Musings: On Hannibal The Cannibal

Okay, so first things first. When I talk about Hannibal I mean the TV and Movie Hannibal. I haven’t read the books. That said, proceed!

hannibal lecter

I’ve watched a few of the Hannibal movies (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, and Hannibal) and I’m now in the process of watching the second season of TV Hannibal, which is slightly different again but just as compelling. (Also it’s fun to listen to hubby retching when he comes in sight of the tv screen for a particularly gruesome murder.)

The murders are one and all excessively gruesome and sometimes beautiful in that gruesomeness (for example, the guy with a tree wrapped around his legs, his arms in its cherry-blossom’d branches and glorious flowers blossoming from his split torso). They’re also almost completely unbelievable. I mean, seriously, what murderer has the uninterrupted time to set up a guy in a tree in a parking lot without being noticed? Or slice a girl into slides and arrange the slides so beautifully that it’s like looking at one of those books with the plastic slides of musculature? Not to mention the cops should have a field day with stuff as easy to find out as who purchased eight-odd MASSIVE FREAKING SLIDES OF GLASS.

That’s another story, though, and for the most part I suspend disbelief and just go along with it. The question that occurred to me the other night is, why do I go along with it? Why am I watching this show? Why am I even half cheering for this guy?

To recap:

  1. The bloke eats people. Yanno? He actually slices pieces of flesh and bone (though mostly, it seems, the soft organs like kidneys and brains and tongues) and cooks and eats them. That’s not okay. That’s gross and disturbing and completely alien to any right-thinking person.

  2. He murders on a whim. If he thinks someone is being rude, whether to himself or some other societal more he considers important, wham! That person is liable to end up dead, with missing body parts. That goes for any musician unlucky enough to disturb Hannibal’s enjoyment of a concert by playing a wrong note. I can only imagine what he’d do to someone whose mobile phone went off in the middle of said concert.

  3. He’s been known to wear people’s faces. Seriously. Like, tearing off a dude’s face and wearing it to escape (if you want to know how that happens, watch the movie yourself). And he tends to disemboweling and other gross stuff like that. He seems to prefer his victims alive, too. That is also not okay.

There’s more, but those are the main things. This guy is a predator; a terrifying, alien, other predator with no normal human morals or perceivable conscience.

So, the question remains: Why is he so compelling?

And I can’t deny that he is compelling, because despite the extreme violence in the movies/tv show, and the (for me) more than usually allowable bad language, I found it hard to stop watching. Why is that? Since the moment I watched The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (my favourite of the movies, if ‘favourite’ is quite the word to use) I’ve puzzled to myself about why I find Hannibal so compelling. Watching the second season of the TV show Hannibal got me wondering again.

This morning, in the middle of my devotions, cuddling my cup of tea, I got it.

There’s a catechism/truth/principal that is used in the Presbyterian church I go to, and in some of the older protestant books that I read. It goes something like: ‘The value of a soul depends upon the object of its affections’. It’s used in relation to God and His loving of His own Self: ie, that His soul/person is of infinite value and worth because the object of His affections (Himself) is utterly beautiful, perfect, right, just, and unchanging. His affections are set on what is most right and beautiful. In that sense, God defines Himself. It’s also used with regards to Christians. We’re ultimately beautiful when we love that which is beautiful- in this case, God. Our worth is dependent upon appreciating and finding beautiful the things that are beautiful and ought to be appreciated. If we love wrong things and see them as beautiful instead, our soul is corrupted.

To tie this in, consider Hannibal’s main relationships. In the movies, it’s mainly Clarice Starling: an upright, righteous, and morally straight FBI Agent. There’s the sense that she’s a good copper, but the main idea that I personally got from their interactions on screen was her unwavering sense of right. She was morally upright.

In the TV series there is Will Graham. Now, as the series proceeds, he gets darker. But the thing about Will that I most appreciate is that he sees the darkness in the world and potentially in himself, and he hates it. Even the wrong things he does are motivated by a sense of right. He is terrified of the darkness, and yet he keeps fighting it in the world and in himself.

And these two people, in one way or another, Hannibal loves. He loves them fiercely, terrifyingly, and in some cases, almost entirely selflessly. It’s an alien and unfathomable emotion in him. He sees the uprightness in them and he loves them for it. He knows that if he gets too close he’ll be burned, but he can’t seem to help himself. He’s drawn to them.

And that, right there, is what makes Hannibal such a compelling character. In his otherness and alienness, he is terrifying. But in his love of these two people (and seemingly only these two people) with their uprightness and unwavering determination to do what is right at all times, there is something oddly good and worthwhile.

So while the violence turns my stomach at times, and I fully recognise that Hannibal needs to be shot quickly and efficiently, I can’t help but find him compelling still.

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter

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