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Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) slips into the catacombs in a scene from Hannibal's new season.
Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) slips into the catacombs in a scene from Hannibal's new season.

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“Cannibalism isn’t that big of a deal”

Bryan Fuller on Hannibal Lecter, the perfect devil

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

NBC's Hannibal, a dark, dreamy reinterpretation of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels, is one of TV's unlikeliest success stories. After all, the character, so riveting in the hands of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, had become overfamiliar to film audiences, and it was hard to imagine rescuing the character from the realm of camp.

Somehow, however, showrunner and developer Bryan Fuller did just that when the series launched in 2013. This incredible, nightmarish journey into a world of constant death and psychological trauma has slowly but surely become one of TV's best shows, anchored by philosophically precise writing and strong performances (particularly from Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and Hugh Dancy as his pursuer, the dogged Will Graham). It's one of TV's most gorgeous shows, turning the macabre into images of stark beauty.

Season three debuts Thursday, June 4, at 10 pm Eastern on NBC. You can watch previous seasons on Amazon Prime.

The series is also grounded in a surprising amount of psychological depth and religious symbolism. In particular, the first three episodes of season three constantly return to the idea of the devil as humanity's shadow self. I got on the phone with Fuller to talk about his favorite interpretations of the devil and the many different roles this figure plays in human storytelling and mythology.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The devil as seducer

Bryan Fuller: Tim Curry's Darkness in [the film] Legend: that was such a grand, bold, literary representation of the devil as a sexual romantic. Even though he was a horrific figure, he was intensely sexual. That was a favorite representation of the devil and its romantic qualities.

Todd VanDerWerff: That element of seduction comes up in Hannibal, too. What makes the devil such a good romantic figure?

BF: I think the devil is always about being true to your purest self. The temptations he laid out for humanity are not intrinsically opposed to human nature. They are about leeching out human nature and accepting human nature and not denying the totality and complexity of who we are.

When society through simple civics tells us how to behave and how not to behave, the devil tells us to behave how we feel in a situation. Any denial of those honest instincts is anathema to how we should be and a denial of our truest selves. So isn't it more organic and more healthy to express those things as they come to us and accept them as integral parts of our persona and let the devil reign?

I would argue that Hannibal's brand of therapy for Will Graham has always been about allowing him to embrace the truest nature of his self.

TV: Why do you think sexuality is such a big part of the devil's nature?

BF: Because it is something we are naturally drawn to. It's the candy in the window that we all want, and sexuality and the sexual act in its ideal form is something that takes us out of our heads and allows us to merge with another being and experience a life energy that is hard to quantify outside of an intimate setting. That connectedness and that loss of body and form is a magical seductor.

There's something about free-floating and infinity in that moment of great intimacy where you're like Maximilian Schell and the robot Max in The Black Hole — in an abyss yet connected and bound and coiled around each other. There's something the devil gives us with sexuality that is permission to submit to the power of that intimacy.

The devil as a figure who puts us in touch with our basest natures

BF: I loved Robert De Niro's Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart and the guidance of Mickey Rourke's character down the path of realization and acceptance to who he is and how you can't actually deny your true nature. You can bury it, but it's going to find a way to the surface somehow.

TV: That sounds like giving into our baser animal instincts in some ways. What do you see as the link between the natural world and Satan, or even Hannibal?

BF: Look at that story where they reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park. It transformed the ecosystem, because things that did not have predators before to regulate their behavior now do, and that behavior has changed. They're seeing a positive evolution in the environment because the deer and the antelope now have a regulator in the predator, so they can't decimate fields of grass by overharvesting. The environment has the opportunity to flourish by having a villain in the midst, and that is a greater natural balance to the world.

Some of these things were explored in the first and second season [of Hannibal]. The world needs predators to keep a balance and to remind us of the fragility of life and to honor it more respectfully at every opportunity. We may forget to, and the trials of our own lives keep us from connecting to the outside world. There is a purpose to that natural predator in the midst. Psychopaths are natural predators in our midst that curb behaviors in certain ways, so you can argue sociologically that there is a purpose to every predator in every environment. Is that purpose about the balance of life and how we live it, is the question.

TV: Is there an evolutionary purpose, then, to these extreme psychological manifestations?

BF: Purpose is a challenging word. Because you can say, oh, the natural purpose of things when a child is abducted and murdered is to illustrate how fragile that life is and how we need to be more on point in protecting our most vulnerable members of society. It reminds us to cherish what we have by the thread of losing it. That's kind of a fucked-up perspective in rationalizing the role of killers in society!

If we were talking about nature and the purpose of a predator, it's to survive and to gain sustenance for the predator and the predator's pride. For a serial killer, they're just dicks. They don't have a greater purpose in that sense, so it's a fragile comparison, but not without some validity.

TV: How do you balance Hannibal's purpose with the fact that he's just kind of a dick?

BF: In his mind, he is doing the work that he is intended to do, which is to facilitate the purest form of humanity in every being that he is intent on helping. What he sees as the purest form is a much darker view of the world than Will Graham's, who is bucking against that nature and looking to curb those things that feel instinctively familiar to him and his understanding of what these psychopaths do.

There's a difference between a natural predator and a psychopathic predator, because assholes exist in the animal kingdom as well, but oftentimes those actions are for survival. You rarely see an animal killing for sport.

TV: This season, at least so far, delves a little bit into Hannibal's history from the novel Hannibal Rising. What do you see as the pitfalls behind giving a devilish figure a backstory? Can that ever be satisfying?

BF: It's not satisfying at all for me as an audience member. The trick there with better understanding Hannibal's past to catch the man in the present is really a device to have our cake and eat it too. The novel Hannibal Rising is breaking a promise made to the audience in Silence of the Lambs, which is Hannibal Lecter stating, "Nothing happened to me. I happened," which I wanted to keep true to.

I didn't want to over-explain why he became a cannibal and suggest that his nature is as a result of Nazis eating his sister, which feels like a demystification of the character. For us, it was about suggesting certain things in his past that may have complicated who he is but did not inform who he is. He is and always has been Hannibal, but he is not invulnerable to pain and loss.

The devil as faceless evil

BF: There's an interesting distinction between the devil and the boogeyman. As we saw in late '70s, early '80s slasher horror, there was a faceless representation of devilry, whether it be in Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, there was an absence of face — Freddy Krueger's scarred face or Jason Voorhees under a gunny sack or a hockey mask or Michael Myers under the William Shatner mask.

There was this almost pagan representation of a faceless devil that is manipulating reality through great destruction.

TV: What do you think makes Hannibal Lecter one of the all-time great fictional serial killers?

BF: There's something of him being an apex predator. Man is at the top of the food chain, and on top of man is Hannibal Lecter. He looks at man as less than, and there is a fascination with someone who sees us as no better than food, despite the complexities of human thought and human identity.

Something I often find to be increasingly confusing as I write this show and am put in the head space of a man who eats other men is blurring the lines between men who eat other living things. I find it very difficult to eat land animals because I've read so much about the sophistication and emotional intelligence of pigs and cows, how they mourn for their losses and are communal, their relationships, and how pigs try to warn other pigs heading into a slaughterhouse.

There's something so relatable to that for me that, for me, in a sense we're committing forms of cannibalism every day when we have beef and pork, because we are eating sentient, sensual, complicated life forms with self-awareness and worry and emotional strife when they are consumed.

It's a funny place to be in where I'm like, Wow, eating people isn't so bad because we eat what I would describe as nonhuman people all the time. That's my lesson learned from Hannibal, is that cannibalism isn't that big of a deal. [Laughs heartily.]

The devil as God's opposite — or another aspect of God

BF: We blame floods and earthquakes on God's wrath. Does that make God the devil at the same time? Are God and the devil the same entity, or at least working from the same energy?

TV: It seems like the devil has hung around in popular fiction much more than the idea of God has. Why do you think that is?

BF: I think there is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy innate in people's perceptions of God and inconsistencies, where you say God's wrath is responsible for the flooding in Texas because of gay marriage or whatever. So God is this strange sky bully that will be more punitive than forgiving in ways that are counterintuitive to the God mythology.

I understand an indifferent God. I don't understand a God that will facilitate some things and not others. Yet there are people who are able to rationalize what pisses off God and what doesn't and what will cause him to act out and what won't. It's all such horseshit because it is so wildly inconsistent. The attraction to the devil is he's pretty consistent with his approach to humanity, which is to bring out the things that shame us. The devil is anti-shame in a way that God is informed by shame, and shame is a big, fat fucking bummer.

So why wouldn't you want to go to the devil's party? It's certainly going to be a lot more fun than somebody who's telling you that you're wrong and lesser than. The devil's like, "No you're not wrong. You have my permission to eat as many people as you want to."

The devil as Hannibal

TV: How do you see the idea of the devil pertaining to Hannibal?

BF: I think one of the approaches to the show that has been most fun for me in giving it a broader mythological context is the suggestion that Hannibal Lecter is the devil, and that he is a fallen angel who is fascinated with humanity and wants to exploit it and reveal its weakness, and has somehow stumbled across such a pure example of humanity as to want a closer glimpse at something that he may have kept at arm's length because of that attraction.

Of course, the devil is the hero of his own story. It's the idea of humanizing the devil and recognizing that Hannibal is a devilish figure and a villain yet is also the hero of his own story. That's the nature of his relationship with Will Graham. He wants to leech out those things that Will may have deemed unseemly about his character and give him permission to embrace them.

TV: When you started this show, there was sort of this concern from people who had followed your career before this, like, "Do you really think the Pushing Daisies guy is going to be able to do this show?" Do you feel the pendulum has swung the other way now, where you want to remind people you're still capable of wacky comedy?

BF: I yearn for the days of Pushing Daisies and having a broader twinkle in my storytelling. Hannibal is very much an application of my skill set as opposed to something that is a true generation of my artistic voice. I am interpreting Hannibal and applying my skills as a storyteller to tell that particular story in a unique way, but it does not naturally come through me, which is partly why I have a great fetishization of the novels.

Whenever I'm lost in the world and the story I'm telling, I'll go back to the books and I'll read until I find a phrase that reminds me of some sort of connection that I have with the material, because innately it is not where my creativity flows. I found great satisfaction creatively in finding ways to tell this story that are unique to my point of view, but I also would love to explore something a little more hopeful again.

The third season of Hannibal airs Thursdays on NBC at 10 pm Eastern. Previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime.


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