Bryan Fuller’s acclaimed NBC thriller Hannibal is arguably the darkest, most gruesome, most operatically violent show on television. Yet there is one all-too-common act of assault that Fuller has long promised he would not depict, despite its seemingly increasing ubiquitousness on other shows. With Hollywood increasingly under fire for using rape storylines (such as on shows like ABC’s Scandal, The CW’s Reign, Netflix’ House of Cards, HBO’s Game of Thrones and others—to mention most broadcast network crime dramas), we spoke to Fuller about his reasons for the self-imposed ban and how his a stance is now being challenged by his own show’s upcoming third season as he tells the story of Thomas Harris’ tortured serial killer Red Dragon (played by The Hobbit actor Richard Armitage). Amid a sea of stark, tweet-length opinions about rape on TV and cautious silence from most industry executives, Fuller offers a candid and thoughtful view of a challenging and controversial creative issue.
Entertainment Weekly: You’ve had a ban on telling rape stories on Hannibal…
Bryan Fuller: It’s one of the things on the show that we really wanted to avoid. They’re ubiquitous on television, and there’s an entire series [NBC’s Law & Order: SVU] that’s about rape. It was challenging approaching the Red Dragon story because the crimes that Francis Dolarhyde commits [in the novel] include the horrible raping of corpses, and near-corpses. In crafting the story arc of the Red Dragon, it became a challenge on how to keep true to the novel but deemphasize the exploitive qualities of woman being raped. That was one of the big challenges in terms of how do we keep our promise [to not tell rape stories] to our audience—which is largely female—and also service the novel. It became a tricky matter of deemphasizing women being targeted, and making more pronounced the crimes against the victim’s family as a whole. We didn’t wanna glorify it—well, not “glorify,” because I don’t think any of the crime procedural shows are actually “glorifying” rape. But it is certainly explored so frequently that it rarely feels genuine.
So rape will still take place, but it will be merely suggested?
You will have to read between the lines. It happens, but it’s a horrible cherry on top of the shitty sundae of crimes committed against a family.
What bothers you about the way other shows approach this subject?
There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience. The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member — and I’m the first person in the audience for Hannibal. My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it.
“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation— it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape. It appears over and over again in crime procedurals without upping the ante and without exploring everything that happens. All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.
And I’m saying this as somebody who can derive immense entertainment from cannibalism — there’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing. I can totally get behind cannibalism and have fun with it. But rape? Not so much.
Plus cannibalism is so rare and extreme, it’s almost like a fantasy crime; not a societal problem. But it’s definitely interesting because Hannibal is so infinitely creative in exploring other forms of violence but you take one thing off the table one that’s otherwise so frequently used.
I take very seriously how to get around avoiding this facet of what’s happening to these characters. And that may have been misguided in its own right. If I was really putting my money where my mouth is, I would have explored rape so thoroughly that it would have taken over the show. But there were other elements that seemed more entertaining as an audience member to explore than that one.
We chatted about Game of Thrones before our interview. What was your take on the controversial Sansa Stark scene?
I thought it was handled tastefully, all things considered. You could have done that scene on broadcast. With Thrones, you’re telling a story based on a time where those sort of violations were common. And women did not have the stance in that world to effectively resist. And with Sansa Stark, and that particular attack, we know Ramsay Bolton as someone who is a horrible violator of all things human—what he did to Theon Greyjoy is part and parcel of his cruelty. So it felt organic to the world—not only what happened to Sansa, but [the attempted rape of] Gilly. It feels like we’re in the Wild Wild West, and that’s part of how they’re choosing to explore the story. I see why they’ve made the choices they have in the stories they’ve told, so I can’t criticize them for using that tool.
In the case of Sansa Stark, it feels like they are building toward something for this woman to overcome, and some horrible lessons that she has to learn about the patriarchy that surrounds her—such as Littlefinger knowing what could happen to her and knowing it might force her into taking more drastic vengeance [toward the Boltons] that could benefit him. If I was the showrunner of Game of Thrones would I make those choices? I have no idea. But in terms of me coming into a crime procedural story on Hannibal and seeing the things I don’t like about other crime procedurals, it’s easier for me to say I don’t want that aspect in the one I’m doing.
See next week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly for more on season 3 of Hannibal, which serves its first course on Thursday, June 4.