“Hannibal” And The Consequences Of Violence

Bryan Fuller, who developed Hannibal for NBC, talks about what he is and isn’t allowed to show on TV, about the episode that was pulled, and why the show being banned from Salt Lake City is a “badge of honor.”

Hugh Dancy as Will Graham. All images courtesy of NBC

Mass shootings and real-life violence are not new; but after the murders in Aurora, Colorado, last summer and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December, there is a perceptible revulsion toward certain displays of violence and gore in entertainment that feels like a change. Perhaps it’s temporary; it’s certainly random. If critics hoped that Fox’s The Following “might be misjudging the mood of the country,” as Tim Goodman wrote in his review in The Hollywood Reporter when describing the upsetting serial-killer drama, they were wrong: The show went on to be one of the hits of the new TV season.

Hannibal, though, NBC’s highly anticipated TV serialization of the story of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), has suffered a different fate: It had one episode pulled for content, and the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City has decided to stop airing the show entirely. The program’s ratings have been weak. And now, though NBC has announced its schedule and pickups for next season, Hannibal, which premiered in early April, is in a limbo period, awaiting news.

Executive producer Bryan Fuller — who created Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies, among other work — developed Hannibal for television. His show is both violent and gory: The killings Graham investigates have resulted in some truly gruesome images on network television (naked young women impaled on antlers, mushrooms growing out of bodies, lots of blood, Graham reaching into a body, Hannibal’s persistent gourmet cannibalism, and more). I’ve included a few pictures below, and if you’re squeamish, you shouldn’t read this story.

But if one concern of those who criticize violence in entertainment is that it’s done thoughtlessly and exploitatively — as in The Following — that should not apply to Hannibal. Nor to Fuller, who has considered all of these questions. Hannibal, in fact, is so heavy with dread and sadness and the consequences violent deaths have on everyone, including and perhaps especially on law enforcement, as manifested in the tormented Graham, that it can be challenging to watch for that reason.

I talked with Fuller recently about Hannibal and violence.

I want to ask about the level of gore and violence on Hannibal. Let’s start at the beginning when you first starting thinking about the show. How did you figure out its tone?

Bryan Fuller: What was always interesting about Thomas Harris’ books is they were a wonderful hybridization of a crime thriller and a horror movie. So I felt like we had to be true to that. Because Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter and Red Dragon have a certain pedigree of crime horror/thriller, in order to be true to that genre, we had to have a certain amount of graphic content to honor the source material, and also honor the expectations of the audience who are approaching the material realizing this is a horror icon. If we didn’t have certain ingredients for that dish, then it really wouldn’t be that dish.

What did you think were the keys there?

BF: Well, what was always fascinating with the villains of Thomas Harris’ books is they have this purple, operatic quality to them. They were also strikingly visual and cinematic. I think it was always our goal to honor the source material, because as a fan of the Thomas Harris books — I read Red Dragon in high school — I wanted to make sure that the loyalist in me and the loyalists out there were being delivered what they were being promised in calling the show Hannibal.

And in the conversations you were having with NBC about all of these things, which I imagine included discussions about the level of violence and gore you wanted to show, how did you describe it? And then what was their reaction?

BF: Well, it was always described as “elegant horror.” And NBC was very supportive. They realized they were ordering a show called Hannibal, and so they also wanted to be respectful of the source material and of the fan base of the character. And not deliver something that didn’t honor the genre. I felt like we were all on the same page in terms of what show we were doing.

Let’s talk about some specifics. The crime that sets things off is a serial killer who impales his victims on antlers. We then see that imagery a lot. How did you arrive at it? And how did you think about showing it?

BF: In Red Dragon, there were a few pages about the Minnesota Shrike. And the Minnesota Shrike was a serial killer who was murdering young women in the Minnesota area. That was about as much as we knew from the books, so it was about coming up with a striking visual motif that could also serve as a psychological time bomb for Will Graham. If we’re going back to root inspirations for impalations on antlers, there are quite a few horror movies where we’ve seen antlers used as weapons in one way or another. For me, it was as a pre-pubescent lad in the Pacific Northwest, watching Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot in the late ’70s, and being terrified when James Mason picks up a man and trots over to a wall of antlers and impales him. That image stuck with me as a 7-year-old.

In terms of how you decided how to show the dead bodies in the pilot, was NBC fine with it? Did it get edited at all?

BF: The only restrictions were mostly nudity. Then other things would be a matter of frames and trimming: a concise method of delivering the imagery that didn’t rely on overt gore. There were times that were like, “OK, you can see the intestines, and you can see the abdominal wound, but you can’t see the intestines coming out of the abdominal wound.” Which, to me, felt perfectly reasonable! There were never any huge battles about gore. The conversations that we had were very much about, “These few frames here tip it, so can you remove those shots?” Or “Can you limit that shot?” They let us go a good distance at having striking visual imagery that wasn’t exploitive porn violence but actually had a great psychological impact to them.

Were you surprised that they were letting you do those things? There’s always the chance that you’d gotten a guarantee, and then when the episodes start coming in, you get, “Oh no — this is not what we meant.”

BF: You’re always running that risk. But Jennifer Salke, who’s the president of entertainment at NBC, really gave us her word that we were going to be able to creatively do the show that we wanted to do that would honor the title. And that she was invested in that version of the show, because that seemed like the appropriate version of the material.

So in Episode 2, the killer plants mushrooms in people, which we then see growing out of the bodies. Gross.

BF: Right! But bloodless.

Does that matter?

BF: Not necessarily. But I think the more bloodless it is, the more effective it is at being totally psychological. Because if you see the blood, then there’s an easy association of the violence. The violence that happens when there isn’t blood is actually much more subversive and unsettling.

There are things you’re used to seeing in movies and on television, like bloody crime scenes. And there are things you’re not used to seeing — like mushrooms growing out of people’s bodies.

BF: Right! It seems like a more unique image. That came out of the writers’ room when we were talking about, “Who are our villains in this piece?” It was inspired by a TED Talk. There’s a scientist named Stamets who goes on about the fascinating structures of mycelium, and how they do closely parallel physical human-being structures. That was so fascinating, it seemed like, what if that guy were off his rocker? And taking his love of mushrooms to the next level?

Episode 4 — in which a character played by Molly Shannon kidnaps young boys, brainwashes them, and then forces them to go back to kill their families — was pulled. Tell me that story from your perspective.

BF: We developed a story that we all felt was so outlandish in terms of its horror. Then tragedies happened. And what seemed outlandish on one hand all of a sudden felt a little too real. There were initial concerns about it, and head-scratching: “Now that we produced this episode post-events, is it the best foot forward for the show?” It was about being thoughtful and sensitive. And it was a conversation with the network, where we were both very much saying, “Yes, we have concerns about the content given where we are with gun violence in the nation. And also violence against children with guns.” It just felt at that time perhaps we just put a pause on that episode because we wanted people to this show with all of its merits, as opposed to something that was reflecting a ripped-from-the-headlines quality. Which really isn’t the style of the show, and isn’t Thomas Harris-ian.

Had the episode already been written and shot by the time Sandy Hook happened?

BF: Yes.

The way it seemed in the news stories, like in Variety, was that it was tied to the Boston Marathon bombings. But the episode already had not been among the five that were sent out for review.

BF: Right. And that was also the network trying to be sensitive.

Did you know when the episodes were sent out to the press in March that it wasn’t going to air?

BF: It felt like that’s where we were going? We had made the decision a week and a half or two weeks before it was announced, and then the following week, Boston happened. Of course, that’s the closest association by proximity; the dialogue became about that. It’s such a tricky call to make. It’s an interesting episode and had interesting ideas. But on the other hand, it’s hard to ignore this thing in the nation.

The episode that aired instead had, arguably, the grossest imagery: the dead bodies with angel wings made out of the person’s skin and back muscle. Is it ironic to you that that was the next up?

BF: No. For me, what it seemed like we were being sensitive to was children killing children with guns — as opposed to graphic content, or horror content.

The Salt Lake City affiliate then stopped airing the show.

BF: Somebody sent me an email with the subject line “badge of honor.” It turns out we weren’t the only ones that particular network had dropped for content: They had dropped The New Normal for homosexual content, which I find more offensive than dropping for graphic content. With graphic content, there’s an argument to be made about graphic imagery. I think that’s a human rights issue.

And I’m a person who’s been reading Fangoria magazine since I was 8. I always looked at it as opera. People who have passion for horror stories, their appreciation/my appreciation is looking at it as opera. The stakes are huge — they’re literally life and death. And instead of consumption killing off the young lovers, you have Hannibal Lecter or Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. There’s a heightened quality to seeing a story where survival is at its core. Horror films have always been quite operatic for me. I always sort of scratch my head at people’s offense to them? If you don’t get them, and you don’t like them, then don’t watch them. But if it’s about controlling what other people see based on your perception of that form of art, then that’s a different issue.

Silence of the Lambs started this entire wave of serial killer/profiler interest. And I wonder whether the show is bearing the brunt of people now being exhausted by it — the show hasn’t caught on in the ratings.

BF: I think it’s hard to be predictive about what connects and what doesn’t connect. I look at the core audience for the show, and there’s a very passionate audience. I do feel like we have an audience, but it’s also a matter of we’re looking at a cable model show on network TV. Unfortunately in network television, you have to connect quickly. It’s hard to answer that question with any kind of clarity, because I’m not sure I fully understand the television landscape, even though I’ve worked in it for 15 years. What I can do is make the show as good as I know how to make it. I’m incredibly proud of Hannibal and the cast — I feel like we’re doing really good television. It’s hard to stop and go, “Why aren’t more people watching?” Or, “Why aren’t the right people watching?” Because I’m very excited by the audience that we have.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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