Not Just Another Serial Killer Show: Hannibal, Complexity, and the Televisual Palimpsest

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Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels – Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising – have been source material for a total of five cinematic adaptations. Bryan Fuller’s serialised television series Hannibal (NBC 2013-15) stands as the sixth text to be based upon Harris work, albeit one that presents itself as much as prequel as adaptation. While showrunner Bryan Fuller professes to ‘stay true’ to Harris’s style, Harris’ work integrates the police procedural with Gothic horror. In contrast, Fuller’s series utilizes its long form narrative to construct a complex generic matrix. This is a series that problematizes notions of adaptation alongside storytelling conventions and generic boundaries by overtly blurring lines between source text and adaptation, dream and reality, art and exploitation, gothic and horror. This chapter examines how Hannibal offers an instructive case study of Jason Mittell’s notion of ‘complex TV’, a ‘new paradigm’ for television that Mittell argues ‘redefine[es] the boundary between episodic and serial forms, within a heightened degree of self-consciousness in storytelling mechanics, and demanding intensified viewer engagement focused on both diegetic pleasures and formal awareness’ (2015, 53). The chapter considers how at a glance the show appears to be a linear telling of Hannibal’s backstory, as alluded to in Red Dragon, filling in the narrative gaps with original material, while actually offering a complex reworking of the literary and cinematic Hannibal Lecter series, alongside creative genre revision. In this series, Fuller playfully integrates intertextual references to both the books and films, bringing in moments from the later texts into this new narrative, while also interweaving the narrative with evocations of the grotesque and the Gothic and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. As I demonstrate, Hannibal challenges us to consider complex TV as a dialogue between texts and across media, a televisual palimpsest in which elements of previous adaptations and other texts, narrative and aesthetic, are embedded within the matrix of the series, reworking and transforming Harris’ stories, not only making them suitable for television but signaling the changing face of twenty-first century TV. © 2019, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. The attached document (embargoed until 11/07/2020) is an author produced version of a paper published in QUARTERLY REVIEW OF FILM AND VIDEO uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self- archiving policy. The final published version (version of record) is available online at the link below. Some minor differences between this version and the final published version may remain. We suggest you refer to the final published version should you wish to cite from it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)552-567
JournalQuarterly Review of Film and Video
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2019


  • Hannibal, Adaptation, Palimpsest, Television

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