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The Long Road to ‘Hannibal’ Season 4: Clarice, ‘Inception,’ and a Total Series Reinvention

The series finale of "Hannibal" is approaching its fifth anniversary this summer. Is a Season 4 announcement imminent?

"Hannibal"

Mads Mikkelsen in “Hannibal”

NBC Universal

When Netflix announced it would be bringing all three seasons of “Hannibal” to the streaming platform this June, series star Mads Mikkelsen got fans riled up by asking the fandom’s most burning question: “Is ‘Hannibal’ Season 4 on the way?”

Fans of the serial killer drama have been waiting for the announcement of a fourth season ever since the show ended its three-season run on NBC in August 2015. Both Mikkelsen and series creator Bryan Fuller have been vocal about wanting the series to continue, but the wait for “Hannibal” Season 4 is nearing the five-year mark with new episodes still uncertain. Was the show’s long-awaited June 5 debut on Netflix a sign of a new season to come? Fuller, for what it’s worth, has been talking about “Hannibal” Season 4 since before the 2015 series finale aired.

In a June 2015 interview with Vulture published after NBC announced the show would end, Fuller made an important clarification: “NBC canceled the show on NBC. But that does not preclude us from being able to take the show elsewhere.” Fuller was reminding fans that NBC was merely the distributor of “Hannibal” and not its producer. The series was produced by a division of France’s Gaumont Film Company, meaning Fuller would have the option of taking “Hannibal” to another U.S. broadcaster or a streaming platform after the show’s run on NBC came to an end.

Fuller told Vulture at the time he was already eyeing “a few options” for where to take “Hannibal” Season 4, one of which was Amazon because of a deal that allowed seasons of the show to stream on the Prime platform. Fuller said Netflix was not a viable option for Season 4 because of the Amazon deal, although he noted that “Netflix has been incredibly complimentary to the show.” Now that a deal has been worked out and the show’s three seasons are on Netflix, perhaps the world’s biggest streaming platform could be the home for “Hannibal” Season 4. Fuller’s team did not respond to IndieWire’s request for comment.

Even with Fuller able to shop the show around to a new home, the creator decided to pause on developing “Hannibal” Season 4. In a June 2016 interview with Collider, Fuller announced he was waiting until “two years after the last airing of the show” to “investigate our options.”

“August 2017 is when we can actually start talking about it,” Fuller said. “That’s when we would have to see what the rights are for the character and for the story, and see who’s interested and how we get it done. The cast is game, I’m game. I’s just a matter of finding the right time where everybody’s schedules sync up, but I would love to continue to tell the story with Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. They’re such a fantastic collaborators, and one of the most satisfying actor-showrunner relationships I’ve ever had in this industry. So I would love to continue this story.”

Fuller was waiting for August 2017 because of a rights issue over Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs” novel. The first three seasons of the show incorporated elements of Harris’ “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon” novels, and Fuller intended on a fourth season of “Hannibal” to pick up the threads of “The Silence of the Lambs,” made famous by Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar winner. This means “Hannibal” Season 4 would introduce Clarice Starling into Fuller’s universe. The rights to Harris’ novel were set to revert back from the producers of the film (MGM-owned Orion Pictures) in August 2017, making that the opportune time to begin talks.

In December 2016, Fuller said on the “Shock Waves” podcast that he “still [had hopes] that something can be worked out” with the rights to “Silence of the Lambs,” adding, “I think the film adaptation is a perfect film, but there’s a lot of interesting nooks and crannies to explore in a television series. I hope we get to tell the story…I think, ideally for the cast, it would be as a miniseries, here and there. Let’s do six to eight episodes of that, and six to eight episodes over here. And do it as an irregular thing.”

Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, "Hannibal"

Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, “Hannibal”

NBC

By May 2017, Fuller had confirmed with Entertainment Weekly that he successfully pitched Season 4 to Mikkelsen and Dancy. “We’re are all excited about the prospect of returning to the story,” the creator said. “There’s some hurdles to get through…[But] I just had a great idea for season 4. There’s an interesting next chapter in the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter that would be fascinating to unpack. I’ve shared it with the gentlemen and they’re both keen on it.”

Then came the much-touted August 2017 and a cryptic message from “Hannibal” producer Martha De Laurentiis, who posted a photograph of herself and Fuller together with a Hannibal Lecter action figure. The photo was accompanied with a caption that read: “Meeting of the minds.” For “Hannibal” fans, the photograph landing in August 2017 matched up with Fuller’s plan and was all the proof they needed that Season 4 was incoming. And yet, here we are nearly three years later with no concrete word about “Hannibal’s” future.

Fuller wrote on Twitter in May 2019 that “no one has given up” on a new season of the show, adding, “I’ve made it clear I want to do it, the cast wants to do it and Martha wants to do it. We just need a network or a streaming service that wants to do it, too. I don’t feel there’s a clock on it or an expiration date for the idea. We just need someone to bite.” Again, the show’s recent move to Netflix has fans hoping it is Netflix that bites.

But what about the rights to “Silence of the Lambs” and bringing Clarice Starling into the story as originally planned? Those plans have gone out the window. CBS announced in January it was moving forward with a “Clarice” television series that will follow the FBI agent in the year after the events of “Silence of the Lambs.” Fuller confirmed on Twitter earlier this year that MGM passed on giving his team the rights to “Silence” and Clarice, although that doesn’t mean “Hannibal” Season 4 is dead.

“Martha and I tried many times to work with MGM to include Clarice into our Hannibal story,” Fuller tweeted. “They ultimately told us they had their own plans for Clarice and they didn’t need Hannibal to tell her story. Don’t think this impacts a potential ‘Hannibal’ Season 4 as we never had Clarice rights.”

While Fuller wanted to bring Clarice to “Hannibal,” the series’ continuation never hinged on her involvement. “Hannibal” always narrowed in on the relationship between its eponymous serial killer (Mikkelsen) and FBI agent Will Graham (Dancy), and that’s exactly how the show would continue in Season 4. It was Fuller’s plan from the start, as he said in his 2015 Vulture interview that Season 4 would be “a reexamination and reinterpretation of the Will Graham–Hannibal Lecter relationship in a fashion that is unlike anything else we’ve done in the show…in many ways, it’s a whole reinvention of the show, in an exciting way.”

Fuller told Vulture his idea for Season 4 was “so terrifying creatively, and also inspiring,” and he later dropped an enticing elevator pitch for a fourth season while attending the Split Screens Festival in June 2017. According to the creator, “Hannibal” Season 4 “was going to be ‘Inception’ meets ‘Angel Heart.’” The series finale ended with Will and Hannibal embracing one another and falling off a cliff after their murder of Francis Dolarhyde. Their fate was left up in the air, though it would be pretty impossible to walk away unscathed from a serious fall like that. Fuller’s “Inception” comparison suggests Season 4 could pick up inside one of their subconsciousness or in a psychological purgatory, similar to the Black Lodge of “Twin Peaks” or the “International Assassin” episode of “The Leftovers.”

Specifics details about “Hannibal” Season 4 continue to be a mystery, although one thing is certain: Whenever a fourth season happens, fans will be ready to devour it.

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