You Are What You Eat: How Hannibal Brought Cannibalism Back to Pop Culture’s Dinner Table

Over twenty years after Silence of the Lambs, Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal brought a much needed revival to the representation of cannibals.

Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is many things. It’s a dark fairy tale with no redeeming hero, it’s a Shakespearean Tragedy; and a comedy in which puns are the punchline. It’s also a series of dramatic tableaux of a man transformed into a violin or a woman split in six, as well as a religious invocation, all wrapped up in the blanket term of “horror.” And the show’s complexity ‐ which is perhaps one of the reasons it was canceled far too early ‐ is mirrored in its eponymous character (played by Mads Mikkelsen). Where Phelim O’Neill describes Hannibal Lecter as “witty and cultured,” Emily Nussbaum notes how Mikkelsen plays him with “waxwork hauteur.” Matt Zoller Seitz appreciates Fuller’s use of relationships-as-metaphors, with the show’s core tension between Hannibal and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham being a “metaphor for the relationship between the artist and a viewer.” Hannibal is clearly the former.

From Hannibal’s appreciation of art to the intricate placement of his specially prepared food, Hannibal’s worldbased on Thomas Harris’ original novels ‐ and the titular character shows how this is a portrayal of a refined, artistic and emotional version that has extended from, and built upon, its cannibal predecessors. Moreover, whilst the show remains cancelled, the rise of cannibals-as-metaphors rather than cannibals-as-villains depictions have been increasing since Hannibal’s 2013 introduction, with the already released The Neon Demon and soon-t0-be-released Santa Clarita Diet proving there’s (a somewhat unsettling) relate-ability to be found in the cannibals of the fictional world.

Netflix’s Suburban Cannibal Horror Comedy Looks Good Enough to Eat

After the 70s, 80s and 90s’ ubiquity of choice in regards to cannibal-based films (just some examples include Bob Balaban’s Parents, Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust) the late 2000s saw a decrease in complex cannibal portrayals. While cannibal depictions exist in comics (Rob Guillory and John Layman’s Chew) and video games (The Walking Dead, Fallout), the most recent and enduring film examples of the 21st century ‐ including a smaller list of Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ‐ emphasize how Fuller’s Hannibal brought a much-needed revival to the cannibal genre.

Fuller’s use of visual metaphors, such as the smashing teacup motif, and cinema-as-poetry shots of the ugly turned into the beautiful (take, for example, a torso turning into a walking stag), and it’s hard to miss Hannibal’s originality. Yet it’s in the show’s influences that the enduring effect of Hannibal can be seen, as well as how it takes traditions and twists them in order to follow the show’s rules. From the humor of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen to the cinematic poetry of Jean Cocteau and format of serialized formulaic shows including The X-Files, Fuller’s show takes the best of the films and shows the came before it, often referencing them within his dialogue and on-screen visuals. As each season continues, we see Hannibal building upon these influences, adding its own narrative to the cannibal world.

Delicatessen (dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991).

The visual conceits present in Delicatessen ‐ for example, the tension created by the constant squeaking of the bed ‐ and the portrayal of the post-apocalyptic poverty-stricken society are mirrored in Hannibal. The poverty of Clapet’s (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) customers against his daughter’s (Marie-Laure Dougnac’s Julie) playing of the cello are tensions that are translated into Hannibal through the lack of culture in Will’s life and Hannibal’s victims versus his self-curated exhibition that is his existence. His tartan, perfectly tailored suits connote his control; his curated dinner parties emphases his sophistication; and his murders-as-art reveal to audiences Hannibal’s belief in himself as an artist and not as the viewer. As Nussbaum writes of the episode where Hannibal has sewn together a group of people to form an eye:

“The image suggests outrageous ideas: one eye gazing at another, God at his creation, his creation back at God, through the open pupil of the building’s roof. Hannibal calls down to the killer, ‘I love your work.’”

Here, Hannibal is represented both as a God ‐ or the God ‐ viewing his finished masterpiece as well as a living and breathing pawn in the workings of God’s game; a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle of life. And it’s from the depiction of these biblical conceits where viewers can see how Hannibal improves upon another significant predecessor, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins’ reiteration of Dr. Lecter is dramatically evil in a theatre-like manner, and his murders contrast his belief in the beautiful through their gory representation after the murder has been committed. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s portrayal speaks to a more subtle evil that is both literally and figuratively able to get inside the mind’s of his victims, while for most of Season 1 and parts of Season 2 viewers rarely see Mikkelsen’s Hannibal killing his victims. Instead, Fuller retains the vision Hannibal sees through the eyes of Will and Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford, emphasizing Hannibal’s disturbing craft as well as his ability to convey messages through people. Where The Silence of the Lambs uses its cinematography to work against Hannibal, Fuller’s show uses its camerawork to work with him.

Orphée (dir. Jean Cocteau, 1950).

However, the show does not use gore just for the sake of it; there’s a reason behind everything in the world of Hannibal, and this is where the influence of Jean Cocteau can be seen. Much like Cocteau is concerned with fairytales and classic mythologies, Hannibal often finds itself in the realm of classic stories. Building upon its Season 1 conventional format of a familiar formula and storyline, each episode is in the style of typical crime dramas as well as The X-Files because of its undoubtedly cult-status type concern with the Other. Season 3, in particular, is presented as dark as the original fairytales we all know today originally were. Moreover, just from the first episode of the final season alone, the visual poetics that are intrinsic to Hannibal’s fairytale atmosphere are witnessed. Hannibal’s exhaust engine metamorphoses into the moon which then metamorphoses into the front of his motorbike as his motorbike’s headlight, all while the circular light of the Eiffel Tower follows him around. This moonlight conceit continues throughout the season with the most obvious example being the monochrome flashbacks to Hannibal and Abel Gideon’s (Eddie Izzard) time together, highlighting the dream-like space of this time.

This portrayal of the fairytale has resonance in society, too. For the Telegraph Amanda Craig describes that:

“cannibals ‐ unlike vampires, werewolves or zombies ‐ have a basis in reality, although it is, as far as anthropologists can tell, the only near-universal taboo,”

continuing by discussing how the classic cannibal became “the repository for all our fears of the alien,” concluding that “it’s entertaining in fantasy.” Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is a vessel in which all our fears are stored, and Fuller writes Hannibal in a way that allows him to construct our fears in an artistic, somewhat digestible manner, all in the safe place of the viewer. Nussbaum describes the show as “a show that regards spectacle with a sort of worship,” and Zoller Seitz as a love story. Whilst these critics are talking about themes of worship and love stories regarding what’s within the show, they can easily be applied to the fanbase of Hannibal. From Tumblrs dedicated to parodying culture using scenes from the show to cute Funko Pop! Vinyl figures being released, both Hannibal and the portrayal of cannibals has been culturally renewed thanks to the small but impactful Hannibal fanbase, the self-described “Fannibals.”

Edmond (dir. Nina Gantz, 2015).

Craig describes that this “gruesome fascination” of cannibals “tends to rise during times of social unrest,” and with the political unrest that seems to be haunting the world in a badly spray-tanned orange ball of hateful rhetoric right now, it’s not surprising cannibals are making a comeback. 2015 saw Nina Gantz’s BAFTA-winning Edmond (which can be watched here), a film that artfully explores the psyche of a helpless cannibal who can’t stop himself from eating the ones he loves. We see Edmond cowering from his mother as he is pushed deeper into his past by the image of her severed finger; as he retrieves memories from his childhood he escapes into his mother’s womb; and a conceit of a fish appears throughout the film, tying his memories to the present day. He is the embodiment of someone who loves people so much he wants to eat them, except Edmond does this. Likewise, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon explores this type of eating through darkly comic humor, and Julia Ducournau’s Raw uses cannibalism to portray an array of aspects of life, such as youth and morality. None of these films are horror films.

From the safe distance of viewer rather than participant, the Drew Barrymore-starring Santa Clarita Diet and Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure shows how far the evolution of the representation of cannibals is going. Yet we shouldn’t let this distance blind as, since, as Raw’s director Ducournau states, we shouldn’t label cannibals as “inhuman, […] they’re people.” And without Hannibal and its dedicated fanbase that turn nightmares into dreams, this complex and dynamic resurgence may never have happened.

Freelance writer based in the UK.