Mosaic / Reviews / March 5, 2014

Finding humanity in ‘Hannibal’


TV allows viewers to get much closer to fictional characters than film often allows. I liken it to the difference between reading the ingredients label on a food package and actually seeing the food-making process. Speaking of equating characters to food, let’s talk about the show that just returned to television for its second season, NBC’s breakout hit series, “Hannibal.”

Many regard “The Silence of the Lambs” as one of the greatest films of all time, myself included. Depending on whom you ask, the film can either be classified as horror or thriller. But all viewers, regardless of their genre classification of the film, will agree that Hannibal Lecter, the iconic composed and crafty cannibal from the mind of author Thomas Harris, is one of the most frightening characters of all time. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the character is memorably chilling thanks to his distinguishing calm demeanor and slurping lips. I saw the movie years ago, and to this day I still have no desire to try fava beans or Chianti, no matter how nice the latter may be.

Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal occupied only a little over 16 minutes of the running time of “The Silence of the Lambs,” yet audiences were still scared out of their wits by the disconcerting villain. If you asked a 1991 audience member of the film if they could handle an entire television series devoted to the character, they would look at you like you had “Psycho” written across your forehead.

Lo and behold, NBC has given us “Hannibal.” The series premiered last year in April and just returned last week for its highly anticipated second season. I am among the massive legion of fans, and I must say that the latest episode certainly satisfied and made up for the eight-month-long wait. But how, you and I both ask, can a television series about a cannibal possibly garner such a loyal and enthusiastic following?

There’s a reason why Anthony Hopkins won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1991 even though he was barely in his film longer than Robert Duvall was in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Actors don’t win merely for being scary; they take home the gold for being intriguing. Heath Ledger’s Joker was wildly fascinating in his quirks and actions — have you ever heard of anyone setting money on fire? Audiences like to be fascinated. And it’s all the more fun if what we’re terrified by is what fascinates us.

Society is based on accepted norms. Once those norms are breached, a person is labeled as anomalous and subject for study. Eating people, for instance, goes against what society considers acceptable. For good reason. So then we wonder … why? TV allows for massive explanations of the “why.” Whereas film leaves us with questions, which is wonderful, television offers possible answers. NBC’s “Hannibal” is a prime example of this.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen portrays our modern Hannibal. He moves slowly through the scenes, subtly calculatingly, always watching everyone and everything with perceptive crescent eyes and quivering lips. We rarely see him kill his victims; we instead see meat sizzling and squishing during the cooking and plating processes in Hannibal’s spotless kitchen. It’s stomach-churning, yes. And then his people are served, and the guests invariably comment on the sumptuousness of the dish. Hannibal merely smiles and mutters some double entendre.

He is fascinating. The audience can never pinpoint our antagonist’s exact motivations, but the show leaves us with small glimpses into his psyche. Hannibal even attends therapy sessions and, in the most recent episode, called another main character in the show a “friend.” Ha! Hannibal cannot have friends! Or can he?

It’s the constant uncertainty about Hannibal that keeps viewers watching. What are his motivations? What does he really think about the people he has to work with? Are there any people he would refuse to butcher and eat? (This recalls Clarice’s claim in “The Silence of the Lambs” that Hannibal would not eat her because he would consider it rude.) Does he enjoy hiding behind a faade? These questions along with a multitude of others are raised in each episode, and yet whispers of potential conclusions are divulged almost nearly as frequently.

Our strange fascination with villains doesn’t stop at dear Hannibal. The second season of “Bates Motel,” a TV series about the early lives of Norman Bates and his mother — characters from the famed 1960 Hitchcock horror film Psycho — premiered March 3. Countless ongoing series about vampires flood our TV guide listings as they attempt to understand creatures that would forgo empathy for tastes of blood.

The appetite for psychopaths has gone beyond glimpses of their behavior to peeks into their psyches … creepy, huh?

If you’re not already a “fannibal,” I highly recommend checking out NBC’s interpretation of arguably the most famous fictional serial killer. You might be surprised by how much you like it. And you’ll find it fun to question why you do.

Emma Frey, Copy Editor

Tags:  Anthony Hopkins cannibal hannibal Mads Mikkelsen series silence of the lambs Thomas Harris

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