Over the weekend, inspired by the recent TV series Hannibal and the odd Hulu Plus policy that had made the pilot freely available but had apparently restricted the second episode to online only, I wandered over to my bookshelf and grabbed my old copy of Manhunter. It’s a great film, and I didn’t feel like hooking the computer up to the television. Hey. It was a long day. Enough with the judging. 

You shouldn’t be judging anyway. Manhunter is fantastic. It looks beautiful. Mann is in top form, putting his characters in sterile consumer catalogue shots from the future and making it look beautiful. This is a film that happily dates itself but actually comes off looking better with age. The performances are wonderful too, with Brian Cox fantastic as Hannibal Lecktor for all the psychopath thriller genre hipsters out there. Dennis Farina puts in a remarkable performance as Dennis Farina, which is to say that he’s really, really great. William Petersen reminds us of a gentler time, when CSI was but a glint in his steely eyes, putting in a very nice performance as Will Graham, the empathetic investigator called in to try and find a serial killer before he strikes again. 

The killer adheres to a lunar cycle, but the plot doesn’t put an awful lot of stress on the “countdown” leading up to his next insane attack until one of the better scenes in the film: a hectic attempt by Graham and the FBI to decode secret messages between the killer and Lecktor without alerting the latter to their interference. This is a story concerned almost exclusively with our protagonist. Graham is genuinely tortured. We’re shown him hugging his wife, fighting with her, talking to his son in the grocery store, but we’re ushered away from maudlin shoegazing throughout. It’s the little things that keep me interested in Graham. Calling his wife in the middle of the night to connect with another human being amid the horror of his investigation. His final act, a rash decision that effectively puts the lives of other police officers in danger, can be read in two different ways: a cheap action film denouement that doesn’t mind sacrificing unidentified minor characters or a foolish decision by the protagonist borne of his own fragile state of mind and desperation. I choose to believe that it is the latter. 

I suppose it’s possible I’m giving Manhunter too much credit, but mostly I wanted to write about how much I like the central character. Will Graham is the best character that Thomas Harris has brought us. Lecter (or Lecktor) has never really graduated into some kind of popular cultural bogeyman; rather he has remained a “classic character” played by Anthony Hopkins, a perception that ignores Cox’s prior performance and that is only now being challenged by Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in the new television show.  Whether you consider Hopkins’ performance to be comically overblown or not,* Hannibal Lecter seems, these days, to inspire television and film executives more than he does actual genre fans. He has graduated from a genuinely powerful pop culture figure to a character that will be wheeled out in front of us at every opportunity, slurping and leering and grasping at our wallets. Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of people working in entertainment with market research that would point out this doesn’t seem to sap the depth of the character’s popularity. 

*For what it is worth, I do not. It’s easy to criticize Hopkins but his Lecter, particularly in Silence of the Lambs, was genuinely successful. In many ways the criticism of the character is an inevitable product of Hopkins’ success in portraying him.  

No, I find Will Graham a lot more interesting than Lecter, and I suspect that not only am I not alone, but that I am part of a sizeable constituency among the audience for network television crime thrillers. With Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the character in the new show, I find myself remarkably happy to welcome the troubled investigator back. True, the character was revived in 2002’s Red Dragon, but I’d really rather not think about that too much. Dancy’s Graham shares a lot in common with Petersen’s: the guy’s got what we used to call “issues.” Ask your parents and older (and therefore cooler) friends, kids. However, unlike so many other characters, Graham’s issues feel tangible despite the relative lack of detail fed to the audience, genuinely visceral when conveyed. Television and film are often remarkably violent with no sense of responsibility whatsoever. I do not subscribe to theories that this affects the behaviour of individuals out there in the real world (if it truly does exist) but I know that cheap violence lessens dramatic effect. In a medium (network television) where gore is rather common, it’s refreshing that we have a show in Hannibal that stops and shows you just how difficult this is for our protagonist to take. 

That’s the central mechanic to Will Graham as a character, and it’s what makes him compelling. Hannibal seems to understand this, which is great; Lecter only really becomes tedious when he’s taken for granted either through too much attention being paid to him or too little. When used correctly, you can see why the character is so popular. Using him correctly means placing him in opposition to Will Graham and developing that relationship. Going backwards in Graham’s story makes perfect sense. One of the few things I found interesting about Red Dragon was the decision to actually show us the moment in which Graham realized he was betrayed, though truth be told once I had seen it wasn’t sure I had needed to. It’s almost a throwaway line in Manhunter, the complex relationship between Graham and Lecktor something that is simply presented to the audience and that works thanks largely to Petersen’s and Cox’s performances. It was always going to be an interesting topic to go back to. There’s nothing for Graham going forward; once he has caught the Tooth Fairy he is finally done, emotionally spent. Having a Continuing Adventures of Will Graham storyline would be utterly ridiculous, though I suspect we have been saved from it only because there has been so much focus on Lecter. The development of the relationship between the two has always had potential because Graham, despite his virtually superhuman abilities as an investigator, is profoundly human and more horrified than most fictional investigators by the crimes he was written to solve. I’m thrilled to see this dynamic explored so skilfully in the new show, honestly. I was extremely pessimistic having seen the promo spots. It seems that Hannibal has garnered a lot of positive reaction and I’m not surprised. I hope this show gets the support it deserves. 

NOTE: I haven’t mentioned Clarence Starling here at all. This is largely because I don’t recall enough of the Silence of the Lambs either in film of novel form (The Silence of the Lambs is the only Thomas Harris book that I have read). The complete absence of any mention is also because I want an excuse to watch The Silence of the Lambs again soon. Maybe I can write out a Starling v. Graham showdown.

2 thoughts on “Will Graham’s Humanity

  1. The issue with Edward Norton in Red Dragon is that he plays Graham like just another bureaucrat, when he is supposed to be a cop with "issues" and specific traits. In the book and in Manhunter they talk for instance about the kind of gun Graham uses. Thriller fans don't really care about that. But for those of us that like Graham as a character, (and for those who prefere Noir over Thriller) it helps depict him as what he is : not a super hero, not supernatural being, but a FBI special agent who tries to be professional and is yet crushed by his own obsessions and fears. In that sense, Petersen had struck the right note : he looks and behave like an odd cop in the middle of boring cops, when Norton was on the classy G man side and Dancy is on the verge of pushing his portrayal into pure madness. Same thing with Lecter/Lektor. When you see him the first time in Manhunter there is no doubt that the guy is mad. In Hannibal the movie, I read that the director wanted to show an evil genius and not a madman, which -to me- sounds like a pretty bad idea : I mean we're not dealing with Palpatine here, Lecter needs to show that there's something in him he can't control. Silence had this, Manhunter too. In the TV show we have a way better picture of his manipulating abilities, Lecter really appears like a believable genius. It's done better than in Hannibal the movie but I'm still waiting for that moment when Mikkelsen shows something he can't repress, something more on the mad side. Again, In Manhunter, just by the tone of voice of Cox, you hear that there is something really wrong about the guy. So yeah, Manhunter had something special, it's an interpretation that many would not like, but when I was in high school it just looked and felt right to me.


  2. Really interesting comment. I'm actually reading Red Dragon at the moment, for the first time. I can see where the new series took the book as a jumping off point. I actually like how they've done it, as they've pitched their interpretation as so "loosely" connected to the book that they've been able to go all over the place. So Graham's brief problems after killing the Minnesota Shrike have been extrapolated into something much more central to his own arc.I agree that Manhunter gets it right. I like the new show (of course, it's played out its first series since I wrote the post above) but it's a different beast in many ways. I do like that they've recovered Lector. As you say, he was becoming a kind of mastermind villain when that simply isn't what he is. Lector is a mastermind in the series, sure, but he's an immensely unsettling personality. As for sticking to the source material though, I go with Manhunter.


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