Adaptation as queer fan practice
in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal

by Yaghma Kaby

Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (NBC, 2013-2015) brings together varied and potentially conflicting concepts, making it a good case to investigate a moment of intertwined queerness, adaptation, and fan practice on television. The series is characterized by stylized and surrealistic visuals, conceived as “an art film from the 80’s” according to Fuller and conforming to quality television standards, yet it aired on network television. It is an adaptation but one that explicitly distances itself from faithfulness to its source texts—Thomas Harris’ novels and existing cinematic adaptations—while also positioning itself as a prequel. It is also a work by a TV auteur who is a self-proclaimed queer fan of the Lecter universe or a “Fannibal” and considers this work as his “fan fiction” (Fuller). [open works cited in new window]

This series was created in a new age for adaptations on television, an age marked by a redefined relation between creators and the literary texts they are adapting. Currently, showrunners are able to prioritize their creative impulse, especially to update a text, over linear faithfulness to a source text (Abbott 553; Barnett). In Hannibal, these creative impulses are further accentuated by Fuller’s self-proclaimed fan status and queerness. Hannibal is the first television adaptation of Harris’ novels and a prequel to Red Dragon (1981), the first novel in the Hannibal Lecter universe. Starting in the guise of an episodic police procedural drama, Bryan Fuller’s series tells the story of the friendship, turned into obsessive relationship then turned into romantic love, between Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and the FBI profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), before and after Lecter is captured.

Here I will examine ways in which Fuller’s Hannibal is a queer adaptation and an instance of a queer fan practice—one in which an author revises and brings attention to absences in a source text. Existing critical studies (such as those by Mat Daniel, and Lori Morimoto) have, directly or indirectly, outlined the differences that can be seen between the series, Thomas Harris’ novels, and cinematic adaptations. Building on existing literature, I argue that Hannibal’s queerness is made visible not only through its plot and visual representation of queer characters but also through a queer process of adaptation that works in conjunction with transformative fan practices.

For the purpose of this work, I understand fan practices to signal active engagement with a media text, for instance, through writing fan fiction or being an active member of a fandom. Moreover, my definition of the term “queer,” in addition to signaling identity, follows Halperin’s statement, “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” (62). Based on this, if queer as an adjective or noun denotes identity and queering something denotes action and doing, then queer can be considered a verb. In conjunction with fan practices, then, queer can highlight practices by a queer fan or practices of a queer nature.

To complement the definitions above, in bringing together queerness and television under the term “queer television,” it becomes essential to look beyond representations of LGBTQ characters. In other words, queerness can also be made visible in the “medium” itself (Parsemain 13). In this sense, “[t]elevisual texts and practices that resist norms in terms of format, viewing experiences or modes of consumption” become queer (Parsemain 13). The TV landscape in the United States is more than ever receptive to queer stories and representations—more so on streaming and cable than on network television, as demonstrated by shows such as Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019) or Euphoria (HBO, 2019-). That being said, queerness on television is still limited and up to the discretion of “network bosses, advertising regulators, standards bodies, and audiences” (Davis and Needham 3). In other words, there's a long road ahead before television fully normalizes queer.

Fuller’s series complicates and deepens our understanding of relations between queer fan, TV auteur, and adapted text as these occur on contemporary U.S. television. In such a context, the present essay engages with how queerness is made visible in Hannibal, both in terms of queer representation in the series and in the show’s conception and distribution as a network series. In the first part of the essay, I consider more generally ways in which authorship and fan identity intersect. Then I outline transformative fan practices and their relation to revealing queerness, specifically in Hannibal, so that I can highlight the corresponding transformations in this particular adaptation. With that, I examine the series’ situatedness in relation to queer television. Fuller’s own distinction between his works as “systematically gay,” “aesthetically gay,” and “narratively gay” (“Outfest”) is aligned with what scholars such as Parsemain have outlined in terms of queer television. For instance, Fuller’s Pushing Daisies, while not including any explicitly LGBT characters, maintains a queer aesthetic in its cinematography. Fuller’s most recent televisual work (also an adaptation), the first season of Starz! American Gods, however, took his distinction a step further and features explicitly gay characters. Hannibal both portrays queer characters and features a queer narrative, while also being undeniably “aesthetically gay” to use Fuller’s own terminology, making its queerness systematic.

Pushing Daisies (ABC, 2007-2009), Fuller’s “aesthetically gay” work. Salim (Omid Abtahi) and the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) on the first season of American Gods.

Author, fan, or something in between?
complexities of the fan/auteur figure

Given a revived interest in adapted works on television in recent years (Wells-Lassagne), it would be fruitful to investigate how adaptation interacts with queerness and authorship. While a queer adaptation highlights an adapted work “modified by queerness,” queer/adaptation takes that a step further to signify works that are “not just adaptations that are about LGBTQ identity or composed or adapted by queer authors but adaptation understood as in some way already queer” (Demory, “Queer/Adaptation” 1). For Demory, the relation between adaptation and queerness is seen as direct and reciprocal: “[t]o queer [...] may be to adapt; to adapt is to queer” (1). In other words, in a work like Hannibal, queerness is not limited to the ensuing adapted text and representation of LGBTQ themes and characters. Rather, the process of adapting the text, its position with regards to its informing text(s), and its reception can all also align with queerness. While the first part of this framework (i.e. representation of LGBTQ themes and characters) has been explored in prior studies (Daniel), and my discussion also touches on them, the link between adaptation and certain forms of fan practice—notably, those that actively produce fan works, though not necessarily amateur—needs to be investigated further.

Although adapted media texts have often established legitimacy by being rooted in long-established literary tradition (usually via literary text to screen incarnation), adaptation and television have seemed less authentic than their literary and cinematic counterparts (Wells-Lassagne 3). Adaptation is often concerned with fidelity—conformity to a source text and progressing on a predetermined trajectory—but at times, adaptations attempt to foreground a source text’s ambiguities and instabilities, that is to say to “blur, erase, or trouble the boundaries” (Demory, “Queer Adaptation” 147), potentially destabilizing the text. While, this act of making strange or queering may not always be done by a queer author, based on Parsemain’s definition of queer television, an adapted text may possess covert or overt queer sensibilities.

Parallel to adaptation’s concern with fidelity is the complexity resulting from the fan/auteur relation. As noted, adaptations, especially those on television, have often been deemed inauthentic; media fans have not fared better in the eyes of mainstream media where negative perceptions about fans and fandoms persist (Bennet and Booth 1). In this context, the coming-together of the two figures, fan and author, results in a degree of destabilization. Authors

“must have their own personal reasons for deciding first to do an adaptation and then choosing which adapted work and what medium to do it in. They not only interpret that work but in doing so they also take a position on it” (Hutcheon 92).

Similarly, fans, in their artwork and fictions, not only choose what text and what aspect of it to focus on but also offer their interpretation of the source text.

In the case of Hannibal, fidelity and authorial intent are shaped by Fuller’s own sexual identity as an openly homosexual man and his attempt not only to represent queerness but to also remake Harris’ novels informed by queerness—that is, to use Demory’s terminology, to offer a queer adaptation as well as a queer/adaptation. In Fuller’s own words, redoing what previous adaptations had done would have been pointless (“Hannibal at PaleyFest”). Notwithstanding, as a fan of the Lecter stories, he has defined his goal to “stay true to Thomas Harris, or the Thomas Harris-ian quality of the Hannibal Lecter tale” (ibid.). Bearing in mind the fannish turn of this transformation, as will be explained in the essay, Fuller’s statements argue that if fans’ work bears an initial resemblance to the source text (or canon) that they are writing back to, they are nevertheless stretching the fictional universe with an innovative turn.

As noted, Fuller has referred to himself as a “Fannibal”—a coined portmanteau term for a fan of the Hannibal Lecter universe—and calls the series his “fan fiction” (Hibberd). Yet, his fan status coincides with his status as a “storyteller-in-chief” or a “TV auteur.” The very term auteur has connotations of being avant-garde and anti-establishment (Later 534), which proves fertile when regarded in light of both Fuller’s and his work’s queerness. Parallel to this is how TV auteurs are themselves defined by their “work on shows adapting literary works” (Later 535). What Later calls an “appropriation of literary fiction formalism” (Later 535) itself is in turn a marker of quality or prestige television, which Hannibal embodies. As such, Fuller occupies an interesting position as both fan and auteur.

Hannibal as queer fan practice

To facilitate my inspection of Hannibal as a (queer) fan’s work, I turn now to examine shared practices between adaptation and fan work—in particular, transformation and repetition. Rachel Carroll notes,  

“all adaptations express or address a desire to return to an ‘original’ textual encounter; as such, adaptations are perhaps symptomatic of a cultural compulsion to repeat” (1).

On the other hand, adaptation is also “repetition, but repetition without replication” (Hutcheon 7). This is an important distinction to bear in mind. It hints at a desire to distinguish the adapted text as independent. In the process, one might choose to rectify the original text’s shortcomings and absences while repeating pre-selected elements of the source. Such an approach accounts for multiple adaptations of the same source text, which also suggests that the informing text is unfinished and malleable—in other words, queerable.

Repetition in Hannibal is revealed in interesting ways: the show revisits parts of each of Harris’ novels, but reformulates them into its own storyline. For example, Harris in Red Dragon takes just a few lines to describe Will Graham’s shooting the serial killer Garret Jacob Hobbs. In the pilot of the TV series, that becomes an act whose consequences reverberate all through season one, and into Graham’s ultimate “becoming” or embracing his true nature. Alternatively, dialogues from the novels are repurposed and at times given to other characters. Some repetitions in the series are also non-visual and non-textual: Hannibal uses iconic music from the films Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal—Bach’s “Goldberg variations: Aria” and Patrick Cassidy’s “Vide Cor Meum,” respectively—to accentuate its ties to the Lecter universe. Repetitions of this kind are akin to moments when fan works make references to what exists in the original text’s narrative universe; they do so in a way that is coherent within the body of the work and adds a certain level of pleasure for the reader (or viewer) who is familiar with both the informing text(s) and the fictional universe.

Repetition and going back to a source text, constant re-imaginings, and re-makings of a text—at times with the intention of opening them up to queerness—are not exclusive to adaptation; they are distinct characteristics of fan works and practices. Fan practices, including fan fiction writing and reading, are a means of establishing and sustaining a fan community and identity around media texts. Often, fans work to actively engage with texts they are emotionally invested in (McCormick 373). This engagement can take two major forms: affirmational and transformative. The former refers to practices that are in line with the trajectory of the source text, its universe, and the way its authors have imagined it. On the other hand, transformative practices seek a degree of distancing from the source text, molding the fan work into something new, aligned with the fan’s identity. Most fan fiction falls under this latter category (Dill-Shackleford 35); therefore, it becomes essential to understand the creative impulse at the heart of transformative practices.

In “Mizumono” (2.13), the scene is shot similar to the movie Hannibal, where Will responds to Hannibal’s “you’d deny me my life” with the same words as Clarice: “not your life, no."

In Hannibal, adapting the source texts into a new medium works in tandem with the transformative qualities that fannish practices, particularly fan fiction, possess. These transformative qualities are realized in terms of the circular, palimpsestuous nature of the series as a fan fiction adapted from Harris’ novels and the Lecter movies (Morimoto). Focusing on the dynamics of fandom and fannish practices—their community-orientedness and their shared desire to appreciate a favorite text—Morimoto establishes Hannibal’s ties with fan fiction writing. In this sense, Hannibal can function as Fuller’s fan fiction since as an adaptation, it displays writerly (or transformative) impulses, as opposed to read-only ones (Morimoto 271-272). Through extending the framework that Morimoto proposes, I argue that Fuller’s inclusion of fannish discourse and engaging with fan practices within his transformative work of adaptation can be considered queer given the ways in which fannish practices and authorship (in the context of television) are brought together in the series. In this way, my argument does not solely address the outcome of a fan/auteur’s creative work or question if the final script is a fan fiction. Rather, I am concerned with a nonlinear mode of conceiving queerness in the process of adaptation, which opens up diverse approaches to investigating the work.

Similarly, after Hannibal rescues Will from the claws of Mason Verger, Margot’s abusive brother, where they were both held hostage, he bridal-carries Will back to the safety of his home in Wolftrap, VA (“Digestivo,” 3.07).