoy the less is more concept, which is one reason Hannibal overdoes it on the violence; NOT seeing what Beverly was seeing was terrific, because it forces our imagination to come up with awful things rather than being desensitized by actually SEEING something awful. I wish they would carry that over a little more into other aspects of the show.

            Do I think Hannibal would keep Will alive or kill him? Keep him alive and mentally manipulate and torture him – like he did with Miriam Lass (apparently – that’s coming up). But I think if there was a threat to him because of it, like Will maintaining his sanity and being able to turn Hannibal over to the police, Hannibal would kill him. Or try. That is, after all, what forced Will Graham to abandon the FBI in Red Dragon!

          3. Eww. I suspected as much, but still, that’s gross.

            And YES! I would give anything for the show to cut down on the gore. I mean, I can understand a little, but some of it is just too much. And I thought Hopkins’ Hannibal was bad in the 2nd movie.

            I’m literally on pins and needles of agony waiting to see the outcome of this season! I hate having Will behind bars, and I really hate having Hannibal free and trusted by the FBI! I want that sucker caught at some point. Of course, the catching won’t last because we know what happens in the end. Why would Thomas Harris write that type of ending? You shouldn’t have your psycho nutjob go free like that! Ever!

          4. I never remember the gore until I am forced to think about it. I’m focused so much on the plot that I forget how gruesome it is until I sit down and watch it. 😛

            By the end of the season, Will Graham will be out of jail and Hannibal will be evading the police. But the fate of Alana is uncertain, as is what happens to Jack Crawford.

            Harris’ implication is that with Clarice, Hannibal has found a soulmate that eases the pain he endures; with her to love, and to be loved by her, he will never feel the need to kill again.

            To which I laugh and say, “Nope.”

  3. This is something I’ll be looking into now. I want to thank you for always sharing good storytelling, and showing us why it is good–not everyone can do that. Your blog is definitely one of my favorites, and always provides food for thought. And I love that. Now, to go discover my new favorite villain….

    1. Thank you — I’m glad to point you in the direction of good writing (there’s an awful lot of BAD writing out there too!). I’d say “enjoy” Hannibal, but… well, I’m not sure you’ll enjoy it. 😉

  4. I was watching a cast interview the other day and one of them said Brian Fuller was a perfectionist and it shows–everything from the writing to the cinematography fits together flawlessly. I almost wanted to stop watching it this season because it is such an uncomfortable experience, but I couldn’t. I think I can appreciate it more because it is so uncomfortable–evil always should be and on most shows it isn’t.

    1. I’ve always loved Brian Fuller’s work — he approaches older ideas in new and exciting ways, and you can tell how much he loves his projects; Hannibal is no exception. It is as meticulously crafted as Hannibal’s person suit!

      This will sound bad, but — I like evil to be genuinely evil. It IS evil. It IS awful. It SHOULD make us uncomfortable. Too much evil these days in fiction and film is made merely “bad.” I want TRUE villains, not anti-heroes. Hannibal gives me that.

  5. My cousin was raving about how good this show is, and I admit I was highly skeptical. I still know I can’t watch it (had to stop watching even the occasional Criminal Minds episode because of nightmares), but reading your review helped me understand how she can like it so much.

    1. It IS good — but not for anyone sensitive toward violence or impacted through frightening or gruesome visuals, that’s for sure. I’m not easily shaken by that kind of thing, but there’s still one episode of this show I don’t dare watch at night; it’s too twisted and freaky.

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