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Premiering on April 4, 2013 on NBC, Hannibal is an American crime series named after the notorious cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played here by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). Most viewers already know this infamous fictional character from the 1991 Hollywood blockbuster, The Silence of the Lambs, where he was played with wit and flamboyance by Anthony Hopkins in an Oscar-winning performance. The new television series, written and developed by Bryan Fuller, is based not on this blockbuster but on Thomas Harris’s first Hannibal novel, Red Dragon (1981), which was published seven years before its sequel, The Silence of the Lambs (1988). According to Fuller, the TV series will draw freely from all four Harris novels that feature Lecter as a major character—not only Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs but also Hannibal (1999) and a prequel titled, Hannibal Rising (2006). Although all four novels were adapted to the screen, only The Silence of the Lamb was a phenomenal box-office success, which transformed both Red Dragon and the new television series into “prequels” like Hannibal Rising. These temporal inversions, as well as the serial nature of Harris’s novels and the long form of serial television, offer Fuller ample room for embellishing this fascinating story.

In the TV series Lecter is presented as a forensic psychiatrist who aids FBI profilers in their search for serial killers yet who one day will be exposed as the most gruesome killer of all. As we wait for Hannibal’s murderous nature to be revealed, we may note the striking differences between the mysterious, subdued Mikkelsen and the fiendishly exuberant Hopkins—differences that make his full exposure all the more exciting to anticipate. Even those viewers who never saw The Silence of the Lambs, have probably heard of “Hannibal the Cannibal,” a figure well known in American pop culture. This knowledge gives viewers an edge over the FBI profilers, except for young Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) whose telepathic powers of empathy enable him to adopt the killer’s point of view.

Despite the title Hannibal, the protagonist of the TV series is actually the young FBI profiler Will Graham, who appears as a character only in Red Dragon and its two film adaptations (Manhunter, 1986, where he was played by William Petersen and Red Dragon, 2002, by Edward Norton). Although Graham does not appear in the other Harris novels, he is briefly mentioned in The Silence of the Lambs where he is replaced by the female police investigator Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster). As in the Red Dragon novel, Graham’s “pure empathy” in the TV series not only enables him to adopt the killer’s point of view but also renders himself vulnerable to being corrupted by this uncanny identification.

One of the embellishments that Fuller brings to the story is to associate Graham with Autism Spectrum Disorder. As if to update his character and make him more culturally resonant, Fuller explicitly suggests Graham is on the spectrum, a self-diagnosis that helps account both for his special abilities (his intelligence, laser-like focus and photographic memory) and his social limitations. In the opening episode Graham attributes his own social awkwardness and lack of eye-contact to the fact that he’s “closer to Asperger’s and autistics than to narcissists and sociopaths.” This diagnosis helps distinguish him not only from the neurotypical members of the FBI team but also from the narcissistic killers and sociopaths they pursue. His autism functions as a form of neurodiversity that might help protect him from corruption.

This association with autism might at first seem incompatible with Graham’s unique powers of empathy, for those on the spectrum are frequently assumed to have “mind blindness,” an inability to empathize with others. In fact, several real life high-functioning individuals on the spectrum claim that they do have this enhanced capacity for empathy. For example, in Living Along the Autism Spectrum, a 2009 documentary, Stephen Shore (who earned his doctorate in Special Education at Boston University) explains that people like him with high-functioning autism frequently have powerful feelings that enable them to sense the feelings of others (which he sees as a special form of empathy). Whenever they sense these powerful feelings, instead of moving toward the other person and trying to comfort him, they become anxious and pull away—a self-protective reaction that is interpreted incorrectly as “mind blindness.” In Graham’s case he not only moves toward the individual with these powerful feelings, but actually begins to perceive the world through his point of view and thereby risks being overwhelmed by this process of identification. As a talented criminal profiler, he’s a variation on Sherlock Holmes; but instead of relying on rationality and perception, he leverages his “pure empathy” and his own powerful feelings to identify and capture the killer.

Functioning as a cross between Dexter (an edgy cable-series with a serial killer as title character) and Criminal Minds (a network procedural with a more conventional team of crime-stoppers), Fuller’s TV series relies on a broad intertextuality that goes beyond the Harris novels. Most obvious are its striking parallels with Criminal Minds, the successful crime series that has aired on the rival CBS network since 2005. Like Hannibal, CM also focuses on an elite group of FBI profilers in a Behavioral Analysis Unit who analyze deviant criminals. The character most like Graham (especially as played by Dancy) is Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), a young FBI Supervisory Special Agent with several Ph.D.’s, a 187 IQ, a photographic memory, and a special kind of empathy. But unlike Graham, Reid has no link to autism. Instead he has a schizophrenic mother in a mental institution. Graham’s link to autism becomes a prime marker of difference and originality not only for his own character but for the entire Hannibal series. Yet, by sharing the emphasis on empathy as a mode of profiling, both crime series lead viewers to focus on character analysis as their primary source of pleasure. And the profiler’s unique identification with the killer, encourages us to identify with the special agent.

Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic thriller, Matador (1986), explores the impact that such dynamics can have on us spectators. Like Hannibal, it also features a telepathic young man (Angel, played by Antonio Banderas) who can adopt the point of view of others. He focuses his empathy on two serial killers—a former matador who is now his teacher, and the feminist lawyer who defends him after he confesses to their grizzly crimes. The film explains Angel’s social awkwardness and strange behavior not by referring to a genetic disorder like autism or schizophrenia but by showing us his repressive Opus-Dei matriarch (who could be read as a Spanish variation on Bettelheim’s “refrigerator mother”). Sensing his vulnerability and innocence, the police inspector and female psychotherapist ignore Angel’s confessions and function instead as surrogate parents, protecting him from the consequences of over-identifying with the killers. In the Hannibal series, their roles are played by Dr. Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), who heads the FBI team as Graham’s boss, and FBI Psychologist, Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas).

What’s so fascinating about Matador is that Almodóvar uses Angel’s telepathic vision as a trope for cinema spectatorship, showing how anyone’s identity or moral center can be de-stabilized simply by watching a movie (or television series), especially when it deals with sex and violence. This power of media and its moral risks for spectators are most blatant in the sequence where the two serial killers meet in a movie theater showing King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun. As they watch the notorious “lust in the dust” ending of this melodramatic western, where Pearl Chavez and her lover Lewt shoot each other and then die in each other’s arms, the matador and lawyer simultaneously experience the same emotional reaction and instantly adopt this violent climax as a shared vision of their future. The film ends with these erotic killers immersed in a suicidal frenzy, which is witnessed by Angel and his entourage of spectators.

Although there is no comparable female killer in the Hannibal series, a similar kind of mirror-recognition exists between Graham and the killers whose points of view he adopts, particularly in the case of Hannibal Lecter. According to Fuller, the primary love interest in the series is between Graham and Hannibal, a love based on this uncanny identification. Yet, as in Matador, this powerful identification also threatens to destabilize Graham’s moral center (as he begins to experience the pleasures of killing) and the moral center of us viewers (as we adopt his point of view). Like loving parents, Graham’s lawful protectors (Crawford and Bloom) try to prevent him and us from going over the line. Perhaps we can find another deterrent in Graham’s self-diagnosis as an individual on the spectrum, which enables us to read our own identification with him as a step toward neurodiversity rather than corruption.

Marsha Kinder

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