The legal rights issues surrounding Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series hurt both of its television adaptations: Hannibal and Clarice. Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller, ran between 2013-15 on NBC. The show, starring Hugh Dancy (Law & Order) as troubled criminal profiler Will Graham and Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as the titular forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer, adapted three of Thomas Harris’ novels: Red Dragon, Hannibal, and the prequel Hannibal Rising. Although the show struggled to find mass appeal, Hannibal gained a passionate cult following over the course of its three seasons for its incredible acting and a strong sense of style.
By contrast, Clarice, created by Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman, ran for a single season on the CBS network in 2021. Although it adapted one of Thomas Harris’ most-acclaimed Hannibal Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice was canceled after a mere 13 episodes. Picking up after trainee FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling’s traumatic encounter with serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, Clarice follows the titular character as she is forced back into the field. As opposed to the highly-acclaimed Hannibal, Clarice received less than stellar reviews from critics, and viewership more than halved over the course of its single season. While each show seemed to enjoy distinct fortunes, their fates were actually both determined by a rights dispute.
Hannibal’s Split Franchise Rights Explained
The rights to various characters in the Hannibal Lecter novels created by Thomas Harris are bizarrely divided between several different companies and people. The characters who originated in the novel The Silence of the Lambs, such as Clarice Starling, Jame Gumb, Barney Matthews, and Paul Krendler are owned by MGM. According to Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, speaking in an interview with Collider, the Dino de Laurentiis Company owns the rights to Hannibal Lecter himself, while Gaumont International Television owns the rights to the rest of the characters included in the Hannibal television show. Additionally, Thomas Harris owns the rights to any character that originated in either Hannibal or Hannibal Rising.
Despite being based on the same source material, both Hannibal and Clarice could not acknowledge the existence of the characters within the other show. This can be most easily seen within Hannibal. Hannibal season 2 adapts elements of Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name but was unable to use several of the characters who appear within the novel. Will Graham takes the place of the novel’s protagonist, Clarice Starling, while Kade Prurnell (Cynthia Nixon) adopts much of Paul Krendler’s role within the story. Likewise, Clarice, despite taking place after The Silence of the Lambs, also significantly suffered as it couldn’t effectively adapt its source material, nor acknowledge its most notorious character.
Clarice’s TV Show Needed Hannibal (But Couldn’t Use Him)
Simply put, Clarice was dealt a major blow by the fact that the show could neither portray nor even allude to the character of Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is too important a character in the novel for Clarice to simply ignore. Thus, the show did not remove him entirely. Instead, Clarice treats Hannibal Lecter as an unnamed serial killer, still at large, so that it could avoid any claim of copyright infringement. Without a character as iconic as Hannibal Lecter helping to differentiate Clarice, the show instead fell victim to becoming an average case-of-the-week crime drama. As such, Hannibal Lecter’s absence guided Clarice to an early grave after only a single season.
Hannibal Season 4 Would Have Needed Clarice (But Wasn’t Allowed)
The fact that the rights to the characters within the Hannibal franchise are split between various companies is one of the reasons to explain why Hannibal is yet to receive a season 4. Bryan Fuller had planned for Hannibal season 4 to cover the events of The Silence of the Lambs. However, the ongoing rights issues between various companies continue to stop Hannibal season 4 at every turn. Without the ability to use any of The Silence of the Lambs‘ characters, including Clarice Starling, it is simply impossible for Hannibal season 4 to happen.
With Hannibal season 4 intending to adapt The Silence of the Lambs, the show would have needed the character of Clarice Starling. Without her, specifically, much of the story would simply not work. Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture-winning film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs used incredible POV cinematography, shot by Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto, to highlight Clarice’s struggles as a woman working for the FBI, a theme that Hannibal season 4 could not possess by simply swapping her for Will Graham again. As evidenced by the issues with Hannibal season 4, the fact that rights to characters created by Thomas Harris in his Hannibal Lecter novel series are split between multiple owners hurt both Hannibal and Clarice.
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