Thursday, February 6, 2014

From FBI to NBC: Brian Fuller Brings Will Graham to the Small Screen

by Chelsea Ennen

Ah, February.  A month usually reserved for television premieres the studio didn’t think worthy of the fall lineup, this year it boasts cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s return to NBC (those who find Dr. Lecter’s cooking or plot spoilers unappetizing should proceed with caution).  For those not familiar with Thomas Harris’ novels or the films based on them, Dr. Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist/deranged serial killer who is called on from prison to help the FBI profile and catch killers.  Hannibal the TV show, which premiered last year and stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham, expands on Harris’ novels to explore Lecter’s work with the FBI before his incarceration.  The show is a prequel to the first Lecter novel, Red Dragon, and focuses on special investigator Will Graham as he works with FBI agent Jack Crawford and renowned psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter to solve grisly murder cases.  Mr. Fuller, creator of the criminally short-lived series Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, certainly went where no adaptation has gone before by expanding on Harris’ storyline, but also went where mainstream media has never gone before by staying true to protagonist Will Graham. 
            Adapting a novel into a visual medium like film or TV is a notoriously tricky process that often leaves important aspects of the book behind.  Previous films primarily included the horror Will feels when his profiling capabilities lead him to identify with killers, but in the novel there’s much more going on.  Part of Harris’ genius is his ability to make his audience intimately understand vicious killers like Francis Dolarhyde but also well-meaning FBI agents like Will Graham.  It would be unfair to such fine films to say they completely failed, but “Movie Will” has been less complex than “Book Will” in the past.  In order to distinguish his show from other adaptations, Fuller needed to bring his audience closer to Will Graham than ever before.   
            Fuller’s Will Graham is an expansion of traits included in Red Dragon, and his introduction in the pilot is an admirably insightful portrayal.  After investigating a murder Will explains the case to his class at the FBI academy.  When the class leaves, Jack Crawford approaches him and Will places his glasses on his nose with extra care.  “I understand it’s difficult for you to be social,” says Jack.  Suddenly he gives Will a knowing smile, asks, “May I?” and gently reaches out to adjust Will’s glasses: glasses we now realize were carefully placed so Will could avoid holding eye contact.  When Jack asks Will where he is “on the spectrum” Will replies that he is “closer to Aspergers and Autistics than narcissists and sociopaths.”  From here we get an explanation of Will’s extraordinary imagination and on we go to the plot. 
            But what a concept: a spectrum for different mental states.  This idea of neurodiversity, of everyone being somewhere within a spectrum, is nothing new.  People all over the world with various degrees and kinds of mental illness already understand that the binary construction of “normal” people and “crazy” people is absurdly reductive.  One can differ from the accepted cultural norm in a myriad of ways without losing their humanity.  While there certainly is a place for stories like Silver Linings Playbook where a character has an explicit diagnosis (in that case, Bipolar Disorder) that defines their development in the plot, it is important that those aren’t the only stories being told.  Throwing a label on a character often separates them from the audience and prevents a story from being truly accessible. 
Relating to Will Graham is going to be difficult for a general audience because he can’t be put in a box.  His mental state is something he must work to live with not work to overcome, which isn’t what we’re used to seeing.  We’ve seen Parenthood, which tells us not to connect with Max as he grows up with Asperger’s Syndrome but to feel sorry for his parents.  We’ve seen The Big Bang Theory, which treats Sheldon Cooper (who is not labeled with a diagnosis but is clearly framed as a man with Asperger’s Syndrome) like an annoying punch line.  But Will’s mental state, while an integral part of his character and his abilities as a profiler, is not used to make the audience pity him.  It is Lecter’s intervention and manipulation that undoes Will throughout Hannibal’s first season, not any perceived flaw in Will’s personality.
However the fact still remains that an audience must connect to their protagonist, and Fuller had to find some way to bring us close to a character who purposefully isolates himself.  It’s easy to cheer for the sweet Forrest Gump or the witty Sherlock Holmes, but Will doesn’t reach out to a Jenny or a Watson.  There is no best friend character to act as an audience surrogate, someone to whom Will can explain his thoughts and feelings.  He actively avoids eye contact at all times.  When he speaks to express himself it is with visible effort and distaste.  Psychiatrist Alana Bloom tells Jack she avoids being alone with Will so she can be his friend.  How does keeping your distance from someone form a friendship?  Why should we care about a character that appears so joyless and loveless?  What separates him from the killers?  In order to keep his audience invested, Fuller must show us the difference between Will and the murderers he chases.  
Will can and does love, he does feel emotional connections, just not always with people.  Not far into the pilot, while driving home after a crime scene investigation, a clearly shaken Will sees a dog running alongside the road.  After some effort, he tempts the stray with food from his hand, speaking softly and kindly to it.  Next we see Will bathing the dog on his porch, even drying him with an electric hair dryer.  “Winston,” he says to the clean dog in a blanket-lined crate, “this is everybody.  Everybody, this is Winston.”  The camera pans back to reveal a pack of mismatched dogs:  Winston is not the first rescue!  Fuller takes this dog rescue habit from the novel to show how Will channels his human feelings of love and the desire to form bonds.  His place on the mental spectrum does not take away his compassion; it only changes the form that compassion takes.  Later in the season Fuller demonstrates that Will is also capable of pursuing a romantic relationship with Alana, but on his terms, when he feels comfortable.    
Previous adaptations touch on Will’s social anxiety but Hannibal fully explores how he functions differently from those around him.  Fans of Harris’ novels have reason to rejoice in this fresh and thoughtful series: finally, mainstream media has a character whose mental state isn’t tragic or funny.  Fuller makes us so invested in Will it is all the more painful to watch Lecter destroy him, and downright excruciating to wait for season two.

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