- Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s showrunner
The TV series Hannibal (which ran from 2013-2015, but which may be due for a revival) went further than the cinema versions of Thomas Harris’s novels in terms of outré shocks and flagrant weirdness - or, at least, it seemed to.
At the same time, it was widely praised by critics and established a widespread audience of committed and discerning ‘Fannibals’, with a large female contingent.
All of which suggests that this surprisingly engaging show is more than a simple gore-fest. There’s something considered going on here: clever design thinking has allowed us to feel that we've experienced the most monstrous events imaginable, while shielding us from the worst of them.
So ... what sleight-of-hand enabled Hannibal to make such dark and gruesome subject matter into compelling viewing?
Understanding how Hannibal achieves its effects gives us some useful clues on devising horror ideas which have the potential to connect with audiences - and on how storytellers handle truly taboo topics.
1. Set it in a fantasy world
“We are not making television,” Fuller told each new director who came to work on the programme. “We are making a pretentious art film from the Eighties.”
Recognisable technology is present, but the cars and computers stay in the background of the underlit, Gothic-looking buildings with their green-tinged interiors and peculiar, retro accoutrements.
If it’s established early on that we’re in a dark fairytale, we can enjoy the ride - free of the misgivings we may feel if the story’s world was closer to reality.
2. Make sure there's a strong vein of dark humour
Much of the show’s interest is based on our prior knowledge of Hannibal. We know that he’s a cannibalistic murderer, even if everyone else thinks he's a suave and worldly psychiatrist. And this provides much scope for humour.
Hannibal frequently drops outrageous hints about his true nature.
Mads Mikkelsen allows the smallest hint of a smirk to cross his glacial features when he does so. The more this happens, the more deliciously complicit we become with the character, and the further we’re drawn into the story.
It’s a big mistake to write horror (and other ‘hard-hitting’ genres) without a vein of well-judged humour - an essential balancing factor which greatly increases the pleasure of the audience.
3. De-emphasise sexual violence
Their motives are so strange and convoluted that it’s the sheer commitment of the performances and the loving attention to detail that make them credible.
Hannibal’s florid maniacs pursue obscure obsessions for months, years, decades; they try to become prehistoric cave-bears, to turn people into trees or fungi, or to construct gigantic eyes to look at God.
This is a fairytale world of fantasy crimes.
Fuller understands that rape has been overexploited in crime stories, and has specifically banned it from his series. As he says, “That was one of the big challenges. How do we keep our promise [not to tell rape stories] ... and also service the novel.”
If we were watching a procession of sex-crimes, the series would quickly become creepy and distasteful - especially for women, who are weary of seeing themselves as victims in any number of genres.
4. Aestheticise your murders for intellectual appeal
These drew visual inspiration from the oeuvres of Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Anselm Kiefer, the Chapman Brothers, and many others; adding to the visual stylishness of a show which foregrounded the superb tailoring of Mads Mikkelsen's clothing.
We rarely see someone being killed, much less tortured or mutilated.
And when we do, the details are often obscured. It’s mostly when violence between or involving the leading characters takes place that we witness it at all; just about everything else happens offscreen.
The most interesting confrontations are the long, near-philosophical dialogues between Hannibal and various others (particularly Will Graham). Their verbal fencing is so full of subtexts and hidden conflicts that it's as thrilling as a physical struggle.
Hannibal places death in a fantasy context and serves up mortality as an abstraction, divorced from its customary context. And it doesn’t make the mistake (often found in novice screenplays) of overplaying the gore-factor.
5. Build in some strong emotional undercurrents
When Fuller said he saw Hannibal as a dark comedy, he added, “and on another level, it’s an emotional story about male friendships.”
I have a friend who can’t watch the US version of House of Cards: she finds the characters too cold and self-motivated. But she enjoys Fargo despite its violence, because its characters retain some emotional depth and sense of connectedness.
Both Hannibal and Will Graham are strange, unfathomable men. Each represents the other's sole chance to find the deeper understanding that all human beings crave.
For all its grisliness, Hannibal is something of a protracted courtship between Lecter and Will Graham.
As Bryan Fuller, says, “If the first season is the bromance, the second season is the break-up; Lecter is the spurned lover.”
Like all other genres, Horror is far more powerful, memorable and potentially popular when there's some powerful emotion behind it.
Don't forget this when you're writing your own stories!
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You can find out much more about these kinds of approaches to constructing stories - films, TV series, novels and short stories - in Ian Long's DEEP NARRATIVE DESIGN WORKSHOP, to be held again in early 2019.
To find out more, email Ian here.
IAN LONG is Euroscript's Head of Consultancy. He is a writer, script editor and screenwriting teacher, and has taught his acclaimed writing workshops in the UK and elsewhere.