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Hannibal: The rare prequel that is both surprising and excellent
The best origin stories tell a story we know in a way that we don't
A new take on an old cannibal story: Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI Agent Will Graham.
A new take on an old cannibal story: Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI Agent Will Graham. Brooke Palmer/NBC
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here are few things more challenging than crafting a truly compelling prequel. Audiences walk in with the knowledge that there's a place the characters must wind up by the end, which can make watching a prequel feel like a game of connect-the-dots with a picture that's already clear. Many modern prequels reek of cashing in on beloved properties without having anything new or interesting to say about them — and if this is a problem for movies, it's an even bigger problem for TV series that should, in theory, be able to run for seasons on end.

It's a pleasant surprise, then, that one of the best new TV shows of the year is a prequel to both a series of novels and a series of films: NBC's Hannibal, which tells the story of FBI Agent Will Graham's relationship with Dr. Hannibal Lecter — most famously played by Anthony Hopkins — in the years before he's caught and imprisoned for his cannibalistic murders.

Hannibal's creative pedigree is undeniable. Showrunner Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me) has assembled a stellar cast including Hugh Dancy as Special Agent Will Graham, Laurence Fishburne as Will's boss Jack Crawford, and Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal himself. But even with those considerable talents, Hannibal's renewal for a second season and near-universal critical acclaim has come as something of a shock for a show many were prepared to dismiss as another shameless cash-in.

There's plenty that separates Hannibal from your average prequel. Hannibal's primary strengths are built into its structure. While typical network dramas run for more than 20 episodes each season — which often overstretches a serialized, character-based story — each season of Hannibal will run just 13 episodes, approximating the structure of cable TV prestige dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The shorter episode order not only allows the show's story to run more naturally; it also makes the show more likely to continue and therefore tell the full story. For a network drama, Hannibal is extremely cheap to produce (in part because of the 13-episode orders and in part because it's internationally financed).

Hannibal walks a careful line with its big-screen and literary predecessors, honoring them without following them too closely. Fuller has big long-term plans for the series, which he hopes will eventually catch up to its source material; he has said he envisions the storyline from Red Dragon forming the basis for season four (assuming the show stays on the air long enough to get there).

But despite Fuller's respect for the original films and novels, Hannibal also eschews the slavish devotion to the source material inherent in many prequels. Hannibal changes the fundamental narrative of the series far beyond simply updating its setting to 2013. Some of the characters have been substantially altered, like tabloid journalist Freddie Lounds, who is now a young female blogger instead of the sleaze played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film version of Red Dragon. Even the more familiar characters have been radically reinterpreted; where Anthony Hopkins' Lecter was both menacing and campy in The Silence Of The Lambs, Mikkelsen keeps Hannibal's true nature much closer to the vest, making the moments when he lets his inner monster out all the more terrifying. And in contrast to Red Dragon, which starred Edward Norton as a grimly determined Will Graham, Hannibal has Hugh Dancy's more troubled Will subjected to an "empathy disorder," which allows him to completely understand the motives and desires of serial killers. As he forms a close, intimate friendship with Hannibal, the show explores an entirely different sort of psychological trauma: The psychological toll of catching monsters.

In that sense, Hannibal isn't quite a prequel — at least, not in the way you're probably used to. That might sound like a bit of a cop-out, but Hannibal — while honoring its source material — has created just enough narrative space between its own world and the world of Red Dragon or Silence Of The Lambs to ensure that there's some genuine uncertainty about where this story is going. Case in point: The manner in which Will originally discovers Hannibal's secret in the novel — finding a drawing of a body identical to one of the victims — has been transferred to new character Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky) for the series, which means that viewers familiar with the original can't just assume that's how Will is going to find Hannibal out in season two or three. In that sense, Hannibal might actually be closer to something like Man Of Steel or The Amazing Spider-Man. The best origin stories tell a story we know in a way that we don't — and even if we know the ending, we don't know what it will take to get there. If Hannibal makes it that far, we can probably assume that Hannibal will end up working with Will from behind bars, just as he did in the novels and the films — but that doesn't make the ride any less thrilling.

Eric has written about TV, music, and books for The A.V. Club, Jewcy, and This Was TV. He is a third-year undergrad at the University of Chicago majoring in philosophy.

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