The Most Important Stories Told on Hannibal Were the Ones it Didn’t Tell
NBC’s Hannibal, like the novels and movies it was based on, was gruesome, disgusting, heartbreaking, and beautiful. It was a show that made a meal out of men and made it look delicious. The show that ended its three year run on Saturday told the story of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI agent Will Graham. One of friendship, betrayal, and love. At it’s heart, Hannibal was a love story steeped in a twisted tragedy and sprinkled with murder. But even though this was a story about men trapping serial killers (and in one case being a serial killer), the most important stories were the ones it never told.
Hannibal never aired a rape scene. Hannibal never even had a serial killer who outright raped his victims, even when the source material (The Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris) called for it. Here in it’s third (and sadly, final) season NBC’s Hannibal told the story of the Red Dragon, a story that had been told on paper once, and in movies twice (once in 1986’s Manhunter and again in 2002’s Red Dragon). In each retelling Francis Dollarhyde brutally murders two families in their homes and rapes the wife/mother as she dies. It’s disturbing and disgusting and sadly expected. Hannibal took a different approach. They eliminated the rape. Did it make the murders less important? No. Did it take away from the brutality? Absolutely not. Did it cheapen the show? Quite the opposite.
Last year there was an epic eye roll when True Detective told the story of a woman brutalized, raped, and murdered – oh wait, it told the stories of the cops who kind of solved her murder. This year Game of Thrones – who had never shied away from a pair of unnecessary boobs – drew outright outrage when teenager Sansa Stark was raped on her wedding night and the focus was not on her but on the man who it affected. Rape on television has become too common.
Hannibal’s showrunner Bryan Fuller said in a Q&A with Entertainment Weekly,
“There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience. The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous.”
Even though his source material directly called for the rape of two women, Fuller never used it. He saw it as a tool used by media to frighten, when the tale he was telling was frightening enough. He describes rape storylines almost as a cop-out because of the level of seriousness it requires and fear it instills in the audience. It is a level that cannot be reached in the time limit television imposes (tell that to Law and Order: SVU who manages to tell rape stories five hundred times per day in syndication).
This coming from a man whose entire show is about a cannibal. He gives the simplest explanation as to why, “[T]here’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing. I can totally get behind cannibalism and have fun with it. But rape? Not so much.” Given the backlash Thrones and True Detective faced, Fuller’s choice stemmed as much from his own discomfort as from the audience’s. At their Comic-Con panel in July Fuller, his executive producer, Martha DeLaurentiis, and stars Hugh Dancy and Richard Armitage were thanked by an audience member for not telling rape stories, and the rest of the audience applauded. Fuller read the room, and did right by them – and it wasn’t the first time.
In the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook massacre Fuller felt the “cultural climate” change in the United States, and asked NBC to pull an episode in which a deranged killer brainwashes children to kill each other. Fuller told Variety, “It was the association that came with the subject matter that I felt would inhibit the enjoyment of the overall episode. It was my own sensitivity.” This is a showrunner who cares as deeply for his audience as he does for his show. He knew that in pulling the episode (which never aired) the show itself would lose nothing. He knew that he could risk not only losing his audience, but making them despise him in the process. He made the right call, and he continued to do so for the next two seasons.
Seeing the show end before ever hearing Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter ever say, “Helloooo Clarice” was a blow felt by fans who wanted to see a new Clarice meet their (maybe?) favorite Dr. Lecter. This is due in part to MGM owning the rights to the story Silence of the Lambs, and in part to the story between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter being unfinished. Fuller, Dancy, and Mikkelsen are committed to the story and have all agreed to return should the opportunity arise . Let’s hope it does. Let’s hope that we get to see where their next meal will be served, and who will be on the menu.
By choosing instead to focus on making the best show possible, rather than the most sensational, made Hannibal one of the most entertaining and stylish shows on television. Personally, I’m sad to see it go. I’m sad that I can’t watch Hannibal Lecter make pastrami out of (human) leg meat. I’m sad that TV has lost one of the beautiful shows ever to air – whether on cable or network. Most of all I’m sad that in losing Hannibal we, the audience, are losing a creator and his team who truly cared for their viewers, who never took the easy way out, and who knew that horror doesn’t have to be close-to-home to scare – it just has to look good.