Columns > Published on December 30th, 2015

Book vs. Film: 'The Silence of the Lambs'

Last month, I took a look at the first of four novels featuring the character Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon, as it related to its two screen adaptations, Manhunter and the Brett Ratner film of the same name, as well as the TV series Hannibal, which I felt handled the material the best. Now, with 2015 nearing an end—the year in which the aforementioned television show said goodbye (for now)—we're ready to move ahead into Thomas Harris's sequel to Red Dragon, perhaps the most famous and revered of all Lecter properties, The Silence of the Lambs (or SOTL).

This time around, we'll be dealing with only one adaptation, the 1991 Oscar darling written for the screen by Ted Tally and directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Jodie Foster as protagonist Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins in his first appearance as Hannibal Lecter, a role for which he is perhaps most recognized. That being said, it should be noted that many elements (and in some cases, verbatim exchanges of dialogue) from Harris's novel were borrowed by Bryan Fuller and company in Hannibal, including a subplot concerning Jack Crawford's wife Bella and her battle with cancer, as well as the character Miriam Lass (Anna Chlumsky), who in many ways echoes Starling—both are FBI trainees, tasked with "interesting errands" by Jack Crawford, both of which involve interviewing Hannibal Lecter. But as the TV show never formally adapted SOTL (yet...), we'll leave behind any further discussion of resemblances between Hannibal and the novel.

Now, with all that out of the way, let's jump right in...


The Book

Most of you probably know the plot to SOTL by this point, but just in case you don't, here's a brief summary:

If you're a fan of the film and you've never read the book, I would highly recommend doing so—it will reshape your understanding of Clarice as a character.

The aforementioned Starling, a particularly bright student at Quantico with aspirations of joining Behavioral Sciences, is selected by the department chief Jack Crawford to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter and persuade him to fill out a questionnaire. It is later revealed, however, that Crawford's real motive in sending Starling was to see if the always astute Lecter could shed light on the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, whose sixth victim had recently been discovered, skinned in places like the others, but also, as Starling later discovers, containing a Death's Head moth cocoon lodged in her throat, a rare species that would have been imported from Asia. The doctor takes a particular liking to Starling, no doubt because she represents a chance to flex his psychiatric muscles on a new, fresh patient (and also for reasons involving Will Graham, the protagonist from Red Dragon, which I will get to...). Because of this strange attraction to Starling, Lecter indicates that he not only possesses insight on Buffalo Bill, but that he in fact knows his identity. He begins a "quid pro quo" exchange with the young cadet, handing over cryptic information that will help Starling solve the case herself, in exchange for information about her father's death in her childhood and subsequent relocation to a horse and sheep farm in Montana. We learn that Starling was eventually sent to an orphanage after attempting to rescue a mare from the butcher knife, tormented as she does so by the sound of lambs screaming in terror as they go to slaughter.

Meanwhile, we see the killer Buffalo Bill, real name Jame Gumb (as in, "same" or "game," and if you add an "e" sound to the end of his first name, he will become quite angry) kidnap Catherine Martin, the daughter of Tennessee senator Ruth Martin. Catching wind that Hannibal may know the identity of her daughter's abductor (thanks to supreme douche-nugget Dr. Frederick Chilton, who runs the mental institution that holds Lecter), Senator Martin strikes a deal to have the cannibal relocated to a federal prison with a view in exchange for Buffalo Bill's name. Lecter being Lecter, he provides Martin with a false name to bide some time until his escape from a Memphis holding cell, which he carries off as easily as a seasoned magician performing a disappearing act.

Utilizing the details provided by Lecter—namely, that Buffalo Bill believes he is a transsexual (but isn't really transgendered) and is making a "woman suit" because he "covets" their flesh—Starling figures out that the killer knew his first victim, Francesca Bimmel, and so travels to Belvedere, Ohio to do some more sleuthing (see the section on the 1991 film for a broader discussion of transgender issues in this narrative). This leads her to the door of a local seamstress who employed Bimmel from time to time. The seamstress no longer resides there, but the new tenant, who turns out to be Jame Gumb, may know her whereabouts. Starling learns Gumb is her man when she sees one of the Death's Head moths fluttering about his kitchen. A chase through Gumb's labyrinthine, House of Horrors-like basement ensues, resulting in Starling gunning down Gumb and rescuing Catherine Martin, who was mere minutes away from death before Starling showed up. 

Harris mentions in his foreword for Red Dragon (published in 2000) that when he began writing SOTL, he didn't initially intend to bring Hannibal Lecter back. Rather, his goals for the novel were situated squarely with Clarice Starling, perhaps his second most famous character (or possibly even third now, given the attention placed on Will Graham). He writes:

I had always liked the character of Dahlia Iyad in Black Sunday [Harris's first novel] and wanted to do a novel with a strong woman as the central character. So I began with Clarice Starling and, not two pages into the new novel, I found she had to go visit the doctor [Lecter]. I admired Clarice Starling enormously and I think I suffered some feelings of jealousy at the ease with which Dr. Lecter saw into her, when it was so difficult for me.

Though Lecter found his way into Harris's novel and appears in considerably more scenes than in Red Dragon, SOTL is still, at the end of the day, Clarice's book. More than this, it is a decidedly feminist novel, with Harris spending much time highlighting how hard it is for Starling to be taken seriously in the predominantly male world of law enforcement, not to mention having to suffer Chilton's not-so-subtle sexual advances. 

At the same time, Starling is not a mere BAMF, taking down psychos as though they were flies. She is flawed and complicated, her greatest Achilles heel being her rage at injustice and, more importantly, her own failures—a rage she must learn to control if she is ever going to earn her Special Agent badge. Instances of "intense frustration" that "tastes very much like the patent medicine called Fleet's that she'd had to take as a child" (i.e., disgusting) spring up throughout the novel, outbursts of temper when Starling is alone. Like this one, where Clarice attempts further communication with Chilton shortly after another inmate at the institution flung his semen in her face. Chilton rebuffs her as harshly as he felt he was rebuffed while hitting on her:

The dial tone stung in her ear. The sting spread over her face and made her eyes burn.

'Well God fucking shit,' she said. 'You old creep. Creepo son of a bitch. Let Miggs squirt you and see how you like it.'

Not only Chilton, but Starling learns to quell her rage toward Crawford for deceiving her about the Lecter interview, and toward Hannibal for toying with her. A kind of unintentional sexism rears its head here too, given that there are two men using Clarice for their own purposes—which, incidentally, are one and the same: both men want to turn Starling into Will Graham. 

The former special investigator and protagonist of Red Dragon haunts the pages of SOTL, being first mentioned by Crawford in his office, which prompts Clarice to recall, silently, that Graham still lives in Florida, albeit alone, "terribly ugly" from the wounds inflicted by Francis Dolarhyde, and addicted to booze. In short, Hannibal schemed to destroy Graham, and he succeeded; likewise, Crawford gambled with Graham's life, and lost. In this way, Clarice represents a second chance for both the lawman and the criminal. She is in many ways a blank slate, still "wet behind the ears" and fresh, able to take the place of Graham as Crawford's protegé and profiler extraordinaire, or, given her rage and frustration, fall victim to the darkness and the close proximity to violent madness the work demands—the same fate suffered by Graham, and thus a boon for Hannibal's efforts. (This potential to be Will's replacement is best seen in Clarice's trip to Belvedere to "get to know" Gumb's first victim and further get inside the killer's head.) 

In the end, Starling does not suffer the darkness. This seems a victory for Crawford, but this serenity is Clarice's accomplishment alone, having made peace with her past, although it is Hannibal that perfectly sums up her victory, in a letter he writes to her toward the end of the novel:

Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming...?

I won't be surprised if the answer is yes and no. The lambs will stop for now. But, Clarice, you judge yourself with all the mercy of the dungeon scales at Threave; you'll have to earn it again and again, the blessed silence. Because it's the plight that drives you, seeing the plight, and the plight will not end, ever. 

However, at least where the final scene of SOTL is concerned, Harris leaves Clarice at peace:

...the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

The Film

Now, as much as SOTL is feminist in design, and quite well-crafted in that regard, the same cannot exactly be said for queer representation. There was considerable backlash toward the book and even more so toward the film for once again portraying a queer character as a sadistic killer (Basic Instinct being the other big contemporary offender). I don't think Harris set out to demonize Jame Gumb, as he takes great pains to differentiate between real transgendered people and his killer. This point is initially made by Hannibal, who suggests Gumb only believes he is a transsexual. Starling says, 

'...there's no correlation that I ever saw between transsexualism and violence—transsexuals are passive types, usually.'

Furthermore, during Crawford's attempts to obtain medical records from Dr. Danielson, head of the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins, to see if the killer might have applied for gender reassignment surgery but been denied, the aforementioned Danielson has this to say:

'To even mention Buffalo Bill in the same breath with the problems we treat here is ignorant and unfair and dangerous, Mr. Crawford. It makes my hair stand on end. It's taken years—we're not through yet—showing the public that transsexuals aren't crazy, they aren't perverts...The incidence of violence among transsexuals is a lot lower than in the general population. These are decent people with a real problem—a famously intransigent problem. They deserve help and we can give it. I'm not having a witch hunt here.'

Finally, Harris reveals that Gumb's desire isn't to become a woman in general, but rather one specific woman: his biological mother, who died when he was a child. And even then, it is an idealized, glamorous version of his mother, a fantasy he concocted to substitute for his having never really known her.

Other than the initial suggestion that Gumb has co-opted transsexualism and Starling's insistence that transgendered people are "passive types," none of the above content made the cut for Demme and company's film adaptation of Harris's novel—no impassioned speech from the Johns Hopkins doctor, and no revelation that Gumb's insanity is rooted in larger identity problems not specific to gender. Moreover, neither Harris's novel nor the movie feature positive queer characters to balance the scales. It is understandable, then, why the film in particular received so much criticism from the gay and transgender communities.

This narrative suffers from an error of omission rather than intent, as indicated by Jonathan Demme's reaction of utter horror at his mistake. He was so taken aback by these criticisms that he chose Philadelphia (about a man's civil suit against his former employers, who fired him because he was gay and had contracted AIDS) as his next project. Demme also said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post that he "applauded" the voices from the queer community taking his film to task. He elaborated on the controversial character Jame Gumb (played brilliantly by Ted Levine):

He didn't wish to be another gender...He didn't really have a sexual preference. He loathed himself—he wanted to transform himself so that there was no sense of him in the 'new' him [and] becoming a woman...that was his method of doing it...He wished he was a woman not because he always wanted to be a woman. This was another way to escape.

Again, I believe both Harris and Demme made some missteps here, and that while the demonizing of a queer character remains problematic (even if Gumb "didn't really have a sexual preference," he is still rather sexually ambidextrous and decidedly "Other"), we can at least acknowledge that the creators of both literary and filmic narratives had their hearts in the right place.

As far as Harris's more feminist designs, Demme and company deliver. Starling deals with all the same instances of sexism that her literary counterpart faces, and Jodie Foster's performance as Clarice has since become a kind of icon. Sadly though, much of her maturation arc, the need to quell her rage, is absent here. Moreover, Starling's decision to risk her placement in the FBI and continue her investigation of Buffalo Bill is not present, which removes a lot of the personal stakes for the protagonist, as well as demonstrating how finely tuned Starling's instincts are (if she had never chosen to travel to Belvedere, Catherine Martin would have died). 

Also absent is any mention of Will Graham, possibly to distance SOTL from Manhunter, which was considered a failure at the time. Therefore, the sense Crawford and Hannibal are trying to turn Starling into Graham does not appear in the film. 

Finally, Starling doesn't receive the "silence of the lambs" by film's end, instead ending with Clarice repeating over and over, in clear distress, the name of her analyst and sometimes tormentor, Dr. Lecter. This is a far cry from Starling sleeping peacefully. Rather, it seems more likely the screaming lambs will plague Starling more often than not, and if she does enjoy breaks from this terror, the respite will be brief. This slightly darker ending isn't as dark as Harris's Red Dragon, so it is less bleak and more honest—reinforcing a concept explored by Harris in his previous novel, the idea that in Starling's, and Graham's and Crawford's, line of work, you can never truly escape the darkness. It will always be out there, like Lecter, lurking in the shadows, staying out of sight and yet making its presence known from time to time.

Despite the absence of certain aspects of Harris's novel, The Silence of the Lambs is still an amazing film, partially for this more unnerving ending. The movie also features the first instance of Hannibal displaying his victims as gory works of art, an aspect of his character that has since become canon. It is well-paced and features three outstanding performances from Foster, Hopkins and Levine, not to mention an excellent score by Howard Shore. But if you're a fan of the film and you've never read the book, I would highly recommend doing so—it will reshape your understanding of Clarice as a character and, if you're a fan of the TV series, allow you to imagine Mads Mikkelsen uttering that classic line featuring the liver and fava beans (no Chianti in the novel; Hannibal drank "a big Amarone" with that meal).

What do you think? Have you read Harris's novel and seen the film? What's your preferred text? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

For analysis on Harris's Red Dragon and its various adaptations, click here. Next up—Book Vs. Film Vs. TV Series: Hannibal.

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About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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