As the book The Silence of the Lambs (1988) begins Jack Crawford is already hunting a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill”. He is short of personnel and resources and he is without his former protégé, Will Graham. He is also dealing with the increasing ill health of his wife as she struggles with cancer. If Red Dragon (1981) sees Crawford at his height, using every resource at his disposal to track down “The Tooth Fairy”, then The Silence of the Lambs (1988) portrays Crawford as a man on the edge of collapse. Side-lined by the mainstream bureaucracy of the FBI and lacking manpower he looks for a gifted student – an agent in training – to approach Hannibal Lecter for help. The character of Crawford is loosely based on John E. Douglas, who held the same position at the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and who Thomas Harris consulted before writing Red Dragon (1981). Douglas was one of those responsible for the modernisation of the Behavioural Science Unit and personally interviewed numerous serial killers. His life and experiences are detailed in the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (1995) which has recently been fictionalised into the Netflix drama series Mindhunter (2017- ). In the movie The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Crawford is played by Scott Glenn as a much more active and capable character than the almost broken man suggested in the book. Glenn convincingly portrays the character as a seasoned investigator and a worthy mentor to Clarice Starling. Starling is of course played by Jodie Foster. A role so iconic it is almost impossible to mentally separate the character from the actor. Almost.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991), like the book which preceded it, is a compact, well-paced detective story with a big element of psychological horror. It is less conventional in the telling than Red Dragon (1981) in that the main character is a student on the periphery of the central criminal investigation and the drama of the story comes from her relationship with Dr Hannibal Lecter. A relationship which is played out in a series of static conversations. Potentially not the most cinematic situation. However, the subtle combination of strength and vulnerability conveyed by Jodie Foster in opposition to Anthony Hopkins’ iconic intensity as Lector is one of the many things which elevate this movie above the standard detective story. Unlike the book Red Dragon (1981), Lecter is now at the forefront of the story because of his suspected knowledge about a killer at large called “Buffalo Bill”. Lecter feeds morsels of information about the killer to Starling in exchange for intimate details about her childhood. He is motivated by a cruel need for amusement but he also sees a way to make himself relevant again in a world which has largely forgotten just how terrifying he really is. Starling on the other hand is motivated by ambition and a need to prove herself relevant in a male-dominated world which constantly undervalues her. The film’s execution by director Jonathan Demme is a combination of Hitchcockian suspense and blood-under-the-fingernails realism with none of the Hollywood gloss – this gloss looked so inappropriate in later movies like Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal (2001). The Silence of the Lambs (1991) builds tension beautifully, both throughout the film until the climax and also in several intense set-pieces. Lecter’s bid for freedom and the final confrontation with “Buffalo Bill” are nerve shredding. It remains one of only three films to win all of “the Big Five” categories at the Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay.
Much has been written about Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Of course there are those who still consider Brian Cox in Manhunter (1986) to be the definitive portrayal. It is probably fair to say that Hopkins is the person most responsible for the enduring success of the character (including Thomas Harris). He brings a veil of humanity to a monster and makes a character fascinating who should be replant. He’s hypnotic and it is difficult to look away. However, the scenes in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) which involve Lecter would not be nearly as memorable without Clarice Starling as the other half of the puzzle. Something which has been proven in subsequent movies (Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal (2001)). It is difficult to nail down exactly what makes Jodie Foster’s performance so great. It is true that she brings a tangible authenticity to the character. Familiar though Foster is as an actress she seems to inhabit the character of Starling so that when she is in jeopardy, as she is for much of the movie, the audience feels the threat as if it is something real. It is also true that the character of Starling as she appears in the book The Silence of the Lambs (1988) is more fully realised than Will Graham in Red Dragon (1981). Because of his uncomfortable talents, there is always something unknowable about Will Graham but Starling, on the other hand, is anyone or everyone. She is a vulnerable but capable young woman trying hard to succeed. Will Graham is the hunter. Clarice Starling, at least at the start of the story, is the potential victim. Starling, as she was portrayed by Jodie Foster, is rightly recognised as one of the greatest female-heroes in cinema.
Thomas Harris begins the book Hannibal (1999) with a very different Clarice Starling. She is a full agent of the FBI who has distanced herself from the Behavioural Science Unit in favour of pursuing drug dealers. She seems to be respected and feared by her colleagues in equal measure for her focused commitment to the job and for her prowess with firearms. Unfortunately her fame, success, skill and gender are resented by her male superiors who make her the scapegoat for a botched drug raid. When Jodie Foster passed on the movie Hannibal (2001) the role eventually went to Julianne Moore. Contrary to what might be suspected from the negative reviews the film received on its release, Moore does a characteristically top-notch job in the role. A long, heavy shadow is cast by Jodie Foster’s performance but, as stated, this is a completely different Starling. She is more cynical, she’s been emotionally battered after years of working against a sexist bureaucracy and she no longer has her mentor, Crawford, to guide her. In the book Crawford is at the point of retirement, in the film he is simply absent. Moore plays Starling as an intelligent, ‘tough-guy’ maverick cop who just happens not to be a guy. The problem is that she has much less to work with than Jodie Foster did. Foster’s Starling was fighting against the odds to prove her worth and achieve the impossible. Moore’s Starling is just fighting like hell to prevent her own downfall. She is even reluctant to continue the pursuit of Hannibal Lecter knowing that it is an almost impossible task. The problem with Hannibal (2001) is not with any actor’s performance. It is that the story chooses to focus on Lecter rather than those trying to catch him.
Thomas Harris’s choice to focus his books more and more on the monster rather than the hunters is perhaps understandable following the success of the book and the movie The Silence of the Lambs. Tantalisingly little information is provided about Lecter in Red Dragon (1981) except that he is guilty of at least nine murders and was caught with reference to medieval medical literature. In The Silence of the Lambs (1988) we are told he is small, sleek, intelligent and charming but we are warned never to forget what he is. The book Hannibal (1999) begins to unravel his traumatic background and explain away his psychopathy. This was a mistake akin to revealing the solution to a magic trick. Once the solution is known the trick is no longer so impressive. As was progressively done to the vampire by writers like Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer, when the mystery is revealed the horror is taken away. Much of the fear which Lecter generates in The Silence of the Lambs (1988) is because he is an enigma. In Hannibal (2001) the result is a bizarre story centred on Gary Oldman as a disfigured, quadriplegic, child rapist who is attempting to revenge himself on Lecter for feeding his face to a pack of dogs. Yep. Starling is reluctantly caught between the FBI and Oldman’s character in her pursuit of Lecter who is giving lectures on medieval literature in Italy. In both the book and the movie the reach of the story exceeds its own grasp. Not even Ridley Scott’s visual flair can conjure up the surreal imagery required to make some passages of the book come to life. Although the TV series Hannibal (2013-2015) did eventually give it a good try. Some elements of the book are just impossible to film and although most of the movie is faithful, some major characters are lost and the ending is significantly changed.
One of the advantages of discussing the heroes of the Thomas Harris books rather than the villains is that it is possible to avoid talking about Hannibal Rising (2006). In this book Harris sheds all of the mystery surrounding Lecter and provides us with a full biography from his traumatic childhood to his adult eating habits. Harris wrote the book under pressure from producer Dino De Laurentiis, and also because he didn’t want someone else to take over the franchise. The movie adaption came out the following year. In fact the two were released so close together that it seems likely that the book was written with the film adaption firmly in mind. Both book and movie received generally negative reviews and in many ways it would be better if they were never spoken of again. If someone were looking for more of Harris’s work to enjoy then the earlier book Black Sunday (1975) is a far better read. Inspired by the Munich Olympics in 1972, the book is about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl in New Orleans and the efforts of law enforcement to stop it. Seemingly even more relevant in this current age of global terrorism the story is part political thriller and part detective story. It was made into a film in 1977 starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller. Directed by John Frankenheimer, it was expected to be a massive hit upon release but underperformed at the Box Office. While far from perfect, it is worth revisiting as it has a script by the writer of The Day of the Jackal (1973), a score by John Williams and features all three Goodyear blimps.
To return to the comparison with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lecter is obviously the vampire. A sleek, sophisticated and charming Eastern European monster who feeds on the living to sustain his own life. Crawford is the aged vampire hunter Van Helsing. A man experienced and almost broken by his quest who isn’t afraid to sacrifice in the cause of killing the monster. Will Graham is the reluctant hunter who is gifted with unwanted insight into the layer of the creature, like Johnathan Harker. Finally, Clarice Starling hunts the vampire while coming ever more under its influence, just like Wilhelmina Harker (née Murray). There is no doubt that the adaptions of Thomas Harris’s books, both cinematic and televisual, are a strange and eclectic bunch, built around a variety of directorial styles and character choices, some of which work and some of which do not. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is rightly held in high regard for the performances and for the taut direction. However, Manhunter (1986) remains a cult classic which seems more and more stylish as the years pass. It is aging like a fine Chianti. Red Dragon (2002) and Hannibal (2001) may be less valued critically but they are good thrillers with top performances. Unfortunately they struggle in the shadow cast by the films which came before them. The TV series Hannibal (2013-2015) is horrifyingly beautiful and sometimes difficult to watch but rewarding for the depth of characterisation which the format allows. However, it is not for any one person to determine their objective quality, they must be experienced to be enjoyed. As Dr Hannibal Lecter himself said, “the first step to acquiring taste is to trust your own opinion.”
Thomas Harris in Book, Film and TV
- Black Sunday (1975)
- Red Dragon (1981)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
- Hannibal (1999)
- Hannibal Rising (2006)
- Manhunter (1986)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Hannibal (2001)
- Red Dragon (2002)
- Hannibal Rising (2007)
- Hannibal (2013–2015)