The Impenetrable Darkness of “Hannibal”


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 a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).

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