Food For Thought: <i>Hannibal</i>, and America's Appetite For Cannibals

Blood is spattered across a wall. One woman is mounted on a pair of antlers, while another's eyes are gouged out. A field of hands springs to life. Judging from the trailer, NBC's Hannibal is a singularly violent tale. Aside from the gore, which seems shockingly over the top for a network drama, the scene that really got to me was Mads Mikkelson serving a platter of suspicious-looking meat to cheering guests.

Based in part on Thomas Harris' 1981 novel Red Dragon, which introduced the world to Dr. Hannibal Lecter and spawned the better-known sequel The Silence of the Lambs, the thriller centers on the budding relationship between the brilliant young forensic psychiatrist and FBI profiler Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy).

The series was developed by Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies), who’s teased that the Lecter viewers meet in Hannibal is decidedly different from the one in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film who enjoyed the occasional census taker with fava beans and a nice Chianti.

“It’s before he was incarcerated, so he’s more of a peacock,” Fuller explained last year. “There is a cheery disposition to our Hannibal. He’s not being telegraphed as a villain. If the audience didn’t know who he was, they wouldn’t see him coming. What we have is Alfred Hitchcock’s principle of suspense — show the audience the bomb under the table and let them sweat when it’s going to go boom. So the audience knows who Hannibal is so we don’t have to overplay his villainy. We get to subvert his legacy and give the audience twists and turns.”

And, really, who doesn’t love a cheery cannibal?

Cannibalism is a universal taboo. As such, it comes back again and again in as the subject of horror stories. The Donner Party was trapped in the Sierra Nevadas and forced into cannibalism way back in 1846. And yet, more than 150 years later, Americans still associate "Donner Party" with cannibalism. To see how our obsession with cannibalistic acts plays out on film, check out the list compiled by The Snipe, which includes everything from The Hills Have Eyes to Cannibal Holocaust.

The subgenre really took off in the 1970s, when the "cannibal boom" saw rise to films that also involved rape, castration and other taboos that upped the ante for vulgar content. While the violence in the Hannibal trailer harks back to those movies, Mikkelson is doing something different. Drawing upon Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs, Mikkelson is playing an educated, calculating cannibal, not someone possessed by the devil or warped by nuclear bombs.

It's particularly notable that we're presented with Hannibal's cannibalistic nature through cooking and eating. Since the release of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, America's obsession with preparing and consuming food has only grown. We have the Food Network, The Cooking Channel, and multiple shows on Fox starring Gordon Ramsay. Online you can read blog after blog of "food porn," dishes carefully prepared and photographed to entice readers. Contrast that cozy love of food with news that restaurants are serving fish under the wrong name, or that much of your hamburger meat consists of "pink slime." Increasingly, food is something to lust for, but also something to fear.

Look at Tony Chu, the detective in John Layman and Rob Guillory’s comic Chew who’s forced into cannibalism to solve crimes. For a cibopath like him, chowing down on any substance (including human flesh) reveals all of its history. Both Hannibal and Chu are attempting to help stop crime as they run around performing unseemly acts left and right. But, even more interesting, both stories play on our fears that what we think we're eating is different from what we're really getting.

Think about it: How much do you actually know about the meat that’s packaged so neatly at your local market? We've moved so far away from the source of our food that it's easy to imagine something (or someone) getting slipped in there by mistake. The new cannibal isn't the guy who goes nuts and starts eating people; he's the guy who decides pork just doesn't have enough flavor. And that seems pretty scary.

Hannibal premieres Thursday, April 4, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

Penny Dreadful: Brent Spiner Joins Showtime Series

More in TV