Fargo and Hannibal lead the way in TV adaptations

Fargo and Hannibal lead the way in TV adaptations

By ADITYA MANI JHA | | 5 September, 2015
A still from Hannibal.

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen is the kind of guy film directors love: with his commanding screen presence, his understated dialogue delivery and air of unfazed calmness, he has played hero, villain and everything in between over the years. His collaborations with compatriot Nicholas Winding Refn have been reflective of his brilliance: the first two films of the Pusher trilogy and Valhalla Rising. He was terrific as the Bond villain Le Chiffre as well. But for Hollywood, Mikkelsen will now be remembered mainly for the titular role in the TV show Hannibal, which concluded a week ago, cancelled despite consistent critical acclaim throughout its three seasons. 

Mikkelsen’s cannibalistic psychiatrist, Dr Hannibal Lecter, was a character made famous by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs (and its sequel Hannibal). But Mikkelsen’s performance has been enjoyed so much by fans and critics alike that the creator, Bryan Fuller, has been pelted with requests to adapt the events of Silence of the Lambs as well: the show is about events prior to the beginning of the film. This marks a rare victory for television over the movies, especially since the show was often criticised for taking too many liberties with the film’s back story: even when the third season of Hannibal tinkered with its own back story to provide a rare glimpse into Lecter’s childhood and adolescence. 

Fuller and the show’s writers had one thing going for them: the excellent Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris (most notably Red Dragon), which focused on the investigations of FBI profiler Will Graham, played superbly by Hugh Dancy. Obviously, a novelist’s leisurely unfurling of a character is more in sync with television’s episodic format than a two-hour-long movie. It helps, of course, that Dancy has been hugely impressive as Graham, particularly in the second and third seasons. His dependence upon intellectual jousts with his worst enemy lead him down a path of ever-escalating violence and savagery. Ed Norton’s Will Graham in the film Red Dragon was deeply unsatisfactory in comparison, coming off as a cliché for the most part.  

Unlike Hannibal, we will get to see more of Fargo in the near future. The acclaimed FX series, which has been renewed for a second season, will return next month with new episodes. Fargo is the perfect example of how television is utilising previously adapted raw material today: it has characters that are loose analogues to the originals, something that gives the writers a rough framework to begin with along with the freedom to make the characters their own. Also, the storytelling quirks of the original makers (the Coen brothers in this case) are given little tips of the hat: Fargo featured several allusions to the film of the same name, right down to the cross-stitch poster.

A novelist’s leisurely unfurling of a character is more in sync with television’s episodic format than a two-hour-long movie. It helps, of course, that Dancy has been hugely impressive as Graham, particularly in the second and third seasons.

Gotham and Daredevil are two recent shows that can be said to have improved the legacy of its characters, undoing damage done by previous, less-than-competent movie adaptations. Thanks to Christopher Nolan, Batman’s stock has been rising in recent years. But the world of Gotham has more to do with over-the-top, flamboyant Batman villains like The Penguin, not sophisticated, charming sociopaths like Nolan’s Al Ghul family. And acts like Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dr Freeze are now cannon fodder for satirists, a far cry from the terrifying antagonists they were meant to be. Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin (aka Oswald Cobblepot) and Cory Michael Smith’s Riddler have titled the scales back in favour of Gotham’s “freakshow” villains.

Things are not always this smooth, though. The Firm, one of John Grisham’s bestselling legal potboilers, was turned into a TV series of the same name in 2012. In 1993, Tom Cruise had starred in a movie adaptation of the book. The plot was simple enough: it followed the fortunes of young attorney Mitchell McDeere, who becomes a whistleblower against his employers, a shadowy law firm backed by the mob. The series, interestingly, serves as a sequel to the novel (and the film). Here’s why it didn’t work: the intervening 20 years have completely changed the face of legal thrillers. The slick, forbidding, vaguely ominous air of the original film was nowhere to be seen in the series. Instead, we had well-heeled people in suits threatening people in the middle of crowded corridors, or doing the walk-and-talk repartee scene, a favourite of Aaron Sorkin and others. In my view, The Firm would have been better off focusing on the novel and perhaps some original material set in the years before the novel began.  

Because of television’s ongoing golden era, budgets are up across the board. Creators will inevitably look at raw material that deserved more from Hollywood. Can we hope for a six-part Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or a Kill Bill adult animation series? The possibilities are limitless.  

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