Did you have a good Halloween?
Today I’m gonna talk about a mildly spooky topic—Hannibal the Cannibal from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal series and the detectives who tried to capture him. Focusing on the first three of the series (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal—I’m going with the novels and the film versions; I haven’t had a chance to watch the tv series yet), each of the characters shows the world through a different lens of morality.
Let’s start with the good.
Clarice Starling is basically Jesus. The comparison is made obvious from the beginning, and it’s purposeful. In the book version of Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal puts her head on Jesus’ body in a watch face. They replace this in the movie by having him instead draw her as a shepherd, saving lambs. In Hannibal, Clarice mentions all the things that have gone wrong on her field missions with rookies, and yet she continually throws herself into the battlefield, despite the dangers.
Clarice is the moral compass of the series and the ultimate symbol of righteousness and justice, but not without cost. Though Clarice does in fact save the day in Silence of the Lambs, she is literally marked in the novel by a speck of gunpowder, and symbolically marked by Krendler, who then becomes determined to take her down.
Throughout Hannibal, we see Clarice fighting with Krendler and struggling to keep her job against a corrupt system. Though the ending of the movie version of Hannibal is more satisfying in my opinion, the novel ending does have its reasoning. The movie keeps her as an uncorrupted FBI agent, risking her job and her hand to try to capture Hannibal. The book, on the other hand, gives a much more twisted ending that shows her sacrifice in a different way. In the book, Hannibal hypnotizes Clarice so she rejects the corrupted world she’s surrounded by to go with him, who she’s fallen deeply in love with. Even though she understands that Hannibal may kill her at any time, she stays with him, willing to sacrifice everything, even her friendship with Ardelia Mapp to be with him.
Though in Silence of the Lambs, Clarice says that Hannibal is “destructive” but “not evil,” Hannibal gives readers a more human side of the character. He’s consistently described as a monster, even compared to real life serial killer Il Mostro (The Monster of Florence). But this more human side does make him seem more and more like a person making bad, complex choices, as opposed to a monster that’s driven by something else completely. Compared to the other villains of the series, Hannibal might even seem more palatable (ha ha, get it?) because of his personal code of conduct and his manners—but he does, you know, kill, eat, and antagonize people for his own pleasure.
As the series progresses, readers encounter more and more sickening villains, particularly in Hannibal. Mason Verger is possibly the worst of the worst—a child molester who raped his sister and enjoys torturing people (particularly children), with a family fortune and political connections. Then there’s Krendler, a typical sleazebag. I oddly enough didn’t hate Pazzi, even though he was a corrupt policeman, but he has his fair share of dislikeable qualities. All of these other antagonists (Hannibal is just full of them) makes Hannibal tolerable—at least he’s polite and smart, right?
This wasn’t always the case. Hannibal Lecter is possibly at his most antagonistic in the first novel of the series, Red Dragon. He’s considerably nicer to Will Graham in the movie version (we’re talking Red Dragon here, not Manhunter) than he is in the book, where he attacks him at almost any chance he gets. The plot to have Francis Dolarhyde have kill Will makes a lot more sense in the book, where Hannibal is so much angrier and vengeful. Of course Hannibal has a soft spot for Clarice, but it was kind of surprising to me just how much Hannibal hates Will, considering that Clarice seems to have a much more rigid sense of justice than Will does.
While Clarice is motivated by ambition and integrity, Will is repeated said to be motivated by fear. Although he does seem to want to do the right thing, he’s terrified of where the right thing is going to take him. Also unlike Clarice, rather than working the field, Will was a professor at the FBI academy, only working the field when absolutely needed. While Clarice is very much the straight and narrow FBI detective, Will Graham is much more neutral.
Crawford has to push and prod Will to do the right thing, and Will falls for it, even if he knows what Crawford is doing. We see this in the diner scene before Will agrees to take on the Toothfairy case completely, and he’s driven by seeing another family that could (potentially) be the next set of victims.
On the other hand, Hannibal says that he and Will are “just alike.” This could be true, if Will were to be swayed by fear the opposite way. He’s already seen to be using an atypical gun, a gun he’s sure would kill somebody in one shot. And of course, he’s shown to be able to understand serial killers better than most people, which is why he’s pulled into the field to begin with.
However, his neutrality is reinforced at the end of the novel when he talks about Bloody Pond. In his drug induced sleep, he dreams of a building that witnessed a bloody civil war battle and states that it was “indifferent” and that “Shiloh doesn’t care.” This is the final image of the novel, and it’s meant to show his state of mind. He’s in between Clarice and Hannibal—completely neutral and he could go either way.
Though Will is probably my favorite character in the series, his neutrality is probably one of the reasons he couldn’t continue as protagonist of the series. (In addition to, you know, getting stabbed in the face.) Seeing Clarice’s moral dilemma is a lot more interesting, and Will’s personality would present too many complications when it came to doing the right thing vs the wrong thing. If anything, Will kind of serves as a warning against neutrality from the ending. It’s fine for buildings to be neutral, but if a person does it, people could get hurt and die.