There are few pop culture villains who have made an impact as indelible as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Thomas Harris introduced the world to the debonair cannibal in the 1981 novel Red Dragon, which was soon followed by two sequels, a prequel, and a whole host of cinematic adaptations. The Jonathan Demme-directed adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the few horror movies to win Best Picture at the Oscars, while Sir Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Lecter has reached a level of icon status arguably matched only by Darth Vader.
Hannibal Lecter is an easy character to screw up or to inflate to unthreatening cartoonish levels. This is a criticism Hopkins faced when he reprised the role in both Hannibal and Red Dragon. The part on the page is a heavily layered series of contradictions: An elite social animal who views other human beings as nothing but pigs; an immigrant with a bleak past whose revenge tactics have rendered him near impossible to sympathize with; a genius whose snobbery frequently gets the better of him. Most adaptations didn't dig into the rich material of his pre-jail time, since the most memorable parts of the novels come from his institute interactions with Will Graham and Clarice Starling. That left a lot of untapped potential on the table for the right creator and the right actor to explore. So, in 2013, along came Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen.
Fuller, best known for a series of prematurely cancelled shows (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls), took the reins of a Hannibal Lecter prequel series that imagined Lecter's life before anyone in Baltimore figured out he was a cannibal, cultivating a relationship with the troubled FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to manipulate him from figuring out the truth. It remains something of a minor miracle that NBC not only greenlit Hannibal but gave it three seasons. It's a deeply strange and utterly un-mainstream show chock full of intensely dreamlike moments and baroque violence, topped off with two lead characters who can't decide whether they want to kill one another or be in love. How this show got made it to network television when it contained a scene of a man eating his own nose is something we'll probably never get answers to, but I remain forever grateful that it happened.
At the heart of the show was Mikkelsen's performance. The Danish actor was well-known to English-speaking audiences thanks to his turn as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (he's the one smacking Daniel Craig's balls with a big chunk of rope). When he signed onto the series, he had just won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, and many thought he was taking a major step down, going from celebrated auteurs to an American network procedural. However, the role of Hannibal gave him every opportunity to show off just how great an actor he is and allowed him to utterly reinvent the part in a way that made him the best iteration of the character. (Yes, I went there. Sorry, Anthony Hopkins.)
Mikkelsen is king of the micro-expression, those little lifts of the eyebrows or quirks of the mouth that subtly convey everything he's thinking or planning at any given moment. This is perfectly put to action through Hannibal, a charismatic doctor who can only just hide his disgust for the "pigs" he's surrounded with. One thing we seldom see in other Lecter adaptations is the charm that won over Baltimore's elite to the point where the upper classes were scrambling to attend his human-meat filled dinner parties. In Hannibal, Mikkelsen makes it both wholly understandable that people keep throwing themselves at Lecter, even as he seems disdainful of their presence.
TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz once said that the characters on Hannibal spout "dialogue that sounds like what vampires might say to each other if they got stoned." That perfectly encapsulates the heightened, operatic tone of the show. Even as Mikkelsen and the ensemble give performances rooted in realism (no soap opera tantrums or fava beans slurping here), their conversations are rooted somewhere between Victorian gothic and '80s romance novels. It all sounds utterly natural coming from Mikkelsen's mouth, taken just seriously enough and played appropriately for each tonal shift. He gets that the show's black comedy needs moments to shine, as seen in moments where he casually kills someone at a dinner party then admits "that may have been impulsive" or the odd look of glee on his face when the despicable Mason Verger's assistant tells him how he plans to cook and prepare Hannibal for dinnertime.
What Mikkelsen brings more to the table than other Hannibal actors is a particular brand of physicality. It's easy to imagine how this tall, handsome figure in stuffy plaid suits could suddenly strike like a cobra when an enemy enters his territory. The naturalness of his knifework in the kitchen quickly shifts into skills of murderous efficiency when the occasion calls for it. It helps that Mikkelsen is a former acrobat and ballet dancer, something that Bryan Fuller seemed keen to take advantage of at every possible opportunity.
The best enthralling moments of Hannibal come when he interacts with Will Graham, the disturbed professor whose heightened empathy allows him to see into the kinds of practically anyone but especially killers. As Will is sent to crime scene after crime scene by his boss, Jack Crawford, he slowly descends into mental peril and is encouraged to view Hannibal, his unofficial therapist, as his safe port in the storm. It's easy to be captivated by Hannibal, even as his gaslighting tactics coax Will into believing he's gone mad when in reality his problem is a brain infection. As Will discovers the truth and enters a battle for supremacy over Hannibal, the stakes get higher but so does the verbal sparring. All of this is peppered with the awareness of duel obsession. Long before the show ever said it out loud, audiences knew that Will and Hannibal had a kind of chemistry that suggested mutual adoration as much as hatred. They're definitely in love, and Mikkelsen and Dancy clearly got that from the earliest points in the series. What do you do when you can't live with or without the man who seems determined to destroy you? If you're Hannibal, you try to eat him, but when that fails... who knows?
Audiences only ever got three seasons of Hannibal, which was far more than we'd ever expected but still not enough. The show's dedicated fanbase, who call themselves Fannibals, still proudly preach for it and the cast and crew have all said they'd happily return for a fourth season if it were to ever happen. Personally, as much as I would love more of the series, I think its finale is perfect and would be satisfied if that was all I got. It's miraculous that we ever got the show and that we got to witness Mads Mikkelsen redefine a pop culture icon. Who else could make cannibalism look that good?