Sunday 7 February 2016

Hannibal by Thomas Harris and Bryan Fuller

The great American novelist Thomas Harris forever changed the face of crime fiction with his book Red Dragon. In it he introduced the concept (and term) serial killer, as well as the notion of a troubled police profiler who has disturbing insights into violent crimes and those who commit them. 

These tropes have become so omnipresent — indeed, tiresomely almost de rigeur — that it's strange indeed to remember that they all come from that one novel and that one (brilliant) writer. Thomas Harris has had as profound an effect on crime fiction as Hammett and Chandler (who between them invented the private eye story as we know it).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Harris's fortunes in terms of screen versions of his work have been mixed. Red Dragon was brought to the screen by Michael Mann, a top notch writer-director. But that adaptation didn't maintain sufficient fidelity to the original. It changed the title (to the anodyne Man Hunter) and even changed the spelling of Hannibal Lecter's name (I ask you – "Lektor"?). However the next Thomas Harris movie was Silence of the Lambs, extremely well directed by Jonathan Demme from a truly first rate script by Ted Tally, who did respect the subject matter. And it was a blockbuster.

This was followed by Hannibal directed by Ridley Scott, who managed to screw things up royally by changing the ending of Harris's book. The less said about that, the better. Then came a remake of Red Dragon, with the proper title restored and a much more faithful treatment of the book — thanks again to a script by the excellent Ted Tally. 

Finally there was the film Hannibal Rising, which I rate very highly (many would disagree); I certainly think it is superior to Harris's book — the weakest in the series. (But then Hannibal Rising was conceived as a film, and Harris wrote the script first. It only became a book later, a very thin and underpowered one, presumably because no one could dream of of missing out on the chance of a cash-in.)

When I heard that there was going to be a TV series called Hannibal, I feared the worst. But I am delighted to say I was wrong, wrong, wrong. On the evidence of the first series, Hannibal is smashingly, stupendously good.

The show is based on Red Dragon, or rather "based on the characters" in Red Dragon. We still have Hannibal Lecter, everybody's favourite cannibal psychopath, along with Will Graham the eerily insightful profiler, Jack Crawford the stalwart FBI chief, and Freddie Lounds the sleazy opportunistic tabloid journalist. But the stories weaving these characters together are fresh and new (and top-notch). 

Plus there have been some intriguing and very cool changes wrought on the characters. Graham (played by Hugh Dancy) is now on the autistic spectrum. Crawford is African American (played by an impressive Laurence Fishburne). And, most brilliantly, Lounds is now a scheming redheaded woman (the Canadian actress Lara Jean Chorostecki).

As for Lecter himself, he is played by the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen, quite recently sighted being menacing in a sausage-dog print shirt in Charlie Countryman. And the big change for his character is that, whereas Lecter was already behind bars when we first met him in Harris' novel, here he is still a free man (or monster). In fact, by a very dark irony, he is working in close collaboration with the FBI team. He's even Will Graham's shrink.

There are some flaws in the show. It specialises in fantasy and dream (or nightmare) sequences but it also specialises in grand guignol shocks. And sometimes it's difficult to tell the two apart. So when a killer's victim, whom we believe to be long dead, suddenly grabs Will Graham's arm (a swipe of a memorable scene from Andrew Kevin Walker's script for Seven) it rather spoils the impact if we initially think it's just another one of Will's waking dreams.

Also, the gruesome subject matter is just a little hard to take. Of course, a Hannibal Lecter story is going to involve some grisly murders. But the problem with a weekly show of this nature is that there's going to be one of these pretty much every episode. (They are not all, I hasten to add, committed by Hannibal — the FBI team investigates a wide range of suspects.) For me and my delicate sensibilities there is a danger that this could be a little too much. That was why I ultimately couldn't watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — I couldn't handle a lavish attrocity every week.

In the case of Hannibal, all this means is that it is ideal for watching an episode a time, interspersed with less intense material (Castle, please step forward) instead of box-set binge viewing.

But, when all is said and done, this is an exceptional show and, despite its subject matter, very beautiful. It is shot in amazingly stylish heightened colours — all bright red autumn leaves and blood splashes — by cinematographer James Hawkins. And there is an outstanding, churning, eerie, avant-garde music score by Brian Reitzell which I will be seeking out on CD. And possibly even vinyl.

But above all, the writing in Hannibal is superb. The series was developed for television by Bryan Fuller, who previously created Dead Like Me (on the strength of Hannibal, I've just ordered both seasons of this from Amazon). Other writers on the team include Chris Brancato, who wrote the period gangster movie Hoodlum (which also starred Laurence Fishburne) and the wonderfully named Jim Danger Gray.

Oh yes, and the episodes are named after posh cullinary terms like Apéritif, Amuse-Bouche and Potage.

Tasty. And moreish.

(Image credits: All the posters are from reliable old Imp Awards.)

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