Beautiful Beasts: Hannibal Lecter

by George Lea

This is an ongoing series. Read the other articles here.

What? You don’t think Hannibal qualifies because he’s essentially human? That somewhat begs the question as to how we define “monster” in this instance and what they express for us.

All monsters are essentially human, at their core; from the most alien, abstruse and bizarre Lovecraftian entity to those of clearly human origin such as werewolves, vampires or Frankenstein’s creation, all fictional “monsters” are expressions of particular drives, dreads and desires; concerns and neuroses made manifest and given animus by our imaginations (as expressed in our sister examination of The Pale Man).

Lovecraft went out of his way to imagine entities beyond the human in shape and form and intellect; in motivation and nature, yet ended up creating entities that, whilst ostensibly inhuman, within the contexts of the stories and universes in which they occur, on a literary level, serve as expressions of very human concern; primarily, that of the universe and existence being vaster and more unknowable than we can possibly fathom or express; that our exploration of it can only uncover greater layers and depths of complexity, ambiguity, contradiction, to the point that we either stop or find ourselves going mad in the effort (bound as we are by our biological and sensory limitations).

Hannibal Lecter, in all of his various incarnations and guises, exemplifies the opposite: an entity that appears human; that is human, in terms of the incidence of his biological nature and origins, but occupies a far more complex metaphorical bracket than one might initially perceive.

In all of his renditions (from the original Thomas Harris books to the various cinema adaptations thereof to the TV series that will form the focus of this article), Hannibal Lecter is essentially inhuman in terms of how he operates; the attitudes and psychological state he expresses, the atrocities he commits, but also in terms of certain characteristics attributed to him: in every incarnation, he is impossibly poised, intelligent, elegant and charming; redolent of classical, Mephistophelean archetypes rather than any human character. He is also inhumanly strong, fast and capable, not to mention able to predict or bend circumstance to his will.

None of this is overtly supernatural; the world in which Hannibal operates is unflinchingly real (or as redolent of reality as fiction can get), but Hannibal exhibits traits that are certainly more mythic than any other character around him, which is, arguably, the core of appeal: he is a fairy tale demon in human skin, operating in a world where there is no such thing; which is bitterly and brokenly rational, lacking in poetry or purpose. This renders him simultaneously terrifying yet uniquely pure; a creature at odds not only with humanity, but the world he inhabits.

A monster by any other name.

Nowhere is this more apparent or more beautifully acknowledged than in the Hannibal TV series, in which Mads Mikkelsen portrays the character as a thing of almost alien poise, of reptilian composure: a frictionless, unflinching explorer of the human psyche and the artistic sadism of which it is capable.

Atrocity and degradation; extremity and mutilation, all excite and engage him in the manner of art, of which he considers them amongst the highest kind. He sifts through scenes almost spectrally; as a thing that the world and its filth cannot touch, even when he stirs and foments it; almost celestial or god-like in his amused detachment.

Simply seeing him on screen listening to his velvet, honeyed tones is a sincere joy; a black pleasure that arouses extremely pleasant ambiguities in the audience: we know he is an atrocity and a creator of atrocities, a predator beyond prediction, yet we engage with him, we admire him; we even find ourselves aroused and excited by him: a factor that the TV show understands and exemplifies; even making it overt in one of its storylines, in which one of Hannibal’s patients, who is naturally attracted to psychopaths, becomes the audience’s agent within the TV show’s reality.

The show is not afraid of exploring why we are attracted to and excited by monsters like Hannibal, no matter how cruel, callous; sadistic and vicious they become. In point of fact, the show acknowledges that appeal and runs with it into surprising areas:

A deliberate contrast is drawn not only between Hannibal and the world itself, but most poignantly between Hannibal and Will Graham, who is Hannibal’s aesthetic and psychological antithesis: a twitchy, unkempt, feverish and nervous entity; as brokenly human as it’s possible to be, he serves to throw Hannibal into harsher and more abstruse emphasis; to provide a metaphorical perspective on his monstrosity that even manifests visually in a consistent hallucinatory vision that Will experiences:

In Will’s perceptions, Hannibal is a demonic, satyr-like figure, a black-skinned, dark eyed, elaborately antlered entity whose puckish misdirections are, far from being amusingly mischievous, consist of the sadistic manipulation of those around him, the committing of atrocities that render human anatomy as sculpted and distorted art, that subverts and corrodes all that it comes into contact with. He is chaos for the sake of personal amusement, the cruel child that kicks over the anthill or pulls the wings off of butterflies.

This is the reality of Hannibal: the metaphor that Will conjures in his own fevered perceptions is, as the show itself points out, what Hannibal is trying to conceal beneath his somewhat-too-frictionless mask of humanity, his “person suit.” He is the demon of Will’s more fevered imaginings; something as inhuman as any fictional world bound by codas of physical reality will allow.

And he is beautiful. Unfailingly, unambiguously beautiful. In every scene, at every moment; a thing of aesthetic glory, of metaphorical grandeur; appealing in the manner of a fallen angel, but one that walks amongst its celestial brethren who remain blissfully unaware of its crimes (at least, up to a point).

Part of this is Mads Mikkelsen himself; the man is visually arresting, a creature of a certain, statuesque sculpture that suits Hannibal’s inhumanity perfectly, but also a confection of lighting, framing and cinematography: Hannibal is always lit in a very particular fashion in comparison to other characters, with shadow seeming to sift and bleed across him, often masking half of his face (suggesting his liminal nature). He is also very rarely disheveled, even in moments of extremity; he is the very picture of composure, of poise and inhuman elegance, rendering him visually distinct from all other characters, who are far more human in their imperfections.

A monster that, like all of the very best, acts as a conduit for questioning our assumptions of self: we wonder why we find Hannibal so appealing, given what he does and expresses, we find ourselves questioning our own morality, our assumptions about self and humanity via exposure to him (at least, ideally so). In that, Hannibal exemplifies similar qualities to the Pale Man, the Alien, the Cenobites and numerous other entities that will come under scrutiny in this series: his outward humanity (his person suit) renders him arguably even more affecting and distressing for an audience, in that he does not display his monstrosity; he is the monster in humanity made overt; a creature that suggests our own capacity for inhumanity, to be monsters ourselves, given the right circumstances.

And, perhaps most distressingly of all, our capacity to love and forgive monsters their most heinous crimes when they are beautiful.

George Lea inhabits a state of being slightly removed from the standard that can occasionally be accessed via the UK Midlands (most notably the town of Tamworth). In between his work as a carer for people with mental disabilities, he spends time baking elaborate cakes and scribbling down the insanity that swills around inside his head. He’s of the opinion that if anyone got a good look at that stuff, it would be akin to when one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters stares into the face of an Elder God. He’ currently involved with the photographer Nick Hardy in a joint project entitled “Born in Blood,” a collection of images and short fiction exploring psychological disease, on the heels of his last collection, Strange Playgrounds.