Thanks to the wonders of video-on-demand services, I don’t often watch TV shows when they air, but every Saturday morning I launch myself out of bed to watch Hannibal over my morning coffee. I am not a Silence of the Lambs fan.
This is my design.
Is Hannibal For Me?
I didn’t come into this fandom as a Thomas Harris devotee or a Lecter fan. I did, however, watch a lot of crime procedurals from childhood on: CSI, Law and Order (various), Profiler, Monk, and so on, and I love horror movies, especially psychological thrillers. I watched Silence of the Lambs as part of my film education, but the film and Hopkins’ performance didn’t really strike me as special, except for understanding the creation of this running joke about “fava beans and a nice chianti [insert slithering noises].”
To be honest, I don’t like Silence of the Lambs. Rewatching it now and watching Hannibal for the first time, I’m bothered by the constant sexism of the film. (Red Dragon is less sexist but barely has any women in it who aren’t victims.) For example, Clarice is often shot in rooms full of tall men who all stare at her like a piece of meat, which makes her look small and vulnerable. On one hand, recreating the sexism encountered by women in the workplace, particularly in law enforcement and government agencies, can be a tool in calling out and ending sexism; but the film is just a constant barrage of Lecter aggressively sexually harassing women and the indefatigable Clarice having to navigate her way through the swamp of misogyny. I don’t dislike Clarice herself, but while The Strong Career Woman may have been a step forward in the 1980s, in the ’10s, it just seems trite.
Honestly, the petty–and I mean really petty–thing that sort of ruined it for me was Hopkins’ pronunciation of chianti, precisely because it removed my suspension of disbelief. We’re told that Hannibal Lecter is a sophisticated person, and my understanding is that most gourmets with an interest in European cooking also have a basic grasp of Italian vowels. I also disliked the shock value of Lecter feeding a victim part of his own brain in the 2001 film Hannibal. The scene struck me as crass, and because of the hype about it I lost any interest I had in the series. (Upon watching it now, I can tell you that it’s really gross, badly edited, and yet somehow banal.)
I hadn’t really thought about Hannibal Lecter–other than his chianti flub–in years when, seemingly overnight, my tumblr dash turned from all-BBC Sherlock-all-the-time into a Fannibal fe(a)st. The fandom jokes seemed funny, but what really got me to watch was the commentary on the women characters and the images of the food (more on both later). I decided to give the show a try right as the first season was wrapping up, and I was hooked.
What I love about NBC’s Hannibal is its tone. Like Hannibal and his cuisine, it’s elegant–the writers, cast, and crew know when to be subtle and when to be showy; the cinematography is gorgeous. The tone of the show and the version of Hannibal who inhabits it are so refined and complex that Hopkins’ portrayal of the character feels like a Saturday-Night-Live parody.
Also, there’s a nightmare stag.
The show begins as a prequel to Harris’s novels. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a profiler and teacher at the FBI Academy, is asked to consult on a difficult case by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburn), the head of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. Will’s unusual capacity to empathize (he describes himself as being “somewhere on the spectrum of autism”), particularly with killers, allows him to mentally re-enact crimes and get to the bottom of the killer’s motivation and MO. While consulting on the Minnesota Shrike case, which becomes the overarching case of the season, he meets psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, who also consults for the FBI, and Alana Bloom, a psychology professor and consultant. As he continues to work on other cases with Crawford, Will’s mental health begins to deteriorate. Will begins seeing Hannibal as his therapist. He also begins to dream of a stag that looks like something out of Mononoke-hime.
Hannibal‘s take on the crime procedural is rather different that the majority of the crime scenes presented in other dramas and murder mysteries. A crime scene is not shown to be just another dead body–business as usual–or, at the other extreme, torture porn, but as a site of horror. Where versions of Sherlock Holmes deduce from clues or CSI shows “inside views” that look like a science documentary, Will Graham actually reenacts the crimes–that is, as Will verbally explains the crime, he stands in for the killer and the audience watches him commit the murders. Given that Will Graham’s persona is usually the “mild-mannered empath” who rescues dogs and likes fly-fishing, it’s really hard to watch him kick down a door and shoot two people point blank. Furthermore, the reenactment of the crime also destabilizes Will, which we see the most in the initial Chesapeake Ripper case.
Because of the violence, gore, and the emotional wringer through which Bryan Fuller feeds your feelings like people pasta, the show can be hard to watch at times, especially if any of your body horror fears get featured. (I had my eyes closed a lot during S2E2.) However, I think that feeling true horror in the face of murder is emotionally productive, rather than the tendency for shows to use dead bodies for shock value alone or to treat murder devoid of emotion.
The Kitchen is Where We Keep the Knives
One of the other things I love about Hannibal is that, while the show is ostensibly about two men (Will and Hannibal), the show surpasses the bare Bechdel-test minimum and is actually feminist. First, the some of original cast were given the Battlestar Galactica treatment: scumbag tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds has been genderswapped to Tattlecrime blogger/paparazza Frederika “Freddie” Lounds (Lara Jean Chorostecki); and psychology professor Alan Bloom is now Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas). Yet the genderswapped characters aren’t the only amazing women on the show: there’s Beverly Katz (Hettienne Park), one of the three sarcastic forensic scientists; Jack Crawford’s wife Bella (Gina Torres); Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl), the survivor; psychiatrist Bedelia du Maurier (Gillian Anderson); and FBI trainee Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky). It’s a rare and refreshing change from shows with one single female detective and her male coworkers and from shows where the only women on the show are dead.
Second, the gender breakdown of the murder victims tends to be 50/50 across the board. Bodies are not sexualized in death–even when said bodies are naked. The male gaze seems to be absent in the way women are filmed: no lingering shots of hemlines or full-body pans.*
Finally, on a more meta level, Bryan Fuller, unlike some showrunners with a largely non-male fanbase, actually appreciates the fans. For the sake of contrast, Steven Moffat (Sherlock, Doctor Who) constantly flips out about queer readings of John and Sherlock’s relationship and the show’s female fans and feels the need to assert Sherlock’s heterosexuality while emphasizing that that he’s too cool for the ladies:
Also, it’s got such a huge female following. The original [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle] stories had a huge female following, which I’d never forgotten, and that’s because the Victorian ladies liked the way Sherlock looked. (Laughs.) So I thought, use this massively exciting, rather handsome man who could see right through your heart and have no interest … of course, he’s going to be a sex god! I think we pitched that character right. I think our female fan base all believe that they’ll be the one to melt that glacier. They’re all wrong — nothing will melt that glacier. [The Hollywood Report. Seriously, Moffat?]
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Moffat! Meanwhile, Bryan Fuller takes a much more reasonable and respectful view of the show’s fans:
What was really great about Comic-Con, it shown that the core demographic is young women, which I think is so great. We had so many drag Hannibals and Will Grahams at the panel at Comic-Con, where they had the little coffee ground stubble and all of that. It’s all young ladies.
Women love genre, they’re more open to genre in a strange way. Like all those Star Trek plates they were making, women buy that stuff. Women are the ambassadors. (mikkelsenpai)
ETonline: Your shows tend to attract a very devoted following. What’s the fan experience been like for you with Hannibal?
Fuller: It’s been wonderful and unexpected. I was surprised at the demographic that the show was reaching. A significant portion was young, smart, well-read women; they really responded to this show and I typically relate to young, bright ladies [laughs]. It was nice to see how enthusiastic and passionate they were. And, also, happy in the face of the dark material. They found joy and hope in something that is arguably quite bleak. I found that really rewarding and as somebody who is a fan of many things myself, I appreciate and relate to being enthusiastic about a show you love. I think it’s wonderful.
Even more impressively, Fuller and Dancy fielded the “slash fanfic” question with far more class and understanding than many showrunners who have been attending Comic Con for years.
“It brings up an interesting question about ‘what is love?'”said Fuller, when asked about the “Hannigram” (Will Graham/Hannibal Lecter) pairing. “And love between two characters doesn’t necessarily have to be sexual to still be love. It can still be valid, it can still be powerful.”
Furthermore, the cast, crew, and staff love to interact with the fandom, as seen here in the flower-crown meme photo shoot:
Eat the Rude
As a food blogger and a geek, I have fathomless love for the food styling in Hannibal. The meals are one of the highlights of the show, and instead of being absent or just being played for one crude shock like they are in the films, the meal prep and dinner parties showcase Hannibal’s sophisticated persona and terrifyingly good cooking skills.
Even better, Janice Poon, the food stylist for the show, keeps a blog (with spoilers for each episode, so be careful) of how she crafts the dishes Hannibal cooks. Ever wanted to know how many beef ribs it takes to mimic a human flank or how to fake lung meat from mortadella? Want to know how to make your own Hannimeals with sustainably sourced
NOT HUMAN meat? Start here.
As I write this, Hannibal is barreling toward the finale of Season 2. The show will have you on the edge of your seat, or, in my case, screaming at the TV and clutching my face. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I enjoy the suspense and, even more so, how the aspect of horror is devoid of misogyny. I can’t say enough about the cinematography, and the plating would make Gordon Ramsay weep tears of joy. The fandom and the official social media are also a lot of fun. We all just want Will Graham to have a nice day for once and to make bad jokes about Hannibal’s puns. Bon appétit and itadakimasu, dear Fannibals.
*For more on that style of filming, see Nostalgia Critic’s review of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.