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The Impenetrable Darkness of "Hannibal" Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 02 June 2014

I’ve been in media all my adult life, and I’ve done a lot of reviewing: books, films, and television programs. One consequence of this is a certain familiarity with the range of creative content, from the great to the ghastly, and like a lot of people who do what I do, I have a taste for both.

But beginning about a decade ago, I began to lose my appreciation of two of the most popular genres: horror and comedy. I refer mostly to contemporary versions of both.

Hitchcock’s Psycho remains among the movies I most admire, and I’ve probably seen it six times. (That’s nothing: I’ve seen The Adventures of Robin Hood – the 1938 version with Flynn and de Havilland – at least fifty times.) And I like the early Woody Allen films, although I’m especially fond of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, such as The Philadelphia Story, although that was 1940.

Like many readers and viewers, I like a good murder mystery. The first oeuvre I devoured as a kid was the Sherlock Holmes canon. Other fine writers, including the sainted G.K. Chesterton, have dabbled in or even devoted themselves to constructing cases of mayhem and the detectives who solve them, although I’ve never been sure – to cite Arthur Conan Doyle’s case – if the writer admires more his sleuth or his slayer: Holmes or Moriarty.

A few years back – not so few, I realize, because the past speeds away – I had the chance to meet Thomas Harris. He is the literary genius behind the most remarkable villain of the last half-century, Hannibal Lecter. I recommend Silence of the Lambs. The book is actually better than the film, although Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance as Dr. Lecter was truly remarkable, notable especially for its restraint, its stillness. The film swept all the major categories at the 64th Academy Awards.

When Harris wrote the third of his Lecter books, Hannibal, it was – or so I’m given to understand – his way of killing off the series without actually killing off the cannibalistic psychiatrist. (Will evil never end? Well, no.) Hannibal and Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs and by Julianne Moore in the film version of Hannibal) go off into the sunset (well, to Argentina) together.

The FBI agent and the serial killer she has pursued settle down in a hacienda of their very own. Mr. Harris expected – or so I’m given to understand – that people (maybe even movie producers) would be so fed up by that outrage that they’d stop clamoring for more sequels and prequels. (It’s why Miss Foster refused to reprise her role.)

But Dino de Laurentiis, who bought the rights to the character, decided to do a prequel (with or without any contribution from Harris), so Harris wrote Hannibal Rising, which became a film of the same name. It was a good idea, really: How did Hannibal become Hannibal?


      Mr. Miner (left) and Thomas Harris in 2006

When I met Mr. Harris, I did not have a chance to ask him any detective questions of my own to get a sense of the man’s view of the world: of his politics, his prejudices, his faith or lack of it. I can say that I found him utterly delightful, a man of wit and warmth. I admired his belief, so clear in Silence of the Lambs, that evil is real and not always reducible to mental illness.

So I don’t blame him for the recent television adaptation of his first Lecter book, Red Dragon, airing now for two seasons as Hannibal. The name has become a brand. How many parents give their sons that name these days?

Harris’ name appears among the credits, but he has had – or so I’m given to understand – little to do with the TV series, which takes network television to new levels of violence, gore, and – I must say – depravity. I didn’t watch it as it has aired on NBC but just finished a marathon of seasons one and two via Amazon Instant Video, and I’m upset enough about what I saw to need to write about it.

But I must be honest: it is among the very remarkably well-written, sharply directed, and visually stunning programs I’ve ever seen on American television. You may know Mads Milkkelsen (as Lecter) from his role as the villain (Le Chiffre) in Casino Royale, my candidate for the best Bond bad guy in the best James Bond film. Mikkelsen’s angular face and his heavy-lidded eyes. . .these alone should have driven Hannibal up the dial to paid cable. Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne are also superb as the sleuths.

All murder mysteries, although there’s little mystery in Hannibal, are morality tales in some sense, or they ought to be. Maybe in season three the sort of retributive justice that used to be a staple in Hollywood will come crashing down on Hannibal Lecter. Certainly somebody needs to kill or capture this sonuvabitch before he kills and eats another ten or a hundred more human beings.

Tales of murder, from The Tell-Tale Heart to The Big Sleep, have almost always ended with justice having been served – and not as a light supper! So far it seems, only God will deliver the evil Lecter to his punishment, because Hannibal is simply smarter than everybody else; always two – no, ten – steps ahead of the good guys, whose own virtues are questionable. One “lesson” of Hannibal is that to catch a killer you may have to be a killer. Even then. . .

It’s rare to see darkness in which there is simply no light. That’s the depravity of Hannibal. Playing a demon, Lecter speaks of God, but only to mock Him.

But there is a light that shines in the darkness, even if many filmmakers are no longer able to see it. And if they can’t, it may be because the darkness itself, or himself, has given them talent – in exchange for their souls.


 
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio and as an iPhone app.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
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written by Briana, June 02, 2014
My sister loves that show and never shuts up about it.
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written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, June 02, 2014
Hannibal come from hanni-baal, the glory of Baal. That "god" was the baby-eater god of the Carthaginians and of some of the original peoples of Palestine, Lebanon, etc. The resurgence in pop culture of that monster is evidence that we are facing a gathering of demonic forces in our midst.
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written by Myshkin, June 02, 2014
um … I understand your personal need to write about this gory TV show … But what's it got to do with "The Catholic Thing"? You never even touch on what a Roman Catholic perspective might be on this sort of crap.

Seriously, this belongs in some other venue … or your desk drawer ...
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written by Bill Hocter, June 02, 2014
Well, obviously, if you killed him off or got him (permanently) arrested, the show would be over. To be fair, from a Catholic perspective, the Devil still runs free as well. It's not over til it's over. Hope that comes soon.
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written by grump, June 02, 2014
Murder as entertainment always seems to thrill the American public. Perhaps it is because as a nation, America, grew out of violence.

In the video clip provided, we see high-fiving over a corpse, a macabre scene to say the least. Eating someone's liver with a side of fava beans and a fine chianti evokes a grim but fascinating picture indeed. In the age-old battle of Evil vs. Good, Evil is not only still way ahead but also guarantees excellent TV ratings.

Gory TV shows including Games of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and True Detective are among the highest rated. Sex and violence are a winning combination in a warped society and always will be. No doubt Hannibal will be a big hit and the franchise has a bright future ahead.
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written by Brad Miner, June 02, 2014
Grump: Just to be sure we understand: the video is what they call a 'gag reel,' a.k.a. bloopers from filming the program. Always a good thing to recall that no corpses are actually desecrated in the making of "hannibal."
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written by Schm0e, June 02, 2014
I thought the title of this piece was "Impeachable Offense", and clicked hopefully. When I got the part that equated new lows in gore with art, I tuned out. What you have just read is abridged response to such provocative nonsense. I suppose a lifetime in media will do that to someone.
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written by Sam Schmitt, June 02, 2014
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."
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written by melanie statom, June 02, 2014
These spectacles of violent depravity are a toxic, cancerous lie incarnated in film and served up as unholy communion bread for the most vulnerable. Not one among is immune to the effects of contact with such evil, and can experience untold suffering on a spiritual, mental and bodily level. Radiation poisoning can kill, so too can this. There is a reason Jesus has us pray, " Deliver us from evil".
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written by maineman, June 02, 2014
Well, at the risk of sounding preachy, I wonder about the wisdom of the whole enterprise of reading, seeing, or listening to the works of Satan. I always thought the Best Picture award for SOL was a poor prognostic indicator for America.

The Devil always has something enticing to offer, and in these instances it seems to be a compelling story, a morality play, and some elements of what makes for good art. But what can it mean when beauty gets overlooked as a criterion for the artistic, so that something that lacks it is considered great?

And isn't it a form of arrogance to think that we can engage our own morbid impulses and play footsie with Satan without paying a price?
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written by grump, June 02, 2014
Brad, now that I realize it's a "gag," I'm hard pressed to force a yuk but I managed a slight one. As for the funny side of death, I recall the epitaph on a tombstone: "I told you I was sick!"
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written by Adam Boson Jr, July 17, 2014
WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH "THE CATHOLIC THING"?
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written by Brad Miner, July 17, 2014
Dear Adam:

IT HAS TO DO WITH THE DESCENT OF MASS MEDIA INTO THE CELEBRATION OF EVIL. Okay?

-ABM

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