Digesting Blake



Following up Cannibalising Blake, which discusses Blakean references in the Hannibal Lecter novel series and the respective filmic adaptations, I would like to add the NBC series Hannibal (2013-2015) which is based on characters stemming from Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (1982). The novel was named after the eponymous Blake painting and features a man who becomes so possessed by the painting that it turns him into a serial killer. The series, in turn,  does not disappoint when it comes to the Dragon and his menacing influence. If you have ever wanted to see a Blakean character walk around on screen, it is Hannibal you go for. The Dragon appears as an animated character on screen. But the series has more to offer than an animated Blake character.

William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun, ca. 1803-1805, Brooklyn Museum, no known copyright restrictions, Wikimedia Commons

The novel Red Dragon is centred on serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, a creature tortured by physical deformity and childhood trauma. Unable to speak properly, his appearance more or less an insult to eyesight, and neglected by all of his kin, one might be inclined to feel sympathy for Dolarhyde were it not for the fact that he kills entire families. Dolarhyde has an epiphany which will change his life: he sees the Dragon for the first time, as depicted in The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun (ca. 1803-05). Drawn to an article about a Blake exhibition Dolarhyde encounters the creature which will rule his entire life (which means that PR managers and journalists should be very careful at the moment not to create the next serial killer by accident). The following plot-line which is devoted to Dolarhyde’s gradual change into the Dragon seems to be a case of schizophrenia. The Dragon has a will of his own and must thus be seen as an own persona. At one point Dolarhyde and the Dragon disagree about the choice of victim and start fighting. In contrast to Dolarhyde who is unable to pronounce “s” phonemes, however, the Dragon can speak properly and loudly, indicated by capital letters and confused people asking who was in the room with Dolarhyde. This is an odd and somewhat supernatural element as Dolarhyde’s language error is partly caused by his deformations and these physical limitations have obviously no effect on the Dragon. The Dragon can thus be seen as a real creature that can posses Dolarhyde, depending on how one wants to interpret this phenomenon. Dolarhyde’s solution to their argument, eating the painting, only results in a stronger bond between the two. Dolarhyde can now digest the Dragon; he has internalised him. I personally find the idea of a Blake painting having a life of its own as a demonic creature very charming. This turns the idea behind “The Ghost of a Flea” (ca. 1819) on its head; banning a chimera on canvas becomes now the release of a chimera from canvas.

The more was I charmed by Hannibal which does indeed release the chimera from the canvas. The series more or less narrates the events which precede the plot-line of the novel, so that the narrative of the novel takes up the last half of the last season, albeit in a changed form. This is not a faithful word-to-screen adaptation and as far as I see it, it was never intended to be one.

As mentioned before, the Dragon appears within the series as an animated character who can physically fight with Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage). A cut reveals that Dolarhyde is in fact beating his fist into his own face. But the merging of vision and reality is a narrative strategy frequently used in Hannibal. The recipient is often deceived as to what is real and what is illusionary. Both main characters, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) are prone to visions. Graham suffers from a mental condition which enables him to reconstruct how a crime happened when visiting a crime scene, a talent so gruesome that it brings him at the brink of losing his mind, causing loss of memory and hallucinations. Lecter, in turn, has an extensive memory palace. Lecter is often shown wearing a suit in his favourite church or his office while it is clear that he is already imprisoned in his cell. A sudden cut will often reveal this truth: Lecter has never left his cell, yet imagines himself to be in his memory palace when talking to others. Sometimes Lecter and Graham meet in this memory palace. I argue that this merging of vision and reality makes the series more Blakean than any animated red monster ever could. Especially when the merging becomes so confusing that the recipient cannot tell vision and reality apart anymore. All characters, Graham, Lecter, and Dolarhyde have minds which are somehow extraordinary and prone to leave the “normal,” Urizenic realm. This makes for a perfect paving of way to introduce Blake later on.

Another strategy to pave the way for Blake is the extensive use of art within the series, be it paintings, classical music or poetry. Lecter, evil genius that he is, is constantly surrounded by art. Most prominent here is his role as a serial killer who recreates mostly Botticelli paintings with dead bodies. Yet Lecter is not alone with this combination of art and murder. The series features another serial killer who creates a gigantic picture of an eye with dead bodies and a musician who uses human vocal chords for a cello. Bodies become the necessary tools to create art. This recurring motif precedes the introduction of the Blake painting which makes a man a murderer. Art has become deadly.

The second preoccupation of the series is, as is well-known, cannibalism. Lecter is a chef who uses exotic and exquisite recipes for his dishes. But this eating and being eaten is not only about exquisite cuisine, it is also explicitly linked to Darwinism. When Mason Verger plans on eating Lecter, he plans on being at the top of the food chain. I am just mentioning this because Dolarhyde’s eating of Blake’s painting is a very logical consequence and climax in this context. Eating the Dragon should definitely put Dolarhyde at the top of the food chain. What is more, Dolarhyde hopes that the destruction of the painting avoids more dead bodies, echoing the former murderers who in turn need bodies to create art. When bodies are needed to create art, the destruction of art may avoid dead bodies. Art, bodies, and eating are three topics intertwining and constantly mirroring each other.

In a last twist of the Blakean references, the screenwriters have introduced a new opponent for the Dragon, the Lamb. The antagonistic pair of Lamb and Tyger has been exchanged for Lamb and Dragon. When Lecter sees the Dragon for the first time while talking to Dolarhyde on the phone, he only comments “Did he who made the Lamb make thee,” describing the Dragon with a line which originally refers to the Tyger. As Lecter later reveals that he sees Graham as the Lamb, misused and manipulated by him and the police force alike, Lecter probably refers to himself as the creator figure. Lecter is constantly influencing others, mostly turning them into murderers, and he has played a part in the creation of the Lamb and the Dragon respectively. Lecter has created two murderers who are Blakean characters; he has found a new way to create art with dead bodies. As for Lecter, his business is less to reason and compare, as it should be for a psychiatrist, it is to create.

As a side-note, introducing the Lamb as well as the revenge of the Lamb also harks back to the most famous title of the series The Silence of the Lambs (1988). Now that Lecter speaks of the revenge of the Lamb, and considering that the Lamb defeats the Dragon, the Lamb is not silent any more.

In my eyes, the series embeds the Blake painting better into its respective storyline than the novel does. Now the Dragon is much more than a creature from an arbitrary painting. The Dragon is the first embodiment of imagination to appear on screen. Whereas all other hallucinations are still rooted in the real world, mirroring, repeating and twisting it, the Dragon is a fully imaginary construct, a mere product of the human mind (be it Blake’s, Dolarhyde’s or Lecter’s – they all share the Dragon somehow). And it is more than befitting that the physical embodiment of a creature born of the human imagination should be a Blake character.

Tom Noonan speaks about Manhunter

Tom Noonan speaks about the Blake tattoo with which he is adorned in the film, Manhunter. Read the article about the Hannibal trilogy.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Cannibalising Blake

Following on from my last post, William Blake and Film, now it is time to move from arthouse and indie cinema to the most resolutely populist presentation of Blake at the movies – the Hannibal Lecter trilogy (and, yes, I mean trilogy. Does anyone even remember Hannibal Rising?).

In the first of his novels to introduce the world’s favourite gourmet-sociopath, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris interleaves the influence of Blake throughout the book. The title refers to the early nineteenth-century painting of The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun created by Blake for Thomas Butts and now housed at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Another painting of the same title is now located at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.)

This image, one of the most powerful ever created by Blake, embodies the diabolical creature that the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, wishes to become. While this striking motif is repeated throughout both film and book, notably in Dolarhyde’s tattoo but also when he goes to Brooklyn to eat the painting, it is not the only reference to Blake: in Harris’s novel Dolarhyde’s “copperplate” handwriting is explicitly compared to Blake’s, and he also takes the blind woman he starts dating, Reba McClane, to visit a tiger that is undergoing surgery for toothache at a zoo. As Dolarhyde’s tabloid nickname is “The Tooth Fairy”, it is clear that there is a connection between him, this creature, and Blake’s Tyger.

Two film versions of Red Dragon have been released: Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), starring William Petersen as the detective Will Graham and Tom Noonan as Dolarhyde, with a cameo from Brian Cox as Lecter, is a serious and often low-key affair, one that has rightly attracted critical acclaim although I must admit that occasionally I find myself distracted by the 80s soundtrack. The film was remade by Brett Ratner in 2002 to take advantage of the success of subsequent Hannibal Lecter movies, a version that is closer to the book and restores Blake’s centrality, for example in the marvellous scene where Dolarhyde devours the original painting of the Red Dragon. Edward Norton as Graham and Ralph Fiennes as Dolarhyde provide fine performances, although Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Lecter was starting to look a little tired.

The next book in Harris’s series, the most famous of the films (and still the best), Silence of the Lambs, appears to be the one of the original trilogy in which Blake has no role to play, an appearance emphasised by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film version. However, as Michelle Gompf points out in an essay on “The Silence of the Lamb and the Tyger”, Agent Clarice Starling’s decision to try and save a lamb is an important contrast to the tiger/dragon becoming of Dolarhyde in Red Dragon.

The links to Blake are more explicit in the the third film of the trilogy, Hannibal. In Harris’s book, this is made manifest by the fact that Mason Verger owns a copy of The Ancient of Days, an image that is emblematic of his own, Urizenic morality. Although this copy is not explicit in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, when Verger wishes to manufacture an apparent contact from Lecter to Starling his choice is the favourite of all psycopath’s, a postcard of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea. In the novel, Lecter’s writing is compared (like Dolarhyde’s), to a fine copperplate, but unlike Dolarhyde he is the contrary rather than the negation of Starling – so much so that they elope together in the novel.

Gompf points out that Harris uses Blake to provide a view of morality outside conventional laws of behaviour (as, indeed, do the films of his novels to a lesser extent), for the union of Lecter and Starling is a marriage of heaven and hell, innocence and experience (although not always in ways that the reader expects). For me, Harris’s vision of Blake is occasionally somewhat trite, but I cannot deny the vicarious thrill of pleasure I experience whenever I witness this Blakean parade through pop culture.