Book vs. Film vs. TV Series: Red Dragon vs. Manhunter vs. Red Dragon vs. Hannibal
Of all the Hannibal Lecter adaptations, none has featured so prominently on screen as Red Dragon, Thomas Harris's first in a four book series. To date, this novel has been made into two feature films and one TV series, respectively: Manhunter (1986), Red Dragon (2002) and the painfully short-lived Hannibal (2013-2015), which mines from Harris's book throughout its first and second seasons, and directly features its plot in the latter half of season 3.
While each have their merits, which of these adaptations really "gets" Red Dragon? To answer this question, we have to examine the core conflict of the narrative, which is not the battle between protagonist Will and his adversary Hannibal, nor between Will and Francis Dolarhyde (the primary antagonist), but rather the more cerebral conflict between Will and himself. His internal struggle is the linchpin holding the entire network of subsidiary and external conflicts together, and capturing this aspect of Red Dragon is the key to a successful adaptation.
Let's dive right in and explore the details of this internal conflict, and see which screen versions of the novel get it right.
Brace yourselves. This is going to be a long one...
And just so you can't say I didn't warn you, SPOILERS lay ahead.
Thomas Harris first introduced us to the now iconic character Dr. Hannibal Lecter back in 1981 with Red Dragon, though his role in this narrative is decidedly small, but no less impactful to Will Graham, a special investigator for the FBI. Graham is pulled out of (very) early retirement by his old boss Jack Crawford to assist in the "Tooth Fairy" murders, perpetrated, we learn later, by Francis Dolarhyde, who is obsessed with William Blake's series of "Dragon" paintings, in particular "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun." At the novel's onset, there have been two crimes so far, identical to each other in every way—slaughters of entire slumbering families and the subsequent insertion of mirror shards into the corpses' eyes, mouths and, in the case of the matriarchs, genitalia—acts that occur in sync with the lunar calendar. The problem is, these crimes were committed in Atlanta and Birmingham, hundreds of miles apart from each other, and despite the wealth and ostensible happiness of the families, there is no link between them.
At a loss and desperate, Crawford asks for Graham's help in profiling the murderer before the next full moon. This is a risky move, given that Graham suffered a psychological breakdown after investigating the Minnesota Shrike murders and subsequently killing the man responsible, Garrett Jacob Hobs. He recuperated from the experience, but then quit profiling work altogether when he nearly became the next victim of the Chesapeake Ripper, AKA, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Now living in Florida as a family man with his wife Molly and her son Willy from a previous marriage, Graham spends his days fixing boat motors and keeping his thoughts as far away from psychopaths and their criminal pathology as he can (if it weren't for those pesky notes from Hannibal that keep showing up on his doorstep).
It is clear from the get-go that asking Will to reenter this world might threaten the man's psychological stability, given his history. The question arises here: if this is the case, why would Crawford put his former colleague and friend at risk? Harris addresses this via a conversation between Crawford and Dr. Alan Bloom, another adept profiler and professor at Quantico, the FBI training academy, in which the latter sheds light on Graham's abilities:
[Dr. Bloom]: '...He's an eideteker—he has a remarkable visual memory—but I don't think he's psychic...
'Will wants to think of this as purely an intellectual exercise, and in the narrow definition of forensics, that's what it is. He's good at that, but there are other people just as good, I imagine.'
'Not many,' Crawford said.
'What he has in addition is pure empathy and projection,' Dr. Bloom said. 'He can assume your point of view, or mine—and maybe some other points of view that scare and sicken him. It's an uncomfortable gift, Jack. Perception's a tool that's pointed on both ends.'
This last sentence in Bloom's dialogue basically summarizes the crux of Will's internal conflict throughout the novel. This image of a double-edged sword persists, and as he figuratively stabs outward at Dolarhyde, Graham is also stabbing inward, at himself. This self-mutilation of the psyche takes a particularly damning step when Will decides, after a series of false starts and dead ends in his investigation, he needs help as well:
There was an opinion he wanted. A very strange view he needed to share; a mindset he had to recover after his warm round years in the Keys.
The reasons clacked like roller-coaster cogs pulling up to the first long plunge, and at the top, unaware that he clutched his belly, Graham said it aloud.
'I have to see Lecter.'
Today we know all too well how dangerous an idea that is, because Hannibal Lecter has joined the rogues' gallery of cinematic baddies that also includes the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers and Leatherface (which is problematic, of course: I love all those characters, but I'm not sure Lecter belongs among them—he's far too psychologically complex). We know that Hannibal "gets inside your head," that he approaches psychiatric diagnoses with a sense of glee rather than a purely clinical desire to help, and that he will always, ALWAYS try to manipulate you. Will's stomach lurching as though on a rollercoaster makes sense in this context.
However, Lecter's notoriety (even within the world of the novel, written long before Hannibal was a household name) isn't the reason Will feels so much trepidation. His fear at once again meeting with this man arises, appropriately, from a place within. In their first and only face-to-face meeting in the novel, Lecter repeatedly asks Will, "Do you know how you caught me?", a question we at first believe is an earnest one on Hannibal's part—he genuinely can't figure out how Will did it. But of course, as we know now, Hannibal knows everything, and his constant grilling is an attempt to force Will into admitting an essential truth about himself. Lecter knows the answer to his query, and he finally vocalizes it toward the end of their interview:
[Hannibal]: 'You just came here to look at me. Just to get the old scent again, didn't you? Why don't you just smell yourself?'
'I want your opinion.'
'I don't have one right now.'
'When you do have one, I'd like to hear it...'
'Would you like to give me your home number?'
'Do you know how you caught me, Will?'
'Good-bye, Dr. Lecter...
'Do you know how you caught me?'
Graham was out of Lecter's sight now, and he walked faster toward the far steel door.
'The reason you caught me is that we're just alike' was the last thing Graham heard as the steel door closed behind him.
He was numb except for dreading the loss of numbness...He had the absurd feeling that Lecter had walked out with him. He stopped outside the entrance and looked around him, assuring himself that he was alone.
That line "we're just alike" (Harris's emphasis, incidentally) is supremely important to this narrative arc, because it isn't merely an example of Hannibal taunting Will: it is, in some way, the truth.
Remember that Graham spent some time in a mental institution following his killing of the Minnesota Shrike, Garrett Jacob Hobbs. He did so out of sheer duty—the man was about to murder his daughter (here unnamed, but fans of the Hannibal TV series know her as Abigail), and while Hobbs was successful in cutting her windpipe, it was Graham's gunfire that stopped him from hitting her arteries. Harris writes,
The daughter looked at him with wide glazed eyes and at her father sitting on the floor crying 'See? See?' until he fell over dead.
That one word, repeated twice, is the final point in this narrative arc triangle. So let's review:
- Perception's a tool that's pointed on both ends.
- Hannibal, the gifted psychiatrist/psychopath tells Will "we are just alike."
- Hobbs, another killer, asks of Graham, "See? See?"
Centered at the middle of this triangle is another observation from Hannibal (that also happens to be correct): Will enjoyed killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs. He wasn't, in fact, merely acting on sheer duty. It gave him immense pleasure, taking down this man, this monster, an essential truth he recognizes on a subconscious level, an essential truth that terrifies him. This is why, ultimately, he suffers a nervous breakdown after killing Hobbs; this is why he retired after discovering Hannibal's true identity—a feat, I cannot stress enough, that no one else could accomplish; this is why Will experiences so much fear when he has to meet with Hannibal again, because Hannibal is emblematic of this dark side roiling within him, a symbol of the killer inside him waiting to get out.
And this is why, as Will draws closer and closer to Dolarhyde, empathizing with him, understanding him, seeing him, he begins to lose grip of his family. Will moved to the Keys, married this woman and adopted her child as a means of escape, a way of transforming himself from a man with an innate understanding of a killer's mind to a simple boat motor repairman, husband and father. And it would have worked, had he not allowed his empathy to resurface, which subsequently allowed Dolarhyde (or, the Dragon) into his headspace. Doing so led to his conversation with Hannibal; this in turn, prompts Hannibal, in his desire to see Will embrace his darkness, to give Dolarhyde Graham's home address, forcing Molly and Willy into exile; which prompts Will to give Molly shooting lessons. She takes to this schooling all too well, leaving Will looking like "a man who had witnessed an irrevocable loss."
The distance between Graham and his family widens, both literally and figuratively: Molly takes Willy to her ex-husband's parents's ranch in Oregon, all the way across the country, away from the fear and violence anchored within Will. Phone conversations are few and far between, strained and weighted with tension when they do occur. And yet, the couple hold out hope that everything will be fine once Will is finished with the Dolarhyde case.
Following the climactic scene—in which Graham, Crawford and a SWAT team converge upon the Dragon's isolated house outside St. Louis, Missouri, only to find it engulfed in flames, his body inside with half its head missing due to a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head—Will and his family return to the Keys. Weeks go by, but it is clear that everything is not fine. The strain and tension seen earlier between Graham and Molly intensifies, and Willy pines for his grandparents' ranch and the horse they gave him. Eventually, Will decides he's going to leave them, but struggles to break the news.
Before he can do this, however, the Great Red Dragon resurfaces—turns out the crafty Dolarhyde faked his death back in St. Louis so that he could have a chance to destroy Will and his entire family [note: there is a TON of information about Dolarhyde and his motives I'm leaving out here for the sake of brevity, but he is a fascinating character in his own right, and occupies nearly as much page space as Graham]. A scuffle between the investigator and the Dragon ensues, ending with Dolarhyde stabbing Will in the face, just below his eye socket. With Graham dispatched, it's up to Molly to slay the Dragon. She does so, in a brutal display of force that echoes Will's sense of an "irrevocable loss":
She forgot the stance and she forgot the front sight but she got a good two-handed grip on the pistol and as the door exploded inward she blew a rat hole through his thigh...and she shot him in the face as he slid down the door facing and she shot him in the face as he sat on the floor and she ran to him and shot him twice in the face as he sprawled against the wall, scalp down to his chin and his hair on fire.
Here we can see this world of violence and murderous rage has fully infiltrated Will's home life—the very life he adopted in order to escape this other world, indicating that for Graham, there is no escape. There's no escape from Dolarhyde, who basically succeeded in destroying Will's family. There's no escape from Hannibal, who continues to send him letters noting the parallels between their lives ("Here we are, you and I, languishing in our hospitals."). And, most importantly, there's no escape from himself, or, from the darkness that resides within him. Languishing in his hospital with his pain, as Lecter put it, with little else to do but think (Molly and Willy don't come to visit very much), Will begins to acknowledge this darkness:
In the Green Machine [nature] there is no mercy; we make mercy, manufacture it in the parts that have overgrown our basic reptile brain.
There is no murder. We make murder, and it matters only to us...
He wondered if, in the great body of humankind, in the minds of men set on civilization, the vicious urges we control in ourselves and the dark instinctive knowledge of those urges function like the crippled virus the body arms against.
He wondered if old, awful urges are the virus that makes vaccine.
Could a killer, a Dragon, emerge from Will after all? Harris makes it clear the likelihood of this is now higher than at the beginning of the novel. Significantly higher.
And yet, this isn't the last time we hear from Will in Harris's universe: he's mentioned briefly in The Silence of the Lambs by Clarice Starling, who indicates he's become an alcoholic living alone somewhere in the Florida Keys. In a way, then, Harris lets us know that, at least to the knowledge of the FBI, Will isn't out there slaughtering people; nor is he dead, but, sadly, he may as well be.
This third feature film from director Michael Mann (who also wrote the screenplay) departs from Harris's novel in several key ways, the least of which being the title change. Despite this, as far as theatrically-released Red Dragon adaptations go, Manhunter is a far better offering, though it should be noted that much of the mise-en-scène (mainly the fashions and furnishings) and the soundtrack have not aged well at all, while other moments are down right cheesy even for 1986 standards. Consider this:
And this (which plays over the end credits):
These moments of cringe aside, Mann handles the primary conflict quite well (though his poor handling of Dolarhyde's character arc is another topic of discussion we don't have time for here). Mann's Will Graham (played by William Petersen) always seems teetering on the brink of madness, particularly in his scenes with Hannibal Lecter (brought to life here by Brian Cox, in a creepily-nuanced performance that is the highlight of the film). We certainly feel the danger in Will reentering this world of violence and rage, especially when Graham displays bursts of anger himself, toward the skeezy Tattler reporter Freddy Lounds (Stephen Lang) and toward Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), culminating in this rather unsettling dialogue exchange with Crawford (Dennis Farina) toward the end of the film, when Will begins to speculate about the Dragon's abusive upbringing:
WILL: This started from an abused kid, a battered infant...There's something terrible about...
CRAWFORD: What, are you sympathizing with this guy?
WILL: Absolutely...My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies...As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks...Do you think that's a contradiction, Jack? Does this kind of understanding make you uncomfortable?
It is clear Graham hopes to be the guy that "blows the sick fuck out of his socks," a truth echoed by Lecter in dialogue taken directly from the book:
HANNIBAL: I want to help you, Will. You'd be more comfortable if you relaxed with yourself. We don't invent our natures, they're issued to us with our lungs and pancreas and everything else. Why fight it...? Did you really feel depressed after you shot Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbs to death? I think you probably did. But it wasn't the act that got to you. Didn't you feel so bad because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn't it feel good?
In the world of Manhunter, Graham does in fact kill the Dragon. Mann excises most of Harris's third act, removing especially Dolarhyde's faked suicide—he dies for real in his own home, at the hands of Will.
But in making this change, Mann not only deviates from the plot as envisioned by Harris, but also from Graham's narrative arc, moving away from a trajectory of stability to madness to one of redemption, though it is not his killing of Dolarhyde alone that changes the arc so drastically. Let's back up for a moment and talk about Will's home life and family. In Manhunter, Molly (Kim Griest) is not a woman Will met and married after his near-death altercation with Lecter, but rather someone he'd been married to long before, ostensibly even throughout the Garret Jacob Hobbs incident. Furthermore, her son—renamed Kevin (David Seaman)—is also Will's biological son. This difference may not seem important, but it is.
Quite important, because it allows for an emotional distance between Graham and the boy, and between Graham and Molly, who would naturally feel less of a connection to a man who was not the actual father of her son, indicative in the boy's original name, Willy—not quite Will, not quite the same as her ex-husband, who died of cancer, a baseball player, an "All-American Hero" that will constantly overshadow Will. Remember, this family was Will's means of escape from the dark world, the polar opposite of his life with the FBI (or, as far away from himself as he could get)—fixing boat motors and being a husband and a father, versus living alone and becoming psychologically intimate with psychos. Harris's point is that these two lives are separate from each other, and if Will lets the latter in, it destroys the former (at least in terms of Will's polarized view of the world, which allows for no gray area).
That these lives intersect in Manhunter topples Harris's original design. Indeed, Graham's killing of Dolarhyde doesn't nudge him fully into darkness, but rather restores him to the light. He goes home to Florida and assures Molly that he's okay, really and truly okay. Cue sunset-dripped end credit freeze frame (1980s Rockwell portrait of familial bliss):
And cue that, ahem, very 80s "Heartbeat" song linked above.
We all know what this is: a typical Hollywood happy ending. Never mind the fact it doesn't make any sense: how, exactly, does killing Dolarhyde equate to Will's salvation? Because it doesn't feel good, as Lecter insisted his killing of Hobbs did? Or did it feel good to Will, but that's okay because Dolarhyde was a "sick fuck" who needed to be blown "out of his socks," and thus justice was served? Mann isn't clear on this topic, and so we either have to accept that Will is indeed a-okay, or that he'll wake up one morning with his family's blood all over his hands. Given Harris's novel and the rage we've seen boiling in Mann's Will throughout Manhunter, I'm not convinced the latter scenario isn't possible.
Let's get one thing clear from the get-go: this 2002 film was not an attempt by a creative luminary to make a more faithful adaptation of Harris's novel, one that redirects Will Graham's path back to one of dark discovery. No, this was a cash-grab film devised by Hollywood producers to make money, banking on the reappearance of Anthony Hopkins in his signature role as Hannibal Lecter. And while said producers hired Ted Tally, the screenwriter behind The Silence of the Lambs, to pen the script, there's no auteur-level director like Michael Mann, Jonathan Demme or Ridley Scott (director of the Hannibal movie) behind the camera on Red Dragon; no, they got Brett Ratner, AKA the Rush Hour guy, AKA the guy you get when no one else is interested in the project (see X-Men: The Last Stand—or scratch that, don't see it). What results is a film that technically resembles its literary source, but only because it's been painted by numbers—as good as the fake William Blake painting we see Dolarhyde eat in the film, but only if you don't look too closely at it.
However, that's why we're here, yeah? To look closely at Ratner's work, and in doing so, we see the flaws pretty quickly. Now, that being said, Red Dragon is decidedly not the worst movie you'll ever see. Overall it is well-paced and the performances are solid, in particular Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde and Emily Watson as his would-be girlfriend Reba (taking over for the grossly underused Joan Allen in the same role in Manhunter). Hopkins is a bit scenery hungry and too noticeably old to be playing Hannibal at this point in the timeline, but he doesn't do anything too egregious (nor anything of particular note, either; he's just kinda there).
The weakest link is definitely Edward Norton as Will Graham, who it is rumored only agreed to do this film so that he could finance 25th Hour. Even if that is the case, one can hardly blame Norton for his lackluster performance. Under different direction, he could have made an excellent Will, but unfortunately Tally and Ratner not only repeat the mistakes made by Mann, they build upon them. Molly (Mary-Louise Parker) is once again not Will's after-the-fact woman, and the boy—here called Josh—was fathered by Graham. Not only this, but it is Molly who convinces Will to take the case, rather than it being an "I'm only asking 'permission' because that's what I'm supposed to do" situation on Will's part, as the scene is played out in both the book and Manhunter.
Finally, though Will is able to figure out that Dolarhyde could not help but touch his victims with his bare hands, which leads to a successful retrieval of a fingerprint, all other advances in the case (and thus, the narrative) are not made by Will. It is Crawford's idea for Graham to interview Lecter and get his opinion, which completely undermines Hannibal's astute observation that Will only wanted to see him again and get "that old scent" back. Hannibal also has to nag will about the home movies from each deceased family, insisting that this footage is the key to figuring out how Dolarhyde selects his victims. In both Harris's novel and Mann's film, Graham gravitates toward these movies of his own accord, without any suggestion from Hannibal whatsoever, obsessing over them until he finally pieces it together: Dolarhyde must have seen the very same movies, because, as Harris writes, "Everything the Dragon needed to know was on the two films," leading to the conclusion that Dolarhyde works at a film processing plant.
The changes made so far effectively remove Graham's direct involvement with the narrative, making him a passive protagonist. More than this, it strips him of his pure empathy, his ability to situate himself so closely to killers on a psychological level that he figures out their motives. This leads to Will losing his internal conflict, i.e., the most important conflict to the narrative. In Ratner's Red Dragon, he really isn't much more than an investigator, and one really wonders what the hell he's doing in this movie anyway? If the whole point was to entice filmgoers into the theater for another round with Hopkins as Lecter, why not just scrap Will Graham altogether and have Crawford check out Hannibal for a brief, investigative furlough? Because without all the aspects that make Will unique, he's really just a cypher for Lecter anyway—or, a high-paid actor in a more or less pointless role.
Like Manhunter, Red Dragon ends on a "happy" note, with Graham reunited with his family, living the good life of boats, beach and ocean, with no shadows threatening his sunshine. I hate to be so blunt, but I find this kind of ending immensely boring.
Thankfully, we have an adaption of Harris's novel that has some teeth (pun very much intended)...
With Hannibal, the TV series based not just on Red Dragon but the Harris novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising (they never got the rights to The Silence of the Lambs), the primary conflict (Will versus his dark side) is explored in full over three seasons, with the titular character acting variously as a therapist, a confidant, a close friend, an intimate, a tormentor, an adversary, and a psychopathic Yoda. Set up as a kind of alternate universe prequel to Harris's first Lecter novel, we see in detail Will's episode of depression following his killing of Garret Jacob Hobbs and his subsequent hunt for the Chesapeake Ripper (Hannibal). The difference here is that Lecter works alongside Will from the get-go, and the series overall is primarily concerned with the development of this most twisted and fascinating friendship, played to perfection by Hugh Dancy as Will and Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal.
The series culminates with a retelling of the main Red Dragon story arc, and for creator Bryan Fuller, there was no other place to end his show. He stated in a press conference (transcribed at TV Geek Talk),
...the arc in the Red Dragon chapter of the season is very much a trouble between Hannibal and Will and Francis Dolarhyde, because Dolarhyde represents something unique in the triangulation of Hannibal and Will. He provides Will Graham a version of Hannibal that he may be able to save, and provides Hannibal a version of Will Graham that he may be able to corrupt. So each of them is getting something dynamic out of that relationship and we get to see how the triangulation through Dolarhyde changes the relationship between Will and Hannibal in a drastic way.
Drastic due in part because Fuller and company includes, almost verbatim, scenes and dialogue from Harris's novel, retaining in full the primary conflict that was lightly handled by Mann and more or less ignored by Ratner. Our primary narrative arc of concern is episode 8 of season 3, titled "The Great Red Dragon," written by Fuller, Nick Antosca and Steve Lightfoot, and directed by Neil Marshall (director of The Descent). At the beginning of this episode, three years have passed since Hannibal turned himself in to Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) so that Graham would know exactly where he is, so that he can always find him; or, in other words, a means of rejecting Will's rejection of a life on the lam with Hannibal.
During this time, Will has secluded himself in a cabin somewhere far, far away from Baltimore. When Crawford comes to Graham seeking help with the "Tooth Fairy" case, the stakes are made clear. Will says to Molly (Nina Arianda),
If I go, I'll be different when I get back.
Later in the episode, Graham gets up in the middle of the night, while his wife is sleeping, and retrieves a letter from Hannibal he's hidden in his sock drawer like a dirty secret. Sitting by the fire, he reads the note from his old friend:
We have all found a new life, but our old lives hover in the shadows. Soon enough, I fear Jack Crawford will come knocking. I would encourage you, as a friend, not to step back through the door he holds open. It's dark on the other side, and madness is waiting.
That's Hannibal for you, telling it like it is. Of course, he doesn't actually hope Graham will turn Crawford away—in fact, he knows he will help, for one because Will is a good person at his core, but moreover because Hannibal knows he can't resist "that old scent." Lecter is like a drug in this way—Will knows all too well how bad Hannibal is for his health, but he just keeps coming back for more, and he's willing to throw everything away—his sanity, his family—for another look at his old friend.
Speaking of Molly, for the first time onscreen, she came into Will's life after his experiences with Hannibal and his early retirement. The boy (Gabriel Browning Rodriguez), though renamed once again (Walter this time around), is not Will's son. Now remember, the fact Graham married into fatherhood is important because it demonstrates his desire to remove himself as far away from the world of rage and violence (or, in the context of this show, Hannibal's world) as he can. More than this, though...Well, let's turn once again to Dr. Lecter for his assessment. In the next episode "...And The Woman Clothed with the Sun" (written by Fuller, Lightfoot, Jeff Vlaming and Helen Shang and directed by John Dahl of The Last Seduction fame), Hannibal makes an observation about Will's home life while helping him deconstruct the Tooth Fairy murders, specifically Dolarhyde's penchant for arranging the corpses like an audience:
HANNIBAL: Like you, Will, he needs a family to escape what's inside him...
WILL: How is he choosing them?
HANNIBAL: How did you choose yours? A ready-made wife and child to serve your needs. A stepson or daughter...A stepson absolves you of any biological blame. You know better than to breed. Can't pass on those terrible traits you fear the most.
See? Will Graham isn't supposed to be a family man. Not really. Yes, it is clear in both the novel and Hannibal that he cares for Molly and her child, and he has a genuine interest in their well-being (again, he is inherently a good person), but his life with them is a costume, and although Hannibal uses this truth to further manipulate Will, he still speaks the truth. He knows Will far too intimately and understands his fears too thoroughly to say otherwise.
What follows from this episode, as stated previously, is more or less a direct adaptation of Harris's novel, including a thorough and fantastic telling of Dolarhyde's story, here played by Richard Armitage, with Rutina Wesley playing Reba. The biggest difference, surface-wise, is the amount of consultation time between Will and Hannibal, which has evolved from one face-to-face meeting and a couple of letters in Harris's novel, to a meeting, a couple of letters, and a telephone call in Manhunter, to numerous and overly drawn-out meetings in Red Dragon, to what is basically the rekindling of an immensely complicated relationship in Hannibal. Moreover, in previous seasons we have already seen Will dip his toes into nefarious waters, but as Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) points out in episode 10, "...And the Woman Clothed in Sun" (written by Fuller and Don Mancini, directed by Guillermo Navarro):
One thing I learned from Hannibal is the alchemy of lies and truth. It's how he convinced you you're a killer...You're not a killer. You are capable of righteous violence because you are compassionate...Extreme acts of cruelty require a high level of empathy. The next time you have an instinct to help someone, you might consider crushing them instead. It might save you a great deal of trouble.
Will's capability of committing "righteous violence" is key to Bedelia's entire speech, particularly when compared to her final lines. Hannibal's entire objective is to convince Will to embrace his darkness, to "relax with himself," but this isn't Bedelia's advice. She tells Will to consider crushing someone in need of help as a means of showing him his actual nature, which is to help despite the inclination to crush, which she states is just as natural as the "nurturing inclination." Remember the line from Bloom in Harris's novel, "Perception's a tool that's pointed on both ends." The same concept applies here: Will's ability to empathize makes him equally capable of compassion and cruelty, but Will always chooses compassion. Indeed, every time Graham takes a life throughout the series, it is under the service of the greater good. He gunned down Garrett Jacob Hobbs because he was about to kill his daughter Abigail. After learning that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper, he attempts to kill his friend on numerous occasions (failing either because Hannibal is always one step ahead of him, or because he can't actually bring himself to do it). Nefarious, morally dubious, sure, but he is not killing indiscriminately, nor for sport or pleasure. In his own way, he's trying to do good.
By series end, however, it becomes apparent that he must destroy Hannibal if he ever hopes to have a normal life, and finds a way to manipulate Dolarhyde into doing what he cannot. Technically speaking, this is a huge departure from Harris's work, and yet this portion of the narrative falls very much in line with the author's original character designs, and is almost a literal translation of the metaphorical Mexican stand-off appearing in his book: Will Vs. Hannibal Vs. Dolarhyde, the penultimate battle taking place at a seaside home owned by Hannibal, hearkening back to Graham's ocean home seen in Harris's novel and the other two adaptations.
The stand-off quickly becomes Will and Hannibal Vs. Dolarhyde when Will once again cannot let his friend die (at least in the grisly fashion Dolarhyde has chosen). In this way, Will and Hannibal become like wolves, hunting their prey together, slaying the Dragon with primal rage and gusto. When they've finished, the duo share this exchange:
HANNIBAL: See? This is all I ever wanted for you. For both of us.
WILL: It's beautiful.
Following this dialogue, they embrace. This represents Will's embracing of the darkness, his "relaxing with himself" and accepting the killer inside him, his own personal Red Dragon—coming to terms with this aspect of himself. And in doing so, Will pulls Hannibal and himself over the cliffside, plummeting them both into the rocks and raging sea—his final act of righteous violence, slaying the dragon Hannibal and the dragon Will.
But was this act necessary? Had Will finally released his dragon, or was he simply manipulated, once again, into believing he and Hannibal were "just alike"? As Bedelia pointed out, Will was not a killer in the same way Hannibal was. For lack of a better term, Will could stoop to Hannibal's level, but only if killing would prevent more killing or serve a sense of justice. His empathy was rooted in compassion, not cruelty. It would have been better if he'd merely pushed Hannibal off the cliffside.
BUT...as I stated above, Hannibal is always one step ahead of Will, but only if he's aware Will has turned against him; conversely, when he's thoroughly under the impression Will is on his side, his life is at risk, because his love for Will blinds him, weakens him—makes him, as much as it can, quite human and vulnerable. Will played this game with Hannibal throughout season 2, appearing to kill Freddie Lounds and knowingly committing cannibalism to earn Hannibal's complete trust, all in the hopes of capturing him. This isn't to say Will doesn't have a deep love for Hannibal either; he does, but again, he is rooted in compassion, not cruelty, and thus he can never truly be partnered with Hannibal in this way.
Given all this, was Will's self-sacrifice not only necessary but in fact the ONLY way to truly stop Hannibal, by drawing him in so close both figuratively and literally that he doesn't see the murder-suicide coming? Or does Hannibal see it coming, and he just doesn't care, because Will has finally given him the only thing he ever wanted?
Unfortunately, we may never know the answers to these questions, but fortunately, we don't necessarily need them. If Hannibal the series is truly over, I think it couldn't have ended any better, as sad and maddeningly satisfying as the end of Harris's Red Dragon (although this balancing between compassion and cruelty explored in Hannibal does call into question Harris's denouement—his version of Will didn't have a Bedelia to put things into perspective).
And The Winner Is...
I think it's obvious that Hannibal tops its predecessors by leaps and bounds. It isn't a direct adaptation of Red Dragon, but it retains all the emotional and psychological complexity of the novel. In this way, it is true to its source material but enough of a departure that it stands on its own—exactly what a great adaptation should be. Manhunter comes in second place because it skirts around the dark essence of Harris's novel without truly going there—it sets up the pins but doesn't knock them down. Ratner's Red Dragon comes in last because it doesn't seem to grasp Harris's intent at all, and plays exactly like you'd expect a fan-servicing film featuring an actor reprising his most recognizable role to play out.
What say you, fellow LitReactor people? Have you read Harris's Red Dragon? What do you think of its various adaptations? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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