Though Hannibal is an abysmal failure of a film, I’m incredibly grateful that it exists if only as proof positive that Ridley Scott is fallible and therefore mortal. Much like Ready Player One, it humanizes one of my favourite directors and demonstrates that we don’t have to be defined by our failures. Which is good in Mr. Scott’s case, because it is, as the kids say these days, a whopper. (Unlike Vincent Vega who probably wouldn’t be inclined to use the same terminology, knowing his disdain for Burger King.) Hannibal is a direct sequel to the iconic The Silence of the Lambs, and while I didn’t expect it to reach the same heights as its predecessor, I also didn’t anticipate the depths to which it would plunge.
Like all of the Hannibal Lector movies, this one was based on a book by Thomas Harris. I have yet to read any of the books in the Hannibal Lector series, but immediately after watching Hannibal, I felt compelled to look up an outline of the novel online, breaking one of my unwritten rules about indulging in spoilers for texts which I have not read/watched/listened to yet. But in this case my curiosity overcame me. There was no way that the story and plot of the Hannibal novel was this bad. This had to have been the work of Hollywood hacks hired by a secret cabal dedicated to destroying the life’s work of Thomas Harris by transforming his stories into nonsensical garbage for the screen.
How wrong I turned out to be.
After reading the synopsis of the Hannibal novel, I sat in stunned silence for some time, then read it again. And again. And again. To my growing dismay, the words didn’t change. Had I not known any better, I would have suspected that the summary of the plot of Harris’ original novel was a work of fan fiction by a rabid fan of The Silence of the Lambs who had failed every English class they’d ever been in. But, unfortunately, I am burdened with terrible knowledge. This was not the fever dream of some random fan with no understanding of character, story, or plot far removed from a basic understanding of the original characters; this was a professional author who spent eight years writing a sequel to a popular book he himself had written. I was in shock not just at how terrible the concept of the Hannibal novel was, but that despite how bad the movie version had turned out, from the sound of things, it actually improved on the book (if only marginally). To be fair, not having read Harris’ work, I can’t critique the deftness of his prose, but thanks to the Internet, I can now actively avoid the chance to do so.
Hannibal is a terrible film, but not without its merits, which I will list here in their entirety: the acting, the cinematography… and that’s it. Though the script is awful, the real pros like Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Gary Oldman, and even Ray Liotta (I say “even” in his case because he has an utterly thankless role) do the best they can with what they have to work, and are able to shine regardless of the material they’re given. And Ridley Scott knows how to shoot a scene, especially action. In a tidal wave of shaky cam imitators of the Bourne films, Ridley Scott is one of the few directors who can reliably capture the kinetic energy and complex movement of an action scene in a way that is still legible and engaging to the audience.
World-class acting and directing can only help poor writing so much, however, and in this case, it was a lost cause from the beginning. Despite the calibre of talent both in front of and behind the camera, Hannibal is a total betrayal of everything that came before it in terms of character, story, tone, and theme that it should be required viewing for anybody who wants to be a storyteller in any medium on exactly what not to do. Set ten years after the events of The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal catches up with the exploits of FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, taking over from Jodie Foster) and serial murderer Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector (Anthony Hopkins) whose paths once again cross through a series of plot contrivances. The series takes a sharp turn here, from horror to action, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. James Cameron actually pulled off this genre transition perfectly with Aliens, the pumped-up action sequel to Scott’s own iconic Alien. In the case of Hannibal, the transition to a new genre is a jarring juxtaposition with its subject matter. Instead of the lurking sense of dread in The Silence of the Lambs where Agent Starling has to make her way through a moody labyrinth of dark city streets, subterranean FBI offices, neo-gothic insane asylums, and a landscape almost perpetually cloaked in grey skies, Hannibal is a globe-trotting adventure where action-heroes engage in set-piece battles in broad daylight.
Compare the opening of The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal. The Silence of the Lambs begins with Clarice Starling running on an obstacle course at the FBI, and everything from the music to the overcast sky tells us something is slightly off in this world. Then there are the subtle shots of the sideways glances from some of her fellow male students and the beautifully telling shot of Clarice standing in an elevator full of men who tower over her almost menacingly, which immediately capture the overarching themes of misogyny and structural sexism perfectly. Clarice is a woman in a man’s world who ends up investigating the disappearance and horrific mutilation of women. Hannibal, on the other hand, starts us off with an action-packed shootout with a drug cartel. There’s nothing mysterious nor is there any sense of dread or a coherent theme looming over the proceedings. It’s shot in broad daylight and reveals nothing about any potential theme that the movie might have or about these specific characters. This version of Clarice Starling, a fully fledged FBI agent, is in charge of an operation to capture the leader of a drug cartel, and this could have just as easily been the opening of any number of Bruce Willis direct-to-video generic action films from the past twenty years. It’s well shot, but it’s just… there. We learn nothing about Clarice that we wouldn’t have learned about any other generic FBI character in that role. We learn nothing about any underlying themes or ideas the movie might be trying to explore. She organizes the operation, some hothead local cop challenges her, she puts him in his place, he obviously isn’t going to follow her orders, he then predictably doesn’t follow orders, and they end up in a shoot out ending in a tense standoff where the hero gets to shoot the bad guy and win the day.
It makes sense, in a roundabout way, that Julianne Moore bears absolutely no resemblance to Jodie Foster even though they’re supposed to be playing the same character: the Clarice Starling of Hannibal bears no resemblance to the Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs. She’s now apparently working narcotics instead of in the behavioural sciences unit, which was one of the key elements of her character in the first film that was instrumental in setting up why she would agree to go interview Dr. Lector in the first place. Never mind the fact that it’s shown in the first movie that she’s shown to be an excellent student and a person driven to achieve her goals. It’s never addressed at all in the film why she wanted to make the career choice or why it makes sense for her character. There’s no connective tissue to give any hint that these two characters are meant to be the same person. The audience is expected to draw a line on their own from the eager student who solves cases through careful work, interviews, examining evidence, and building a psychological profile to the action hero who shoots bad guys like she’s in a western without a care in the world. As is the case whenever a film is too lazy to do even the most basic leg work, the work never gets done, and in this case, there’s nothing to suggest that the bombastic story of Hannibal takes place in the same meticulously constructed world of The Silence of the Lambs.
In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice faces a near-constant barrage of mundane sexism and institutionalized bias, which is tied in to both the plot of the film, which deals with actual violence against women, and one of the main themes of the film, which deals with gender politics and how misogyny manifests on a spectrum of troublingly banal to overtly violent. In Hannibal, Clarice is constantly railroaded, first being blamed for the botched apprehension of the drug dealer, and then being outright framed for misconduct by Paul Krendler (Ray Liota), but it’s not linked to any underlying idea that the movie is trying to explore. It all just happens because the plot needs it to happen for the next stuff in the plot to happen. Yes, Clarice seems to be the only woman working at the FBI, and yes she faces unwanted sexual advances from Krendler, but none of this is addressed in the movie at any deeper level. The movie just depicts Clarice as being at the whim of institutionalized bias without the wherewithal to defend herself and makes no commentary on this whatsoever. Instead of Clarice being the focus of the story, the crux of her journey is how useful she is based on her connection to Hannibal Lector and how that will help the FBI track him down. Whereas in The Silence of the Lambs Clarice Starling drove the plot, in Hannibal her narrative value is reduced to her affiliation with a man. The fact that the movie tones down the full-blown sexual and romantic relationship between Clarice and Hannibal that the book ends with down to a single kiss is small consolation.
As the title of the movie suggests, this is really Hannibal Lector’s show now. And this focus on Lector is one of the fundamental flaws of the movie. Not because a movie focusing on the character of Hannibal Lector is impossible: the Hannibal TV show does this superbly for three full seasons. (And hopefully another three. Come on, Netflix, where are you when we need you?) It’s not that a movie or TV show can’t successfully focus on a protagonist who is morally despicable; the difficulty comes in walking that fine line between empathy and sympathy, between understanding a character’s motivations and actions and agreeing with them. That misunderstanding of empathy and sympathy is on full display in the movie Hannibal. Hannibal is a reprehensible character; he’s a psychopath who murders and eats other innocent people for no good reason and without any sign of remorse or any evidence that he can be rehabilitated to any level of usefulness for the benefit of society. The filmmakers understood this, either consciously or unconsciously, because they kept employing narrative strategies to try to make his seem less immoral. This is based on another fundamental misunderstanding of storytelling that confuses the protagonist for the good guy, which is not always or necessarily the case. The approach that Ridley Scott and company took to try and build a connection between the audience and Hannibal Lector was to try to rehabilitate or soften the character so that audiences would have a protagonist they could root for.
The first thing they did was try to give Hannibal Lector some kind of a moral code. Hannibal goes out of its way to try and retcon the character as only killing people who acted contrary to his (completely arbitrary) rules of civility, other truly immoral people, or people who were actively trying to attack him first. This runs contrary to everything that is revealed about Hannibal Lector in both The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, which reveal his victims include several random police officers who were charged with guarding him, an ambulance driver, a paramedic, an orderly at the prison where he was incarcerated for many years, a census taker, his long-time colleague Will Graham, and a musician in an orchestra who didn’t play quite well enough. None of this implies any kind of moral code, which is why Hannibal trying to retroactively shoehorn one in seems so glaring both in its existence and its intent.
The other thing the movie did to try and sanitize Hannibal Lector was by constantly trying to shove villains down our throat that were custom-built to make Hannibal Lector seem better by comparison. Mason Verger (Gary Oldman) is the principal antagonist of Hannibal, and as Dr. Lector’s only surviving victim (not counting that orderly, who was severely disfigured but lived, and who the writers of this movie forgot about or ignored entirely) his motivation is to capture Hannibal “The Cannibal” and exact revenge against him by feeding him alive to a herd of wild boars. But for the minds behind Hannibal, it seems their simplistic understanding of fundamental narrative concepts like “protagonist” and “antagonist” boil down to “good guy” and “bad guy.” So if Hannibal Lector is the “good guy” of your story, and Mason Verger is the “bad guy” of your story, and Hannibal Lector is a murdering cannibal, then by that logic, you have to take Mason Verger to a whole new level to make Hannibal seem a lot better by comparison. Within the framework of this essential misunderstanding of storytelling fundamentals, the character of Mason Verger makes perfect, twisted sense. Hannibal, the “good guy,” is a murderer and cannibal, so Mason, the “bad guy,” is a wealthy child molester with political influence. In a race to the bottom of the scale of ethics, child molestation marks the nadir of human morality; it’s the one thing that we can generally agree on no matter our social or cultural background that is so despicable, that it’s become a warn out narrative trope with authors and filmmakers playing the child molester card to make a character instantly evil without having to actually develop said character. It’s also kind of telling that in trying to create a monster more evil that Dr. Lector, the only depths left to plumb in the dark waters of human depravity involved the sexual abuse of children.
The problem with this from a narrative perspective is that the character of Mason Verger is obviously meant as a juxtaposition against Hannibal Lector, with the ultimate goal of trying to reframe and sanitize Lector’s image in a cheap ploy to try and get audiences not only to empathize with him but to sympathize with him. This is a problem because Hannibal Lector didn’t actually get any better; Thomas Harris and the filmmakers who adapted his book are simply trying to make him seem like a more moral character by comparison. Mason Verger is a rich child molester who has the power to get away with his terrible crimes, so Hannibal Lector brutally disfiguring and crippling him is morally just because he deserved it. Hannibal Lector is a murderer and a cannibal, but he’s being hunted by a child molester with effectively infinite resources, so now the audience can cheer when Lector brutally murders and disembowels men who are trying to capture him.
And this is the core problem of Hannibal; the movie invites us to be complicit in the actions of its titular character – i.e., indiscriminate murder, torture, mutilation, and cannibalism – by putting us in a position that tries to force us to root for his success and juxtapose him with other characters that make him seem better by comparison. This makes the dinner party scene near the end of the movie so troubling and unsettling, but not in the way I think the filmmakers intended. I’m not talking about the level of violence. Listen, I’m not a prude when it comes to horror and violence in film. I’ve dipped my toes into all manner of gruesome storytelling and depraved acts of violence and gore captured on-screen. But watching something like Cannibal Holocaust isn’t unsettling in the same way as watching Hannibal. The difference lies in how these movies try to direct the audience’s sympathies. Cannibal Holocaust depicts some terrible acts of violence by several different parties, and there’s a rudimentary sort of moralizing, but the movie never asks us to sympathize with the perpetrators of violence, even when the victims of this violence aren’t exactly morally upstanding citizens.
But Hannibal is different. The dinner party scene absolutely invites the audience to align themselves vicariously with Hannibal Lector. They do this by establishing Paul Krendler as a villain, as someone who deserves what’s coming to him. He’s not a child molester like Mason Verger, but he’s actively conspiring with a child molester to sabotage Clarice’s career by stonewalling her and planting evidence. He’s shown as making crude sexual advances towards Clarice with dialogue that includes phrases like “corn-pone pussy,” a line the writers liked so much they included it twice. The point is that when Hannibal Lector drugs Krendler then surgically removes the top of his skull and begins cooking and feeding Krendler pieces of his own brain while he’s still fully conscious, the movie is asking us to condone Lector’s act of (inventive) torture and mutilation. This is why the dinner party scene is so uncomfortable. Not because of the level of gore, which is honestly a lot tamer than many horror movies, but specifically because we’re supposed to side with the perpetrator. It’s based on a kind of twisted, simplistic grade-school morality that asks the audience to condemn one immoral act or person while at the same time condoning an even more immoral act or person in the name of retribution.
That’s not justice. That’s not even revenge. It’s a fundamentally depraved worldview, and one that permeates Hannibal , down to its rotten core.
Hannibal is like the mirror universe version of The Silence of the Lambs, with all subtly replaced by bombast, all thematic considerations replaced by a vacuum of meaning, complex ethical questions replaced by glorified and hackneyed notions of vengeance, and any sense of coherent character development or motivation replaced by cardboard cutout caricatures with the approximate depth you’d expect from creations formed in that particular medium. Ultimately, the true casualties of Hannibal are not the victims of its titular character, but the audiences subjected to such an ill-conceived cinematic endeavour.