Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fuller’s Unfinished Symphony: HANNIBAL begins its Third Movement

When it was announced that Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) was making a TV series about Hannibal Lecter, I was skeptical. An ongoing narrative about the cannibal psychiatrist? It seemed like a concept that wouldn’t work. It seemed like another show that was using name recognition to sell it, rather than a compelling story.

Thomas Harris’ first two novels that featured Hannibal Lecter, "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs", had both been turned into films – Manhunter in 1986 and Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Lambs won five Oscars and is still the only horror movie to win Best Picture. If, indeed, you think it fits neatly into the horror genre.

(Also, Silence of the Lambs is in my top five films of all time and it has influenced a lot of my writing - if only by learning that you can use genre tropes to tell compelling human stories.)

But the books, and the adaptation of the books, had taken a turn for the worse. Harris didn’t want to continue the story of Hannibal and Clarice Starling, so his novel titled "Hannibal" twisted that relationship to breaking point. They didn’t seem quite like the same characters anymore, least of all FBI Agent Clarice Starling. The prequel novel and film, "Hannibal Rising", did nothing to persuade us that these characters were worth exploring beyond the first two books.

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter
As soon as the first episode aired, I changed my tune. Actually, based on the premise and the casting of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), I reconsidered the series’ potential. The first season is one of the strongest first seasons of television I’ve ever seen, and I was effusive with praise.

The series certainly plays on our expectations – it takes that name recognition and turns it on its head. It’s a prequel series that doesn’t play by the rules. It takes events only hinted at in the first novel, "Red Dragon", and fleshes them out into season long narrative arcs.

Season two built on the promise of the first, continuing to explore Harris’ characters – by being both faithful to the characters as written, but also by upending our expectations. It’s not just that Fuller changed the race or gender of several characters, but he teased at parts of the story we knew and turned them in different directions. The fate of Freddie Lounds in "Red Dragon" (and the two film versions of that story) is explicitly shown in season two – but in a different context. Freddie lives. Her fate on the show is not yet decided.

Now that the third season has begun, getting closer to what feels inevitable – Lecter’s incarceration and the explicit plot of "Red Dragon" – Fuller and his writers are subverting expectations even more. Three episodes in and we’re seeing elements of the third book mixed with the fourth book and placed before the events of the first. A character that barely appears in "Hannibal Rising" became a central figure of episode three.

Bryan Fuller, when talking about his approach to telling this story, describes the process as Thomas Harris DJ mashup. He takes dialogue and character, plot and circumstance, and repurposes them. Bedelia Du Maurier, an original character to the show, is in the Clarice Starling role of late "Hannibal" (the novel). Detective Pazzi is tracking Hannibal (and the Butcher of Florence) before Lecter is incarcerated, not after he escapes.

Thomas Harris DJ mashup doesn’t quite do the series justice, because in a way, the execution – pardon the pun – is more like a symphony. Fuller has planned out five movements and the show has reached its climactic third movement. While the sound design and score of the show is like nothingelse on film and television, Fuller uses a lot of very specific symphonies and operatic tunes to convey the world his Lecter lives in. This has been particularly apparent with Lecter and Bedelia currently living in Florence, with a brief sojourn to Paris in the third season opener, “Antipasto”.

“Antipasto” used music from the first act of Don Pasquale by Donizetti :

Sweet and chaste dream 
from my early years, farewell. 
I longed for wealth and splendor 
just for you, my love: 
poor, abandoned, 
fallen to a low state, 
ere seeing you miserable, 
dear, I must renounce you.

By episode three, we’re up to act three of the same opera:

Turn to me and tell me you love me, 
tell me that you are mine,
when you call me your beloved
life redoubles in me.
Your voice, so dear,
revives the oppressed heart:
safe while close to you,
I tremble when far from you.

For a show that ostensibly began as a crime procedural, it has evolved through a psychological cat and mouse game to an operatic story of love and obsession. The tagline of the book "Red Dragon" and the film Manhunter is:

Enter the mind of a serial killer... you may never come back.

That was always the danger for Will Graham in the book and the movies. In the TV series, the dramatic tension is about whether he’s already gone too far. Much of the second season plays with the notion that Will is working with Hannibal – and nothing in season three really works to disabuse us of this notion.

Knowing that actor Richard Armitage has been cast in the role of the Tooth Fairy (played in Manhunter by Tom Noonan and in Red Dragon by Ralph Fiennes), we can see the story is hurtling towards more familiar territory. We might be in the middle of a story of Hannibal Lecter in the wild but Will Graham’s moment of truth – and moment of triumph – seems to be at hand. Lecter might well be behind bars soon.

And yet nothing is really certain in Fuller’s Symphony with the devil. I read a great theory recently that the events of Harris’ "Red Dragon" could be told without Lecter behind bars. Would he play with the canon that much? Or are viewers eager to see the character behind bars? Perhaps, with Lecter in Baltimore’s Institute for the Criminally Insane, it might allow Will Graham to come back from the mind of a serial killer. But with this series, who knows?

Today it was announced that NBC, which broadcast the first three seasons of Hannibal, would not be renewing the series for a fourthseason. As producers, the De Laurentiis Company said, a show with this subject matter was always in danger of being cancelled. But they also said there were other avenues being explored. Amazon has an exclusive deal to stream the show once it’s aired on NBC, and they are always looking for new content. Netflix has saved cancelled shows before.

In this new age of television and streaming content, TV shows aren’t ever really cancelled. Most are allowed the dignity of enough time to finish. Bryan Fuller has already touted has crazy plans for a fourth season (no details, except to say it would explore Hannibal and Will’s relationship is more depth than any other story), even before NBC’s announcement. And we know he has five seasons planned. (At some point, he wants to tell the Silence of the Lambs story, but MGM owns the rights to Clarice Starling – so he might have to mash up Harris’ work enough for the lawyers not to notice.)

Fuller has also said that this third season ends with another “mic drop” moment – just like the end of the first two seasons. I’m not sure he can quite top the second season finale, which left most of the good guys for dead (the fates of some are still up in the air), but if this season is indeed the last, any cliffhanger – even a small one – will seem monumental if the series just stops.

Gutav Mahler’s Symphony Number 10 was unfinished when he passed away in 1911. Like Fuller’s Hannibal, it is a symphony in five movements. Its third movement is titled “Purgatorio oder Inferno” – and this season of Hannibal has explicitly referenced Dante and Hell. But while Hannibal Lecter dances around Florence, it’s not the titular character who suffers in purgatory – it is the audience (and the writer) who must wait in the seventh circle of televisual hell for divine intervention.

Or Amazon. Or Netflix. Or Showtime. So that Fuller may complete his masterwork – a Thomas Harris mashup opera.

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