I think sometimes I underestimate the value of stories. Don’t get me wrong: I am always going to be on the front lines saying that stories have an enormous effect on culture, on our values, on our psychology. It’s just that I think I, personally, have tended to discount the effect stories have had on me and my development. When I first started thinking about a post about stories, I was going to write about Cinderella and Snow White and Savitri and the anxiety-inducing myth of perfection. And that’s a post I’ll probably write one day!
The story on my mind right now, though, is Little Red Riding Hood.
As many of my friends have been forced to hear over the last couple months, I am an enormous fan of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter books and movies. All two of them. Boy, isn’t it a shame he didn’t write more about what Lecter got up to after escaping? I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone off the rails into creepy Freudian shenanigans and death by Moray eel at all. But I think we’re all glad he didn’t write some kind of phoned-in prequel giving Lecter a bizarre excuse for being a monster, just because Dino de Laurentiis wanted to milk the franchise for every penny it was worth.
Even if he had, we’d still have the exquisite Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, and any insanity that crept into the franchise later in its life couldn’t change the fact that those are excellent books and Silence is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I just love Will Graham and Clarice Starling, okay? Especially Clarice. Talk about an awesome role model for a young woman.
(Beyond this Read More I’m going to be talking about content from and spoilers for NBC’s Hannibal, including the season finale, so consider yourself warned.)
So when NBC’s Hannibal started airing, I watched as many episodes on air as I could, cancelling all my Thursday night plans so I could sit on my couch with a glass of Chianti and a pint of ice cream and roll around in fangirlish glee every time Bryan Fuller and his writing team used a line I recognized from Red Dragon. (Which is EXTREMELY OFTEN, but that’s another post.) As it is wont to do, life interfered and I fell out of the habit of watching every Thursday, so I only started catching up on the show after the season finale aired.
When I got to the end of episode 9, “Trou Normand,” I had to stop watching.
It’d take a while to fill you in on the many emotional threads in the show that lead up to the image on the left: Hannibal Lecter comforting Abigail Hobbs. The shortest version I can muster is that Abigail is a murderer and Hannibal has been covering for her, thereby making her dependent on him. Abigail is much more victim than villain, having been the object of her serial killer father’s obsession and then accidentally becoming a killer herself when a guy breaks into her home and she, quite reasonably, thinks he’s going to harm her.
Through most of “Trou Normand,” Abigail seems to be getting out from under Hannibal’s influence, and in a way I find particularly compelling — she strikes a book deal with (not very ethical) journalist Freddie Lounds, who promises to tell Abigail’s story the way Abigail wants it told. Will Graham and Hannibal have strident objections to this plan for a number of reasons — Will doesn’t trust Lounds, Hannibal knows that Abigail has dirt on him — but Abigail holds firm until these final moments in the episode. Alone in the kitchen with Hannibal, she breaks down, confessing that she helped her farther lure in his victims. Hannibal hugs her tenderly and pets her hair, and we can all see him solidifying his role in Abigail’s life as her new father figure, the one who accepts her for who she is and what she did and will protect her and make it all better and oh my god just writing out what happens in this scene makes me want to scream.
Because I have known too many charismatic men who do this to young women. Albeit without the serial killing, which we’re all grateful for. But I cannot say for a second that “without the serial killing” makes this dynamic harmless.
There’s a pervasive appeal to this kind of male-female paternal relationship, and I’m not about to say it’s inherently a bad thing. Buffy and Giles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have a great, positive relationship; Wendy Watson and the Middleman of The Middleman, likewise; Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross of True Grit are a somewhat more abrasive example; Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain and Bruce Wayne have . . . as positive a relationship as Bruce Wayne can have with any of his mentees? (Especially Steph. I have a lot of conflicted Batfamily feelings.) In real life and in fiction, the father-daughter/mentor-mentee relationship can be done right. And hell, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that it’s usually a necessary relationship; one way or another, we generally seek and find parent figures of both genders. (Aside: which do not necessarily have to be one’s actual parents, because same-sex partners and single-parent families can parent perfectly well thankyouverymuch. Parental roles are often filled or partially filled by adults outside the nuclear family, and that’s as it should be. Takes a village, etc.)
But because the desire for a paternal relationship is so primal, so hardwired into us, it is incredibly easy to abuse. And in a Western society where girls and women are already absorbing from a very young age that men are the ones with power and agency, that men are the authority — Father Knows Best — and that the approval of men can make or break you, an unethical or even an incautious father figure is a dangerous man. The balance of power is heavily skewed towards the older man, not the younger woman, and even if the only thing he wants from her is daughterly affection, he can do a lot of damage.
All this being said, it’s possible I could have kept watching Hannibal right after “Trou Normand” if I hadn’t gotten the following spoiler for the season finale (highlight to read):
Abigail is probably — but not quite certainly — dead. They left it on something of a cliffhanger, I understand — just enough ambiguity to keep the fandom guessing. Bastards.
I dunno why I spoiler protected that, I’m about to talk about it more. Consider this your warning that the following paragraphs continue to discuss that spoiler.
I find this plot twist deeply upsetting. I thought the story I was going to be told was one of a girl taking control of her own story — a girl who was manipulated into dependence on several father figures, Hannibal included, and then broke free on her own. In the original novel, Will Graham tells his son that Garret Hobbs’ daughter “got all right” after a while, that she’s “all right now” by the events of Red Dragon. That was the story I wanted, I needed, I still need to hear.
It’s the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and not the original Grimm. Normally I love the old versions of fairy tales, with their dark, twisted, cynical lessons — but not this time. In many of the oldest versions of Little Red, the Wolf eats her up, and that’s that. The end. Don’t stray off the path, little girl, because the man in the fine clothes with the kind smile is not what he seems, and he will eat. You. Up. And that will be the end of you.
No, the story I want — the story I think needs to be told a lot more often and lot more loudly — is that of Sondheim’s Little Red.
In Into the Woods, Little Red does all the things you expect of Little Red: she meets a charming, charismatic man who teaches her that leaving the path she knows will take her to places with new, beautiful things and experiences; he later proves to be not as nice as he seems; he eats Red and her granny alive and then is killed by a woodsman (well, a Baker) who saves the women. Little Red emerges whole, wiser now, telling the audience “Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood / They will not protect you the way that they should!” And then she does the unexpected: she comes back later in the act wearing a wolf-skin cape and brandishing a knife at the strange men she meets in the forest. She’s not a victim anymore. She’s a survivor.
That, in many ways, is Clarice Starling’s story — the woman who goes into the belly of the monster and comes back out. I want that story for Abigail Hobbs. I want it for myself. I want it for my friends. I want every girl to know what that dangerous paternal relationship looks like — and I want her to know that she can get herself out of it. And she may be hurt at the end, but she will be wiser, and she will be stronger. She’ll be the hero we’re rooting for — not the Wolf in the bespoke suit.
And I’m disappointed in Bryan Fuller for taking that story away from us.
I’m probably going to end up finishing the season at some point anyway, because I do still love Thomas Harris’ characters, and I’m interested in the way Fuller is adapting the story, and the acting and the production design are just superb. But for now, I’m going to reread Silence of the Lambs, and think about stories.