OldVenue, TV

Hannibal: horror becoming art

NBC recently announced the cancellation of Hannibal following its current season, to much uproar from its devoted fans. Now it seems up to streaming website Amazon Prime to save the show, as it did with British drama Ripper Street, after its cancellation by the BBC. Why must it be saved? Because of its unique quality which makes it so great – being the most graphic, yet also one of the most clever and visually striking shows on television.

Hannibal’s greatness lies in its ability to intertwine interior psychological states with reality, creating the greatest quandary in the programme: what actually is the reality which the characters are experiencing? This technique submerges the viewer into the minds of the show’s protagonists and allows them to gain insight into the complex psychological spaces within the series. Yet despite constructing an ability to understand the characters on an incredibly deep level, in particular Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter, a great deal of their thoughts and beliefs about each other are withheld. More than any other show, this technique of simultaneously revealing and concealing leaves us at the end of every episode confused: on the one hand thinking that we may know the protagonists intimately, yet on the other hand also questioning if we really know them at all.

Whilst most horror television programmes rely on suspense in a traditional way (‘whodunit’, and ‘what will happen next?’), what makes Hannibal stand out is its focus on the psychological suspense: ‘why did they do it?’ More common in European films, psychological suspense is rarely seen in American films and television programmes. The most interesting aspect of the psychological suspense in Hannibal is that the characters are so fluid and fluctuating that the ‘who’ in the ‘whodunit’ is ever changing and mutable through every season.

Surprisingly, Hannibal is one of the most beautiful shows on television. A potentially gruesome scene during which Hannibal Lecter is chopping up a human body ready for a meal becomes art. The visual lack of conflict between the horrific action and the stunning cinematography forms an association between the viewer and Lecter. The viewer unwittingly begins to see the horror as art much as he does. Yet as we step out of this visual space at the end of each episode we are left horrified at ourselves and in wonder of the series which can too easily manipulate us into his terrible psychology.

This is where Hannibal surpasses every television show currently airing. It is not easy viewing, not simply because many scenes include so much gore that it is hard to watch, but that it asks us to analyse every aspect of the mise en scène in a way that very few other programmes do. Metaphors are woven into the narrative throughout, which we are left to decode and decipher. The dialogue also repeats metaphorical ideas which help to sustain overall arcs across series whilst allowing us to understand the progression that Hannibal is taking. The motifs of the stag, the crows, and the wendigo man with antlers, all hold substantial meaning in Hannibal and these motifs, in particular the stag which represents Will’s connection to Hannibal Lecter, acts as a signifier of mental states for the audience to understand and interpret.

This demand for analysis of Hannibal is similar to reading a highly regarded work of fiction, then proceeding to read articles and books of theory which analyse the novel. During this process of analysis one becomes further interested in and more excited about the original work. Hannibal is also like this: the analysis emboldens your feelings for the programme. This deep examination which is asked of the audience is aided by the slow tempo of each episode. In general, American dramas are often faster paced than European dramas, and it is refreshing to see a drama which is less rushed and more measured.

Now in its third season, Hannibal is continuing to intrigue its viewers. In a world where television is increasingly becoming a medium which tells you stories and presents plot lines and characters whose validity does not need to be questioned by the viewer, Hannibal is a paragon of television which intellectually demands its viewers to question and analyse what the programme shows you, not tells you. Hannibal is more than a horror: it is both visually and artistically striking, and a thought-provoking, psychological drama. For this reason, it simply must be saved.


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June 2022
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