Hannibal: A Critical Awakening

his mythological aspect, relies upon mystery and a vacuum of motivation in order to sustain weight and relevance: Not only should Hannibal not be motivated in terms of his cannibalism and more general tendencies towards violence,

George Daniel lea

Hannibal: A Critical Awakening, A My Life In Horror by George Daniel Lea

Hannibal: A Critical Awakening

Formative experience fascinates me

Those times, those moments, that resonate forever after they occur, shaping the conditions of our minds and imaginations. 

For all its flaws, Ridley Scott’s grand guignol horror-opera adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal is one such experience: 

Having been a horror fan all my life, it had nevertheless been a rare experience for me to see horror films at the cinema, owing to my youth and the prohibitions of film classification in the UK. Hannibal hit screens when I turned 18 years old and was thus the first 18 certificate film I ever saw on the big screen. 

The experience stays with me still, not merely due to any qualities in the film itself, but also that strange alchemy of being that age at that time under those circumstances. 

Fascinatingly, my experience of the book -some years before- marked an entirely other formative moment: 

The awakening of critical faculty.

When we’re children, we ravenously devour and absorb any fare we’re provided: It doesn’t matter that this cartoon or that comic aren’t particularly good examples of the media; we absorb and adore them regardless because they exist, and we haven’t yet developed the suite of experience and faculty to discern what is more or less technically apt. 

The original book of Hannibal I find to be a marker of the awakening of that faculty; the moment when I learned I could be disappointed, frustrated, and even upset by the lack of quality in work I consumed. 

Once again, age and circumstance play a significant part in that experience: I was fifteen years old at the time, on what would be the last of our family holidays to the island of Ibiza. Already a fairly troubled teenager, suffering from congenital insomnia, anxiety and depression, I spent most of the time in the hotel apartment reading the many books and comics I’d bought with me. Having devoured them before the halfway point of the fortnight, I looked instead to my Mother’s store of thrillers and horror novels, amongst which was the newly-released hardback of Hannibal. Having already read and enjoyed Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs,  I was immediately enticed by the Thomas Harris title. 

For a week and a half, I found myself accompanying special agent Clarice Starling on her descent into ignominy and eventual corruption, the laughably, absurdly irredeemable Mason Verger in his efforts to capture and wreak sadistic revenge on the eponymous Doctor, troubled Detective Rinaldo Pazzi in his misplaced efforts in seeking to restore his fallen honour, and finally, Hannibal Lecter himself, in an incarnation that is sadly overreaching, over-exposed and layered with a Freudian motivation that dissolves the near-supernatural, demonic mystique he’s inhabited up to this point. 

I recall coming away from the novel with a new and alien sense of frustration; one I initially lacked the language to articulate and required time to digest. 

Lost, as I often was, in my own head, I spent much of the rest of the holiday trying to work out my feelings regarding the book, and why they came tinged with barbed and bitter negativity.

The problem was not the writing;

As always, Harris displays a certain frenetic economy, in which events are relayed in an almost documentary manner. The problem, I came to realise, was how profoundly core characters in the series conflicted with their portrayals and my preconceptions of them up to now: 

Even from a cursory reading of the previous book, it’s clear that a significant part of Lecter’s interest in Clarice Starling relies upon her particular strain of stoic purity; as is made explicit by Hannibal himself -as well as several other characters-, she is a “straight arrow;” inviolable, unswervable. In that, she represents an ideological antithesis to Hannibal, who, as Mason Verger correctly puts it, is fascinated and enthused by degradation, desperation and the extremes of behaviour that result from extreme circumstances.

Clarice Starling is fascinating to him much like the Will Graham of Bryan Fuller’s seminal TV adaptation is fascinating to its particular Hannibal: She is a rarity, an artefact of peculiar quality that, ideologically, is contrary to Hannibal himself, yet also redolent of him (just as Starling inhabits her own state of ideological purity, so too does Hannibal. It just so happens that the parameters, assumptions and manifestations of that “purity” are markedly different). 

Yet, in the closing chapters of Thomas Harris’s novel, we see that dynamic utterly undone: Hannibal manages to corrupt the incorruptible, first through coercion, then via an extremely dubious and troubling submission. Clarice Starling becomes just another tainted soul, and thereby commits a strange species of suicide: 

The very basis of her relationship with Hannibal is fundamentally subverted, yet the novel seems blithely unaware of this, presenting the scenario in markedly romantic terms. For Clarice and Hannibal, this is supposed to be a “happy ending.” Yet, it has the effect of confusing, disappointing and alienating the reader, as it simply doesn’t make thematic sense. 

Though I lacked the appropriate contexts and language at the time of my original reading to articulate that confusion and disappointment, it became apparent and somewhat crystallised after watching Ridley Scott’s cinema adaptation a few years later: 

The Book

Hannibal book cover

The book, as Anthony Hopkins himself has said, is somewhat “overreaching;” florid with ideas and notions that Harris himself doesn’t particularly understand or conceive of adequately. Amongst these is a subplot involving Hannibal’s back story, his history as a Lithuanian aristocrat, and the murder and subsequent cannibalisation of his sister Mischa, which becomes the sole motivating factor for his own idiosyncratic species of sadism. 

On top of the thematic and dynamic problems the book poses for Hannibal and Starling’s relationship, this attempt to couche Hannibal in simplistic, human, Freudian terms, has the effect of critically undermining the character on a mythological level: 

Previously, Hannibal operated as a mythological entity in stories and settings that insist upon conditions of mundane reality: He is a demonic figure of nigh supernatural capacity operating in realities that are too chaotic and lacking in poetry to accommodate him. That is the core of his appeal and the basis of his operation. Related to that factor is the obvious juxtaposition he presents as a man of learning, poise, cultivation and exquisite taste, yet who is also a brutal sadist who delights in pain, mutilation and cruelty.

The Luciferian aspect of Hannibal

The Luciferian aspect of Hannibal is clear, especially given the allusions to Romantic metaphysics; to Blake and Dante that recur throughout the films and novels (and which arguably find their apotheosis in the TV show). That seeming contradiction; the man who is simultaneously all that is best in human civilisation and all that is worst in our animal essences, elicits a frisson born of reluctant taboo:

Hannibal, by his nature and operation, is a commentary on the innate hypocrisies of our “civilisations,” in that, he manifests everything essential within them, from the -ostensibly- most ascended to the most base and draws no distinction between one mode of expression or another (morality is of no concern to him; only aesthetics). 

That, alongside his mythological aspect, relies upon mystery and a vacuum of motivation in order to sustain weight and relevance: Not only should Hannibal not be motivated in terms of his cannibalism and more general tendencies towards violence, but doing so fundamentally undoes the ideological core of the character and renders him impotent, which is how we find the Hannibal of the eponymous novel. 

The Ridley Scott film adaptation, for all of its sins, does away with those issues completely. It subtly sidesteps any subplots involving Hannibal’s personal history, thereby avoiding the descent into psychoanalytic hokum, and also subtly rewrites the ending, providing one that, in its way, is equally revealing and romantic, yet maintains and escalates the fundamental dynamics of Clarice and Hannibal’s relationship. The Clarice of the film retains her purity, her -as Hannibal himself puts it- “incorruptibility,” yet also reveals -by dints of subtleties within Julianna Moore’s performance- that there is a level of intensity between them that equates to a strange species of love. 

The Film

The film walks a fine line with its themes and characters; exacting pains are taken to diminish -or excise entirely- the more problematic elements of the original novel (Harris’s penchant for extremely problematic trans characters, for example, first manifested in The Silence of the Lambs’ “Buffalo Bill” and here in the troubling stereotype of Margot Verger), retaining the essential unknowns and mysteries that make them what they are. 

The film also understands that explicitly motivating its characters in a Freudian manner undermines their essential mystique; renders characters that have mythological patina dreary and mundane. Starling and Hannibal remain remarkably pure in their own peculiar fashions by the film’s climax, whereas the book collapses thematically under the weight of its own ideas. 

On a personal level, both book and film coincide with key moments in my own development; the book with regards to the arousal of critical faculty, the ability to parse and articulate why work fails to resonate for me, the film marking the transition into adulthood, not to mention that point at which my tastes and responses differed markedly from those of general culture (the film is generally lambasted in critical circles, regarded as a poor sequel to The Silence of The Lambs). 

Along with my abiding and intense love affair with the Bryan Fuller TV show, it’s remarkable how significant this franchise has become in my life and how varied its significance is throughout. 

Undoubtedly, there will be new instalments and adaptations; new films and TV series at some point. I can’t help but wonder what forms this most chimeric of mythologies might take, and if they will resonate as profoundly as those that have come before. 

George Daniel Lea 31/05/2023

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