There are a few basic differences between the novels by Thomas Harris and Hannibal, their NBC TV series adaptation. The most intriguing of these is that the Hannibal of the ongoing TV series has a tendency to speak theologically about his hobby horses, which include cannibalism, serial killing, and the presence of God. While most of Lector’s god-talk is lifted straight from dialogue in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, the screenwriters have underscored the otherwise subtle presence of God in Harris’ fiction by placing it front and center in their scripts.
Early in Season 2, for example, Hannibal is at the crime scene of a serial killer who has been using naked bodies to construct a large mural of the human eye staring into the heavens. While considering the gruesome image, Lector tells FBI Agent Jack Crawford that he can empathize with the killer. “Killing must feel good for God too,” he says. “He does it all the time. And are we not created in his image?”
Later, Hannibal explains to addled FBI profiler Will Graham that he “collects [news of] church collapses,” intrigued by a God that would allow women and children to die crushed beneath crumbling Christian architecture. Turning most Judeo-Christian reason on its head, Hannibal assumes that if God permits such natural disasters, he must enjoy them. “If he is up there,” Hannibal says, “He just loves it. Typhoid and swans – it all comes from the same place.”
As the season unfolds, we find Hannibal returning to these parodies of the question of God and evil. This grisly theodicy becomes the only motive he offers for the cannibal logic leading to a crescendo of horror in the show. But between the lines of the series’ brutality, a thread persists. Hannibal cannot seem to shake the presence of God as either audience to his creative genius, or rival in composing ghastly disclosures of the true nature of the universe.
In this rejection of traditional Judeo-Christian theodicy, Hannibal becomes the most compelling antichrist figure of prime time network drama. Writer and producer Bryan Fuller has described Hannibal as an incarnation of the devil, divulging that writer’s room conversation often puzzles over the true nature of the show. At times Hannibal stumbles into the realm of myth and religion, at others this esoterica is dialed back to let the raw materiality of the show do its work. Part of the allure of Hannibal involves becoming an insider to the complex plots and devices Dr. Lector uses to evade detection while littering the east coast with coagulating objets d’art. The series treats its FBI procedural elements with a similarly traditional crime fiction vibe.
But the biblical, far less predictable, element of the show to which Fuller refers just keeps blooming in its seams.
As a sort of antichrist, Hannibal Lector gathers and trains disciples in his brutal mimicry of divine revelation. He transforms what God creates by tearing it into pieces and rebuilding it: a human body commingled with a blossoming cherry tree, a man evolved into skeletal beast, a lady’s liver ground, wedded with rosemary, and seared ever so gently. His therapy is a reversal of love and charity.
Hannibal is handsome. His actions are precise and ordered. He is cultured and mannered in the highest degree. He is always the smartest person in the room, and the best dressed. He drives a Bentley. He is “created in God’s image.” But his is a timeless beauty that, like Lucifer in the traditional Christian interpretation of passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Gospel of Luke, derives from God’s perfection.
In this early Christian telling of the Lucifer myth, he once plied his art in angelic worship of God. He was, a Jerome described, “bred up in a paradise of delight.” But pride rose within Lucifer’s heart and he was cast from the presence of God. Now bound to a fallen earth, his art retains its beauty and grandeur, but has been divested of its glory. Likewise Hannibal seems to operate on a different plane than everyone else, haunted by an aesthetic of perverted, fallen splendors. His crippling flaw is a pride that begs for his work to be seen and appreciated.
Jewish and Christian descriptions of Satan in the 1st century were different than his very slim presentation in the Hebrew scriptures. At this stage in the development of Jewish theology, Satan has become a person, an actual figure battling against God and his angels throughout history. Christian writers picked up on this idea, repackaging Satan even more specifically as Antichrist. He is like a mirror image of Messiah in likeness, but dedicated to the opposite of messianic redemption and restoration. This little paradox has haunted descriptions of Satan ever since.
Viewers have grappled considerably with Hannibal. It is probably the goriest series ever greenlit by network TV. We want to look away from its dripping carcasses and gaping contortions of flesh, but only after we get a good eyeful of their artfulness and delicacy. We savor Hannibal’s culinary skill (and even copy his recipes), but then gag just a little bit at each bite. Every one of the show’s relationships is marked by fear and duplicity. Even its glimmers of God are, through Hannibal’s framing, grotesque and obscene.
With these riffs on biblical imagery, the writers of this adaptation have managed to push the boundaries of pop theology and horror at the same time, startling us with how easily and artfully they overlap. Even if Season 3 may take the show a different direction, Hannibal has reminded us that biblical themes and images have somehow remained vital and provocative in this era of prestige television. Like Jewish and Christian images of the devil, they may be hard to swallow. But, when so exquisitely rendered in contemporary terms, they sure are hard to shake.
A few stray observations:
1. Reception History is a catch-all academic discipline for talking about the presence of biblical images in cultural texts. Hannibal is a great example of the reception history of Satan/Lucifer imagery. Its complexity rivals Milton’s Paradise Lost, which really is the source text for most modern conceptions of Satan.
2. The use of biblical images is a key Western cultural practice. The Venn diagram describing the participants in this practice includes more than just a Christian bubble.
3. Hannibal is a great example of theology as an aesthetic exercise. Theology can be “horrible” in more than one sense.