Warning: casual disregard for spoilers, as usual 😛
For the last few months a close friend of mine has been showing me Hannibal, which he describes as his favorite TV series. I read the Thomas Harris books Hannibal, Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Rising as a teenager and, in the second and third season, a very interesting relationship with the texts of those works is established.
It may also be helpful to mention that, when the first three seasons of Hannibal were shot, the creative team did not have access to the rights for Clarice Starling or much of the Silence of The Lambs material.
So, going into Hannibal, it has every appearance of being a prequel. After all, the story is before Will Graham’s capture of the title character. However, the writing of the show demonstrates an awareness of Clarice Starling as being a moral, logical opposite equal to Hannibal Lecter’s amorality and freedom from logic. This is present in Silence of The Lambs but it is at the center in the novel Hannibal. The novel is structured as a collision between the separate worlds of Clarice and Hannibal. And this alleged prequel show takes its name from that book.
Hannibal the TV show puts separation and conflict between subjectivity and objective reality in the foreground. In the first two seasons in particular, there are moments that seriously tempt you to wonder what is objectively going on and and what is an imaginative, non-literal construct.
Late in the first season, Will Graham has a drug-addled exchange with Abigail Hobbs and then there’s a slam cut to Will being somewhere else. What the cut was meant to imply was that Will blacked out and can’t remember what happened. What it at first looked like, though, is Will waking up from a dream. Then there’s a cut back to Abigail talking to Hannibal. At first, it looks like the show is cutting back to the dream Will just woke up from where stuff is still going on even though he’s awake.
In all fairness, what the cut is meant to signify (doubling back in the timeline before Will’s blackout) is not at all obvious. This might look like careless editing, but the dialogue and other sequences are so tightly written that I can’t get around thinking that the occasional blurred meanings are probably nothing short of deliberate. The line is especially easy to blur given the frequent usage of dreams and hallucinations.
Near the end of the second season, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the impression that Hannibal is a prequel. Mason and Margot Verger appear at this point, characters originally from the novel Hannibal who only enter the chronology of the books at the later stage.
The appearance of these characters, in and of itself, does not necessarily call anything into doubt. We’ve already met other characters from later in the chronology, like Frederick Chilton. But many of the events from the ending of the novel Hannibal happen, with dialogue from both the novel and the film.
Hannibal is taken to be fed to Mason’s pigs and he makes the same remark about how one of his handlers must smell “almost as bad” as his dead brother. Later, Will and Hannibal recreate a well-known exchange that he originally had with Clarice:
“Given the chance, you’d deny me my life, wouldn’t you?”
“No, just your freedom.”
Honestly, when Hannibal was rescued from the pigs, I was expecting Will to say “Do right and you’ll get out of this alive,” with Hannibal’s reply: “Spoken like a true Protestant.” They didn’t use that dialogue, but it would have worked.
So there is enough of Clarice’s transplanted dialogue in Will’s mouth, combined with the conversational cat and mouse with Hannibal, to make Will Graham look like a substitute for Clarice Starling. With the Clarice dialogue from the books and the movies, he seems almost like a literal gender flipped re-interpretation of Clarice like Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom (both males in the source material).
This whole topic of which character is channeling Clarice Starling is exacerbated even more when we see Hannibal fleeing on a plane in the company of Dr. Du Maurier, which seriously mirrors Hannibal eloping with Clarice at the end of the book.
So. The broken sequence of events tells us that Hannibal the TV show is less of a prequel and more of a ground-up re-imagining of the whole story. Clarice Starling getting split in half between Will and Du Maurier goes smoothly with the idea of a radical re-telling as well. Another word commonly used recently for this kind of re-telling is a reboot.
Lately I have also been watching the new Watchmen adaptation from HBO. Although Damon Lindelof, the producer and writer, has insisted that his version of Watchmen is not a reboot, it beats a lot of reboots at their own game.
One way that both Watchmen and Hannibal achieve this is through writing that clearly reflects a thoughtful reading and exchange with the source material. In fact, you could almost argue for the possibility that both of those shows contain a version of the original text within themselves.
Lindelof’s Watchmen definitely does, but you could also make a case for the same thing occurring in Hannibal. Dialogue from the novels are constantly used and the re-arranged chronology reflects a careful awareness of those novels.
Many of the events of the show are re-organized content from the books; the main innovation that Hannibal brings is the frank discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity. It dwells on tension between perception and forensic analysis- if you wanted to go full lit-crit, you could say that it’s about seeing or, perhaps, reading.
The relationship with the source material in Lindelof’s Watchmen, though, is far more lucid. As someone who absolutely adores the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this delighted me. Watchmen the graphic novel is all about language and how belief, popular wisdom and the idea of documented fact is explored. In other words, how language and perception shape reality.
There are multiple texts-within-texts, many of which are placed between chapters. There are excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoir, psychiatric medical documents relating to Rorschach, in-world academic papers, in-world interviews and a whole other in-world comic. The intertextual nature of the world building is emphasized even more with how Rorschach is originally positioned as a narrator and how the reader comes to doubt his reliability. In fact, his narrations are nothing but excerpts from his journal, another in-world text.
One way that Damon Lindelof’s adaptation preserves this literary device- while simultaneously connecting that device to the show’s relationship with the graphic novel -is an in-world TV series called American Hero Story.
American Hero Story is, quite simply, a representation of the graphic novel within the TV show. For example, only very few people in the graphic novel knew about the romance between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, almost no one. In the new adaptation, it is frankly spelled out in American Hero Story. This strongly suggests that the average person in the world of the TV show knows about this. In another episode, a young FBI agent with a passion for the history of the Minutemen, casually relates the story of Laurie Juspeczyk’s parentage. The reveal of the identity of Laurie’s father was a huge dramatic event in the book but, like the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, is common knowledge in the world of the TV show.
This all adds up to tell us that the average person, in the TV show’s fictional universe, knows everything that a real-life reader of the graphic novel would. So the events of American Hero Story function as a representative of the original graphic novel within the show…and that graphic novel had multiple in-world documents within itself. Yo dawg… 😛
There are other more understated, thematic bells and whistles, such as Hooded Justice being inspired, in part, by a Superman comic. Then there are more overt reminders of the present of the TV show being inspired by its past, the comic. There is a white supremacist terrorist network inspired by the words and example of Rorschach. They are not just inspired by his publicized actions- they actually quote from his journal, which itself constitutes text from the original comic.
Between the manifested legacy of Rorschach embodied by the Seventh Kalvary and the portrayal in the graphic novel, though, there are fascinating gray areas. For example, the character called Looking Glass. He wears a reflective mask which no other character equates with the Rorschach mask and he regularly pulls up the lower half to talk and eat, something readers of Watchmen the comic will instantly recognize as typical of Rorschach.
However, there is no reason why the characters in the TV show would know that. They have American Hero Story and Rorschach’s journal is circulated among white nationalists, but there is no reason why that particular mannerism of his would be known of.
Meaning that, while the world of the TV adaptation knows the general plot points of the original, we also see reflections of things they shouldn’t know about. Rorschach probably never wrote about his unshaven mouth and love of canned beans in his journal, after all. So there is one level of intertextual exchange- the popular wisdom of the TV show’s world -and something less meta, a connection that the characters know nothing of, but the writers and viewers do.
There are more explicable examples of the gap between text and reader as well. We get a glimpse of a scene from American Hero Story where Hooded Justice is outed as queer and forced to remove his mask, revealing a white actor. Later, the viewer learns that Hooded Justice was originally a black man.
Then there is the use of the colors black and white as a thematic device. In the racial sense as well as the abstract sense. This immediately reminded me of the graphic novel’s chapter called Fearful Symmetry, which made frequent use of panels with alternating color patterns. The character Sister Night says, early on, that if any bit of yolk is allowed into egg whites, the whites are ruined. She even tells her son, Topher, that people like to fill the world with all kinds of fake colors but she and him both know that the only colors are black and white.
This kind of dialogue smacks of Rorschach, which I found ironic. When the first trailers dropped, we saw a brief glimpse of Sister Night in a police station saying she has a guy in her trunk. The casual police brutality, combined with what looked like a face paint domino mask, made me wonder if this was a re-imagining of The Comedian. Then in the TV show, we receive more visual cues equating her with Nite Owl. The riffs on Fearful Symmetry continue in the episode when we see the original Hooded Justice receive face paint around his eyes and nose bridge to make it look like he’s white under the hood.
I guess one question this begs is…what exactly does this kind of sensitivity to the text add? The biggest gain I can think of is more reverence for the source material and more freedom to explore one’s own interpretation of it. You can do more while acknowledging the authority of the originals than you can with a straightforward, note-for-note adaptation.
And by reverence I mean…acknowledgement of the influence while maintaining a respectful distance. The original ideas are present and influential, but still have a distinct degree of separation from the derivative product allowing for interpretive freedom. If the reader or the viewer can perceive the influence of the original while understanding that the current interpretation is not a literal,word-for-word recreation, more room for imagination opens up. You could almost call it a more frank display of the dialogue between the original text and its readers.