What’s in a name? Asks one of the most annoyingly overused quotes in history. When it comes to movies and television, a lot – most importantly, brand recognition. That’s why reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings (all names for the same thing, really) are so commonplace. Even with the constant internet outrage at seeing favorite properties repurposed, bastardized, and modernized (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), it’s still easier to reuse an established title than try and build a fresh franchise. Yet despite the critical and commercial failures of many recent cinematic high-profile re-imaginings (e.g. RoboCop and Total Recall), reviving older movies- or at least their names – has found success on television.
Movies have almost always provided television with inspiration. Along with the countless cartoons adaptations, numerous live action programs have been prompted by a cinematic counterpart. The earliest major success would probably be the Korean War sitcom M*A*S*H (from the Academy Award-winning Robert Altman movie, which came from the Richard Hooker novel), which ran from 1972-1983 and expanded on the characters and the relationships of the people stationed at the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital. In more modern times, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) took a forgettable Valley Girl comedy and developed a huge mythology that earned a significant cult fanbase and launched the careers of many people, not the least being creator Joss “The Avengers” Whedon.
The latest television season brought with it the second season of NBC’s Hannibal and the FX miniseries Fargo, based on Hannibal Lecter and the Coen Brothers film, respectively. They both ended up among the best things broadcast over the past year. Though they divert from the much-loved source material, these have proven themselves as worthy successors to their Oscar-winning forbearers by being something worth honoring in their own right.
As with cinema’s best re-imaginings, these works use our familiarity with the past as a springboard to develop completely new material while retaining what made their predecessors special. Unlike most modern movie re-imaginings, however, TV’s recent re-imaginings seem to see the original work as a mine they can tap rather than a sign to hang in front of their store. The people behind the scenes clearly took the time and exerted the effort to learn what made their source material tick and why audiences connected with them. These re-imaginings succeeded not by repeating popular lines or reusing a costume, but by letting the originals’ souls direct them into new areas.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with NBC’s Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most renowned film characters of the past 25 years. Sure, he started in books by Thomas Harris, but it was Jonathan Demme’s multiple-Academy Award-winning movie that propelled The Cannibal into an icon. This role has been so ingrained in our pop culture consciousness that it was doubtful someone could provide a completely new take on him – if not because of the actor’s talents, then because of the studio playing too heavily towards what it thinks the audience expects and wants. The Silence sequels Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002), and Hannibal Rising (2007) took away a lot of the character’s allure by playing up his most notable traits to the point of self-parody.
Enter series creator Bryan Fuller and star Mads Mikkelsen, who allowed us access to something no other incarnation has really allowed us to see: Hannibal in the wild. We’ve constantly been told that Hannibal can get into people’s minds; now we can fully grasp what that actually means. During the bloody final sequence in the second season finale entitled “Mizmono,” Hannibal’s pawns (the FBI affiliated Will Graham, Jack Crawford, and Alana Bloom, among others) are paralyzed with fear and doubt as they have lost the ability to tell if their actions are their own or if they were pre-determined by Hannibal himself. The good doctor obviously enjoys seeing his plan come to fruition, but he doesn’t express this through gloating. An utter, chilling coldness lets everyone know his dominance – and he does it without speaking a word.
Television made successful iteration possible where the movie franchise failed by returning to the core of the characters rather than to the actors playing the characters. Whereas the Silence series felt compelled to repeat what Hopkins brought to the role, Hannibal (the TV show) was allowed to create Lecter fresh. With the Doctor having complete access to a wide array of resources, we are able to witness the various mindgames he can play; the different ways he mentally tortures people by preying on their individual neuroses and insecurities. Not to mention his adeptness at gourmet cooking, which the show uses supremely well to combine horror and artistry. There’s no goofy eating-one’s-own-brains moment this go around.
The applies to Will Graham, who was never particularly well-done on film before. As portrayed by Hugh Dancy (previously played by William Peterson in the underrated Manhunter, Michael Mann’s 1986 version of Red Dragon where Lecter was played by Brian Cox, and by Edward Norton in the lackluster Red Dragon ), the overly empathic FBI consultant is more than just a broody protagonist but a fascinating character on his own. In earlier versions, we’re told that the personal history of Graham/Lecter and Hannibal’s betrayal affected Graham deeply, but now we actually feel how warped, disconcerting, and life changing the experience was. By developing the psychological and emotional depth of the relationship slowly over time, the series lets us fully understand how interconnected they were, and it finally make sense why the relationship broke Will. TV might have more space to do this than a film, but the principle is sound in any medium.
In series across every medium, certain characters might need to be the same from installment to installment, but that doesn’t mean they need to remain unchanged. Whether prequel or sequel, the film franchise kept pounding what hit in Silence without offering anything new. Hannibal put the focus on Hannibal, Will, and the relationship between the two rather than once again placing Lecter center stage or starting them off with this tragic history having already occurred. This appreciation of gradual character growth over quick plot satisfaction is something that television seems more willing and able to accomplish than major motion picture franchises right now, and partially why binge watching has become a national pastime.
Next time on “Putting ‘Imagining’ Into ‘Re-Imagining'”: I use the FX miniseries Fargo to show how television re-imaginings can succeed in another way- by complementing and exploring the themes of the original movie.