Tuesday, October 27, 2015
October 27, 2015: 21st Century Villains: The Newest Hannibal
[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On why the iconic villain has endured so successfully, and what’s new about the latest version.
Since his first appearance, as a complicated, compelling combination of villain and sidekick in Thomas Harris’s bestselling suspense thriller Red Dragon (1981), refined forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter has become one of American culture’s most enduring and popular villainous presences. As of 2015 Lecter has appeared in three additional Harris novels, five successful films (portrayed by three different actors, Brian Cox, Gaspard Ulliel, and, most famously and in three of those films, Anthony Hopkins), and one acclaimed and controversial TV show (on which more momentarily). The first Hopkins film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), remains the last film to sweep the four major Academy Awards (Film, Director, Actor, and Actress). And in 2003, the American Film Institute chose Hopkins’ version of the character as the #1 movie villain of all time, cementing Hannibal’s status as a truly unique and iconic American bad guy.
There would be various ways to analyze the reasons behind Hannibal’s enduring popularity, but I would boil it down (perhaps not the best metaphor for a Hannibal post!) to the two contradictions I highlighted in the prior sentence’s opening paragraph. In virtually every version and adaptation of Hannibal’s story, he serves as both antagonist and confidant to the protagonist, offering vital help at crucial moments yet presenting an unmistakable threat at all times; I don’t know of any other pop culture villain who straddles that line nearly as clearly or effectively. And Hannibal’s own personality is just as seemingly contradictory, comprised in equal measure of the refined, elitist intellectual who prefers the finest wines and even finer art and the depraved serial killer who destroys his victims in the most barbaric and horrific ways possible. That particular duality isn’t as unique to Hannibal (there’s a reason why Jack the Ripper has often been known by the nickname Gentleman Jack, and Ted Bundy’s charisma and charm were well documented), but, as played by Hopkins in particular, Hannibal offers perhaps the most successful representation of an elegant murderer in our pop culture.
As portrayed by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the NBC TV show Hannibal (currently airing its third season, with the status of its fourth very much up in the air as of this writing), Hannibal retains those enduring qualities: Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is very much a refined gentleman along with, y’know, the other side (depicted on the show with a level of graphic violence beyond any in the prior adaptations); and across the seasons he alternately teams up with and threatens Hugh Dancy’s FBI agent Will Graham. Yet as the show has evolved (SPOILER alert for the later seasons in particular), it has taken these characters to a new place, suggesting more and more overtly that Graham has the potential to become Lecter. Hannibal has always required his protagonist partners to tap into their darker sides, but I would argue that never before has a version of the character suggested that one of those protagonists (or anyone else, even other serial killers) could ever be truly like him. Whether that suggestion lessens Hannibal’s unique qualities or amplifies his horrific ones (or both) is just another intriguing question about this enduring, iconic villain.
Next villain tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?