Adapting the Cannibal: The Gothic Essence of Hannibal Lecter

Blanka Šustrová
Blanka Šustrová

The character of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal psychiatrist, is well embedded in the pop-culture not only because of the tetralogy by Thomas Harris that introduced the character in the novel ‘Red Dragon’ in 1981 but also thanks to the filmic adaptations, mainly the ones with Anthony Hopkins in the leading role.

Hannibal Lecter became an icon of an elegant, intelligent evil that is able to possess both primitive features, such as cannibalism, but also a high taste in culture, superior intelligence and vast knowledge.

In ‘Red Dragon’, Lecter functions only as a secondary character that appears in less than fifty pages from four hundred and twenty pages.

‘Red Dragon’ is classified as a detective crime thriller as the main narrative of the novel is focused on a special FBI investigator Will Graham catching Francis Dolarhyde, a murderer of families.

Hannibal Lecter is not the main villain of this novel, and while incarcerated for his heinous crimes, he occupies a strange position within the hero-villain spectrum.

He gives Will Graham advice concerning catching Francis Dolarhyde while supporting Francis Dolarhyde in his murderous adventures. What also differentiates Lecter from the other ― stock characters of lawful police and deviant criminals are his Gothic features he carries himself and is also able to impose on others, especially Will Graham.

In 2013, the American commercial broadcast network television NBC started to broadcast a TV series ‘Hannibal’, developed for television by Bryan Fuller, known for other TV series like ‘Pushing Daisies’ (2007) or ‘Wonderfalls’ (2004).

‘Hannibal’ is different from the previous filmic adaptations because it does not follow the narrative of Harris’ tetralogy rigidly but picks and chooses events that fit its own narrative. However, the most important feature of this serialised adaptation is the attention to Hannibal Lecter’s Gothic features manifested in ‘Red Dragon’.

These features were the basis of the textual, visual and aural approach to the TV series as a whole and created a genre shift of the adaptation, moving towards the Gothic spectrum.

The first chapter of the thesis presents the formulaic aspects of Gothic that are needed to establish an autonomous genre and also highlights those that are needed for the textual analysis of Lecter in ‘Red Dragon’ and the aural-visual film analysis of Hannibal Lecter in ‘Hannibal’.

The space of this chapter is dedicated mainly to the pre-Byronic Gothic villain and the modern vampire archetype, as they overlap in certain ways and because Hannibal Lecter (especially in the TV series) meets the requirements of both. In addition, important Gothic concepts of terror, horror, sublime, uncanny and liminality are explained for they carry huge importance in both ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Hannibal’.

Chapter two offers an analysis of the character of Hannibal Lecter in Harris’ novel ‘Red Dragon’ in the Gothic discourse, using the established formulaic aspects from chapter one.

It contains an overview of the plot for a better orientation at the beginning and then it continues with the analysis of Hannibal Lecter as an archetypal pre-Byronic Gothic villain and a vampire. Hannibal Lecter in ‘Red Dragon’ is the Gothic ― Other, the individual that cannot be defined and does not fit and therefore produces terror. This chapter’s aim is to establish the Gothic characteristics on which the character of Hannibal Lecter in the TV series is based on.

The third chapter presents a bridge between the textual analysis and the film analysis as it offers a theoretical insight into the approach to filmic (meaning cinematic and serialised TV) adaptations. It discusses different sign systems that are used for literature and films and why these are important to distinguish, for if the source text is to be adapted into a different medium, it should use the potential of the new medium working within a different sign system to the fullest.

In filmic adaptations, it is important to analyse the source text and decide which parts of the narrative to highlight but also ensure that the visual and aural potential of the medium will be employed adequately so the adaptation can function as an autonomous piece of art.

The last chapter is focused on the NBC adaptation ‘Hannibal’, particularly its heavy aural-visual approach that apart from the character of Hannibal Lecter himself, constitutes the Gothic setting of the series and contributes to the genre shift from a primarily crime thriller to a Gothic adaptation.

Hannibal’s characters are based on the novel ‘Red Dragon’ and the largest portion of the show is dedicated to Hannibal Lecter himself and his abusive relationship with Will Graham that, given the space and time of three seasons, offers a great extension of the Gothic features that are only modestly described in ‘Red Dragon’.

An overview of the plot is added for better orientation, and the treatment of the source text is discussed. The use of the visual appendix that is referred to in the chapter is strongly advised as it helps to orientate in the analysed scenes.

The filmic analysis focuses mainly on the use of camera, lighting and sound in order to pinpoint the use of the visual and aural signifying systems of the medium.

It also explains how these filmic techniques are important to displaying the formulaic aspects of Gothic described in the first chapter and applied to Hannibal Lecter in the second chapter.

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