Queer adaption and becoming
in NBC’s Hannibal

review by Patrick Woodstock

Kavita Mudan Finn and EJ Nielsen, eds. Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019, 321 pp., $70 hardcover, $35 paperback and e-book.

As Netflix was laying the groundwork for our current era of prestige streaming TV through their first forays into original programming in 2013, the newly-vulnerable world of network TV welcomed the return of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Dormant since the largely forgettable film Hannibal Rising (Dir. Peter Webber, 2007), NBC revived the cannibal psychiatrist for Hannibal (2013-2015), as part of an ensemble cast in perhaps the most paradigmatic genre of network TV: the police procedural.

This new generic framework represents a departure from previous Lecter-related works (including four novels by Thomas Harris and their assorted film adaptations), whose self-contained narratives focus on serial killers whose threat is more or less subdued by the story’s end. By way of contrast, Hannibal’sLecter (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen) aids the troubled FBI consultant Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in catching serial killers on a weekly basis – the show’s open-ended structure enabling the cannibal to continually evade capture.

At least, this is how the series begins—and the story of its gradual transformation into something far less conventional (and much queerer) makes Hannibal an essential case study in the possibilities and inherent limitations of queer representation on network TV.

This story is at the heart of Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal, a new scholarly collection about the show edited by Kavita Mudan Finn and EJ Nielsen. Given that Hannibal remains largely unexplored due to its relatively recent run, Becoming positions itself as a general critical overview of the show, assembling an interdisciplinary collection of perspectives from gender studies, criminology, history, and beyond – alongside short contributions from some of the show’s creators.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Becoming positions itself as a critical overview of the show, assembling an interdisciplinary collection of perspectives from fields ranging from gender studies, criminology, history, and beyond—alongside short contributions from some of the show’s creators. What prevents Becoming from being overly broad is its chapters’ shared focus on Hannibal as a particularly complex work of adaptation. As a whole, the collection tracks how Hannibal transforms its often profoundly homophobic and transphobic source texts into a distinctly queer variation of the serial killer genre, often by focusing on the central relationship between Lecter and Graham.

One of the earliest essays in Becoming demonstrates the innovative possibility of this focus on adaptation, arguing that Hannibal fundamentally queers the notion of serialization itself by bringing a serial killer narrative to the serialized form of network TV. In their chapter, “Hannibal Lecter’s Monstrous Return: The Horror of Seriality in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal,” Jessica Balanzategui, Naja Later, and Tara Lomax examine how serialized storytelling tends to be disregarded as a “monstrous textual form” within television, literature, and cinema.[2] Instead of a single hermetic text, episodic network TV offers open-ended narratives marked by a “disruptive temporality, uncontainable textual scope, […] and resistance to closure, [brought about] by textual devices such as adaptation, sequels/prequels, [and] remaking.”[3]

The authors propose that this distaste for an aimless seriality is also central to the emergence of the serial killer as a figure of public anxiety during the 1970s and 1980s:

“Key to the horrifying nature of the serial killer is that he is motivated not by a quest for development according to a prewritten script of social and personal progress, but instead by a compulsion to [continually] restage the same violent and socially reprehensible act.”[4]

On one level, Hannibal Lecter embodies this monstrous seriality as the centrepiece of a sprawling constellation of cultural products which continually revisit and reimagine the same plot points, characters, and iconography. However, this refusal to be restricted to a single medium or consistent fictional canon is only part of the uncontainability that is central to Lecter’s continued appeal. In each of his incarnations, he embodies an abject challenge to both physical space (in his ability to manipulate others from within his cell) and a variety of sociocultural hierarchies (as a psychologist nonetheless marked as ‘pathological,’ who regards human bodies as raw materials for consumption). The authors suggest that this diegetic uncontainability works alongside the inherent circularity and endlessness of network TV narrative to situate Lecter in queer opposition to linear temporality (or, borrowing Lee Edelman’s terminology, “reproductive futurism”), and to instead create a sense of boundless potential:

“The imminent future becomes a liminal space in which deviant, alternate, and radical narratives may be explored.”[5]

A central component to each of Lecter’s manifestations across media is his capacity to influence events outside of his cell once incarcerated ...

…as well as his ability to escape from these physical confines.

Lecter further destabilizes this inside/outside binary through his existence as a cannibal, as Hannibal emphasizes by comparing the horrifying sight of internal organs ... …with the unsettling pleasure derived from the dishes Lecter turns them into.

This endless potentiality is evidenced by the thriving world of Hannibal fanfiction—especially given showrunner Bryan Fuller’s description of the show as “his own fanfiction” of the Lecter texts, which positions Hannibal as merely one non-authoritative narrative option amongst many.[6] This notion of Hannibal itself as queer fanfiction is further explored by Lori Morimoto in her meticulously detailed contribution to Becoming,“Hannibal: Adaptation and Authorship in the Age of Fan Production.” Like seriality, the refusal of fanfiction and other fanworks to fit within a single canon leads to disqualification, often along gendered lines:

“[I]nsofar as ‘fanfiction’ is written overwhelmingly by women, the term fanfiction is […] used pejoratively in writing by (often male) fan critics and media commentators as a way of foregrounding such texts’ feminized excesses and infidelities.”[7]

Morimoto goes on to describe how this sense of “infidelity” is a guiding principle of Hannibal’s approach to adaptation: instead of a reverential page-to-screen transcription of Harris’s novels, the show becomes a “multitextual palimpsest,” which recontextualizes, rearranges, and repurposes dialogue and incidents from its source texts to craft an original story of queer desire. [8]

Other contributions to Becoming echo this characterization of Hannibal as queer fanfiction as they consider the ways in which the show contends with the problematic aspects of its source texts. One such contribution, Ellie Lewerenz’s “Adapt. Evolve. Become: Queering Red Dragon in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal,” examines Hannibal’s loose, “cannibalistic” approach in adapting Harris’s first Lecter novel, Red Dragon (the source of many of the show’s main characters, as well as the basis for much of the third season’s plot).[9] Like the show, the novel Red Dragon presents protagonist Will Graham as troubled by his exceptional capacity for empathy—he is uniquely useful to the FBI for this ability to project himself into the mind of serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, but he fears that this affinity reveals an underlying ‘deviance’ in himself. Lewerenz suggests that, given Harris’s homophobic characterization of Dolarhyde, Graham’s internal struggle to disavow and contain his potential ‘deviance’ takes on a heteronormative resonance, and ultimately upholds the fictional detective’s conventional role as a “threshold between the normative and the nonnormative.”[10]

However, Lewerenz examines how the addition of a queer attachment between Graham and Lecter in Hannibal reframes this entire narrative. In both versions, Dolarhyde obsesses over the exaggerated musculature of the biblical Red Dragon as painted by William Blake, repeatedly stating that he is drawn to murder to enact a “becoming,” or self-realization of this powerful persona. Given the ending of Harris’ novel—Dolarhyde’s death and Graham’s return to his wife and son—this unrealized desire for self-transformation infers the pathology and impossibility of queer identity. Hannibal, however, instead ends with Graham and Lecter killing Dolarhyde together—suggesting the completion of Graham’s own “becoming,” and replacing the supposed impossibility of queerness with a sense of utopic possibility, evidenced by the closing exchange of the series:

Lecter: “See? This is all I ever wanted for you. For both of us.”
Graham: “It’s beautiful.” [11]

As such, Lewerenz offers a powerful demonstration of how fidelity and infidelity in adaptation can work together to salvage homophobic source texts:

“The faithful aspects of Hannibal’s adaptation process work together with elements of queer deconstruction […] so that even the most unmodified parts of the novel work towards a queering of the source.”[12]

The series ends with Lecter and Graham sharing an intimate moment and then tumbling off of a cliff – even as the camera zooms in to reveal and empty expanse of water below. Unlike Red Dragon, in which Graham returns to his family after Dolarhyde and Lecter are contained, the series offers an open horizon which recalls the infinite possibilities of José Esteban Muñoz’ description of a queer utopia.

This account is especially pertinent given that Dolarhyde is a clear precursor to Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill, the serial killer antagonist of the book/film The Silence of the Lambs who infamously personifies the endemic transphobia of Harris’s novels. Because the creators of Hannibal held the rights to adapt every piece of Lecter-related media except for Lambs, the series does not directly portray Gumb/Bill—but the legacy of Harris’s misrepresentation of trans identity looms large over the series. This issue is the focus of Evelyn Deshane’s contribution to Becoming, “The Great Red Dragon: Francis Dolarhyde and Queer Readings of Skin,” which argues that Hannibal uses the character of Dolarhyde to recognize and atone for the misrepresentation of trans identity offered by Gumb/Bill.

Recall that, in Harris’s original novel of The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter specifically states that Gumb/Bill is not transgender: “Billy’s not a transsexual [sic] […] but he thinks he is, he tries to be.”[13] However, this quick, off-handed distinction (repeated in the film adaptation) is insufficient to counteract Gumb/Bill’s personification of several harmful stereotypes associated with trans identity—as a killer pathologically driven to steal female skin by force. Harris’s characterization of Dolarhyde in Red Dragon is similar: like Gumb/Bill, he desires a total transformation of himself, attempting to facilitate his “becoming” the Red Dragon through the domination and victimization of others.

However, Deshane traces how Fuller’s show “preserve[s] […] the emotional core of the source text while actively changing the political and cultural connotations of the tools used to express this core.”[15] This shift towards a more humanized, sympathetic portray is largely achieved through the emphasis that Hannibal places on Reba, Dolarhyde’s romantic partner, who “accept[s] his identity [and thus] redeem[s] him from the internalized cisgender gaze that depicts trans people as monster or myth, joke or villain, pathetic or deceptive.”[16] This sense of redemption is reinforced rather than invalidated by the altered end of the series—which, as described above, replaces Graham’s fear “of becoming just like Hannibal Lecter or the Red Dragon” with a utopic sense of acceptance.[17] Deshane’s account encapsulates the conception of Hannibal that Becoming offers as a whole: as a series which rewrites and reframes misguided cultural scripts surrounding queer and trans identity without ever explicitly cueing that it is doing so, offering implicit acceptance in place of explicit Othering.  

I have not provided a comprehensive overview of the various contributions to Becoming; indeed, the sheer breadth and variety of criticism included in this relatively slim volume is a significant part of its charm. In the introduction, the editors suggest that their goal is to “start a conversation between scholars, fans, and those who fall into both categories,” and the resulting collection more than makes up for its broad focus by an infectious tone of enthusiasm.[18] The risk inherent to this approach is falling into hagiography—and certainly, the collection as a whole demonstrates a reverence towards the series that is only reinforced by a short forward by Janice Poon(the series’ food stylist) and an interview with Nick Antosca (a writer for the show’s third season) conducted by Matthew Sorrento.

The exception to this rule is one of Becoming’s strongest essays: “Hannibal the Cannibal: Tracking Colonial Imaginaries,” by Samira Nadkarni and Rukmini Pande. Here, the authors remind readers that the trope of cannibalism is inextricably tied to its colonial origins. They note the ways in which cannibalism has “been [historically] operationalized against entire populations” of Indigenous, Black, and brown people, to justify projects of “imperialism and conquest.”[19] While the figure of Lecter, in all of his incarnations, ostensibly intervenes into this history by situating the ‘monstrous’ condition of cannibalism in a white body, Nadkarni and Pande suggest the series merely reinforces these underlying racial and colonial hierarchies:

“[A]lthough fetishization of nonwhite bodies performing cannibalism informs a significant history of colonial writing, it is rarely presented as intimate, seductive, or desirably powerful within the space of popular consciousness that Hannibal occupies.”[20]

In other words, the construction of Lecter as monstrous relies on the fact that Lecter is white and a cannibal—the unspoken and troubling assumption being that this contradiction would not exist were he nonwhite. This chapter offers a pertinent reminder that while Hannibal offers a fascinating queer and trans reimagination of harmful tropes of pathology, the framework through which it does so is inherently limited in terms of race—in part due to the essential whiteness of the serial killer figure as imagined by popular culture.

Aesthetically, Hannibal continually conflates cannibalism with ‘fine dining’ – ostensibly imagining cannibalism outside of its racist, colonial framework while actually reinforcing a problematic conflation of whiteness and ‘sophistication.’

Collectively, Becoming makes a convincing case for Hannibal’s usefulness as a text – which, in its engagement with its problematic yet compelling source materials, reveals the absolute limits of queer representation on network TV. There is a sense throughout Becoming that Hannibal is a text whose possibilities have not yet been fully exhausted, reflected by the fact that most of the essays in the booktouch upon the show’s cancellation and fan hopes for a fourth season revival in some way. These analyses often focus upon the final image of the series: a vast expanse of empty water at the bottom of the cliff, where Lecter and Graham have just leapt in an embrace. As suggested by Lori Morimoto, this image “affirm[s] nothing so much as the open-ended possibilities of the writerly text”—and Lecter, like José Esteban Muñoz’s description of queer utopia as “not yet here,”[21] remains on the horizon, as an absence which can be filled by a fourth season, fanworks, or—as in the case of Becoming—a collection of scholarship.[22]