I want to talk about Hannibal Lecter. I also want to talk about fictional universes, because they're so much better than this stupid universe where no one has super powers and we can't travel faster than the speed of light. And, on top of that, I want to look at what happens when different creators get a crack at the same material.
This is going to be a mess.
Why talk about Hannibal? Maybe it's my love of cooking. Maybe it's that he's a fellow health care professional. At least partially, it's because of the surprising way one of my favorite fictional universes may have been eaten by him.
There are at least four Hannibals. There's the print version of Hannibal from the Thomas Harris books, there's the movie Hannibal that made Anthony Hopkins into Sir Anthony Hopkins 2.0, and there's the television Hannibal that is, obviously, the best dressed of the three. Sadly, there's also Young Hannibal from the film "Hannibal Rising", that may have, at some point, been released to theaters. It explores the carefree teen years of one of the most determined chefs in pop-culture history.
Hannibal in print is a bit of a moving target. In The Red Dragon, he's a plot device that's a bit more interesting than the plot itself. There's nothing wrong with that. Red Dragon was meant to be a crime thriller, and it thrilled with crime. Looking back at the book, Thomas Harris must have realized that a brilliant psychiatrist who eats people is more interesting than an unattractive photo-technician who shoots people because Hannibal moved on to be a larger plot device in Harris's next book, "Silence of the Lambs". You could go so far as to suggest he was a full fledged character. Still, he was second fiddle to a guy who was tailoring a suit from people, loved moths, and that's it. That's his whole thing. Person suit. Moths.
This left the world longing for a massive dose of Hannibal that came with his very own book! The book! It was big, thick, and years in the making. Thomas Harris did exhaustive research which required many tax deductible trips to Europe. It had a red cover and answered the question of where Hannibal came from, where he was going, and why literary Hannibal works best as a supporting character. Now that Hannibal has a great big book all to himself, he's still a plot device. He's whoever he needs to be to keep the story moving. He's a guy who rescues people, he's a guy who eats people's brains while they're still alive, he's a guy who knows his art. He has a comic book style arch nemesis who is...um...trying to feed him to special, Hannibal eating pigs? It's a rich guy who is evil, which for some reason made Hannibal try to kill him years before, but Hannibal didn't kill him, he just maimed him, so he seeks revenge and, wait, is Hannibal a good guy now? He's in love, so he must be a good guy.
Did I mention rich pig raising guy likes to make children sad and drink their tears? Really. That's in there too.
By the end of it, Hannibal is a super cool, mysterious vampire who lives in a castle with his other, now former, arch nemesis/love of his life Clarice Starling, whom he's also turned into a vampire too. Only where I wrote "vampire", substitute "cannibal". And I guess they eat townsfolk, but, um...maybe only the bad ones?
Whatever the three books were, they were the first Hannibal universe. They explore a lot of territory. Also, Thomas Harris has sold about three billion more books than I have, so maybe he knows better than I do.
Moving right along. Movie Hannibal also didn't understand right away that a cannibal psychiatrist was pop culture gold. Hannibal was just a squirrely supporting character in the first movie based on Thomas Harris's book, "Red Dragon", renamed "Man Hunter" so the unwashed masses wouldn't be expecting a dragon.
It was fine.
Then Anthony Hopkins took a crack at it in "Silence of the Lambs", and he and Jodie Foster skipped off into the sunset happily having established the character in cinema history for as long as the earth shall live. (He couldn't have pulled it off without Jody to play off of. Just sayin'.)
Hopkins next helped squeeze every cinematic nickel out of the character in a remake of the Red Dragon and a movie version of Hannibal, which critics agreed was "Inevitable!". I saw both and have vague memories of Hannibal in a t-shirt and some kind of chains in one and walking down a street in another.
They were fine. I think they ran into the problem that popular properties often run into, in that you can't experiment too much or you risk losing your audience. (Let's have a moment of silence for anyone who touches another Star Wars movie project with a fresh idea in mind.)
But, what happens when that property isn't so popular anymore, and your audience is made up of that tiny part of the world that likes to see some experimentation? Then you get Hannibal, the one on TV, that struggled through three seasons of great work and a tiny audience. The TV Hannibal can cook! Damn the food looked amazing! I would have dinner with that Hannibal in a heartbeat.
I don't recall a single scene that made people look delicious in any of the movies or books. Seems like an obvious route.
While Anthony Hopkins knows how to use a few minutes on a giant screen to the best advantage, Mads Mikkelsen knows how to use hours of a television show to charm an audience while eating people RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM! How do you do that?
I'm going to confess right now, I learned to tie a tie like TV Hannibal.
But this post is also about universes, and the universe of the TV show is bigger than most viewers would know.
Show runner Brian Fuller, who for my money is the best universe builder in the television world (Sorry Joss Whedon), loves to put bits of his other shows into one another. "Dead Like Me", "Wonder Falls", "Pushing Daisies" are a few of his better known by me shows. They all have little elements that cross over with one another. Now, all three of those shows exist in a world where magic kind of exists. "Dead Like Me" is about people who die and return to life as grim reapers who guide souls after death. "Wonder Falls" is about a twenty something being told by talking animals to do crazy things or risk drastic consequences. "Pushing Daisies" is about a pie maker whose touch brings back the dead.
Am I digressing? I'm not! Because all of these cross over with Hannibal! The biggest crossover is where an actual Wonder Falls character shows up for a key part in the second episode of the show. and references the events in Wonder Falls. What I think is an ever cooler cross over though, is that the lead from "Dead Like Me" plays a character, who believes she's dead, on Hannibal. It kind of implies that her life in "Dead Like Me" was a delusion. This leads to the thought that maybe all of Fuller's previous magical shows are the delusions of characters who live in Hannibal's own, magical universe. (And it is magical. Killers aren't just making suits out of people, they're making giant sculptures that would take a team of people to erect. It's just a far darker magic than pie makers and Gen whY angst).
Or, maybe it's all the same magical universe, just with darker spots and lighter spots?
Either way, TV Hannibal is by far the most intriguing of all the Hannibals. It also makes cannibalism seem a little more acceptable, as long as it's gourmet cannibalism. So, if you want a good universe, watch all those little shows first and then watch Hannibal. What else were you going to do with that hundred hours of your life?
Thanks for reading. I'm going to go try to write a book for a while and get this universe of my own going.