The Silence of the Lambs, 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme, screenplay by Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris.
The last time I saw this movie in its entirety, I was in high school. It's held up amazingly well over the years, and it was great to see it again. Clarice Starling is an FBI trainee who must enlist the help of serial killer Hannibal Lecter to catch another serial killer. Or, as the poster would have it, "To Enter the Mind of a Killer She Must Challenge the Mind of a Madman."
I have plenty to say about the movie itself, but I want to talk a little about adaptation first. This is a movie that was popular enough that the source material and the screenplay are widely available. The book, you can buy anywhere; you can find the second draft of the screenplay here. So I read the novel, then the screenplay, then watched the movie.
It's pretty much axiomatic when writing a screenplay that the shorter version is always the better version. The genius of Ted Tally's script is in its compressions, packing as much information as possible into as little space as possible. The second draft is still very faithful to the book; apparently Ted Tally knows Harris socially, which I guess would make it harder to cut. Still, some of it's there. An example: here's the end of Jack Crawford's briefing to Starling in the novel:
"Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter. Dr. Chilton, the head of the mental hospital, will go over the physical procedure you use to deal with him. Don't deviate from it. Do not deviate from it one iota for any reason. If Lecter talks to you at all, he'll just be trying to find out about you. It's the kind of curiousity that makes a snake look in a bird's nest. We both know you have to back-and-forth a little in interviews, but you tell him no specifics about yourself. You don't want any of your personal facts in his head.
"Do your job, just don't ever forget what he is."
"And what's that? Do you know?"
"I know he's a monster. Beyond that, nobody can say for sure. Maybe you'll find out; I didn't pick you out of a hat, Starling. You asked me a couple of interesting questions when I was at UVA..."
That's on pp 6–7, and I've already abreviated it greatly. On page 11, after introducing Dr. Chilton and the asylum, we get this exchange:
"...We tried to study Lecter. We thought, 'Here's an opportunity to make a landmark study'—it's so rare to get one alive."
"A pure sociopath, that's obviously what he is."
In the second draft of screenplay, it reads like this. N.B.: At the time the second draft was written, the rights to the characters hadn't been cleared (probably they were tied up because of Michael Mann's 1986 film Manhunter). So in this draft, Crawford is called "Campbell," Chilton is "Prentiss," and Hannibal Lecter is "Gideon Quinn." Here's the scene:
Be very careful with Gideon Quinn.
Dr. Prentiss at the asylum will go
over the physical procedures used
with him. Do not deviate from
them, for any reason. You tell him
nothing personal, Starling.
Believe me, you don't want Gideon
Quinn inside your head... Just do
your job, but never forget what he
(a bit unnerved)
And what is that, sir?
Oh, he's a monster. A pure
CLOSE ON an I.D. card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo, official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."
PRENTISS (contd., O.S.)
It's so rare to capture one alive.
From a research point of view, Dr.
Quinn is our most prized asset...
Tally combined two exchanges where Starling has basically the same line, and used it to make an elegant jump in location. In the finished film, it's shorter and more elegant still. Instead of having Chilton begin over Clarice and Crawford in the office, his line is over an exterior shot of the Baltimore Asylum. Which is not a real asylum; I don't know what the building they shot for that exterior actually is, but it looks more like a castle than a building with any practical use. It looks like it would make you crazier. In any event, the point is that Tally does a great job throughout his script of getting the core out of every scene. By the shooting script, he had this down to a science.
One more perspective on adaptation. Terry Rossio writes that:
Your goal in writing an adaptation absolutely cannot be to 'preserve the source material onto the screen.' It must be to 'make an effective film based upon the source material.' Lorenzo DiBonaventura, currently in charge of Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN project at Warner Bros., put this quite succinctly: "Sometimes keeping too true to the material results in not doing justice to the material."
Tally's second draft "preserves the source material onto the screen." Cut and pasted into Final Draft, it clocks in at about 160 pages; it has all the subplots from the novel and most of the scenes. The movie's just under two hours long (generally, a page of script means a minute of screen-time, so this means about 40 minutes have been cut). The process of revising a screenplay, I'm coming to find out, is taking out everything you can spare from your rough drafts, until you're not wasting a single word. The result, in the case of The Silence of the Lambs , is a movie that feels like a more faithful adaptation than the second draft does; it's "an effective film based upon the source material," not "the source material onto the screen."
Enough with adaptation; the movie itself. The opening sequence was the first thing I ever discussed in a film class (once again, thanks, Shepard, Tifft, and Rosenheim!). The beginning is worth studying again and again, just for watching how cleverly the viewer is prepared to meet Hannibal Lecter. Here's how it works.
- We start in Quantico, watching Jody Foster run the obstacle course. She is told to go meet with Jack Crawford, the head of Behavioral Sciences.
- To get there, we track her inside the building: she walks through a lab where students seem to be learning to clean pistols, then down a hallway with other students. These rooms look like a normal school.
- She takes an elevator down to Crawford's floor (which is, it would seem, in the basement). Here, the walls are blue cinderblock and the hallway is narrower.
- She's shown into Crawford's small, windowless office. While waiting for Crawford, she looks over a bulletin board covered with crime scene photos and a tabloid headline reading "Bill Skins Fifth."
- Crawford shows up and they start talking. Out of nowhere, he looks directly into the camera and says, "Do you spook easily?" The conversation ends with the exchange quoted above.
- We see an exterior shot of the Baltimore hospital, which is insanely gothic.
- We're in Dr. Chilton's office. He's shot closer than Crawford was, and he's really smarmy and creepy.
- Chilton leads Clarice down to meet with Hannibal. They go down a flight of stairs.
- They're on a hallway with two metal gates, manned by guards. As they rush down this hall, Chilton tells Clarice the elaborate rules for dealing with Lecter.
- Chilton and Clarice go down another flight of stairs to a red metal gate. As they go through this gate, Chilton shows Clarice a photograph of a nurse Lecter brutalized.
- They pause just past the red gate, bathed in red light, while Chilton and Clarice continue talking. Another metal door opens and they go into a guard area.
- Chilton leaves Clarice here. She has two more gates to go through, which leads her to:
- Another hallway of the asylum. This one has rough stone walls and metal cells, and looks like a dungeon. Clarice has been through six security checkpoints that we've seen, and the prisoners on this hall are behind bars.
- But even that is not secure enough for the prisoner at the end of the hall. His cell has walls of inch-thick plexiglass. Clarice sees this as she approaches, and meets:
- Hannibal Lecter, standing calmly in the center of his cell. He greets Clarice with a pleasant "Good morning."
The whole thing takes about ten minutes. In those ten minutes, the viewer seamlessly moves from the world we know to increasingly gothic and nightmarish surroundings. By the time we see Lecter, we believe him to be the most dangerous guy ever. Ever. Seven gates are not enough...this guy needs plexiglass. Plexiglass! The glass was apparently the production designer, Kristi Zea's idea. My writing partner Adam thinks it makes the movie, and I'm inclined to agree.
- On the commentary track, Jodi Foster is really unhappy with one of her costumes; she says "Clarice Starling would never wear what she is wearing here to go to Hannibal Lecter's cell." I've never heard an actor disagree so violently with a creative choice someone else made, at least not on the record. So what do you have to say to that, Acadamy Award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood?
- The deleted scenes on this one are transfers straight off of a cut made from the dailies, seemingly from an early workprint of the movie. They still have the timecode, but it's a timecode for a total run of the film, not the timecode you'd see on the dailies themselves. These sequences may have been taken from a tape that executives were shown, or one that was used for test screenings. My roommate Eric Rolnick pointed out to me that there are diagonal grease-pencil markings visible on some of the transitions, and explained what this means: when editing on actual film (instead of a computer), editors mark dissolves with a grease pencil (actually drawing across the film frame). When a cut of the film is locked, the actual dissolves are processed using the negatives; but this isn't done until there's a final version. Since the cut those scenes were taken from was never used, the dissolves were never printed; seeing these tells you that Craig McKay was editing on actual film, not using a computer.
- About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Demme and Tally break a screenwriting commandment; when Clarice has been sent home to Washington and Lecter has escaped, we spend about fifteen minutes without seeing either Lecter or Starling. Instead, we have an extended sequence of the Memphis SWAT team trying to find Lecter. There aren't any main characters here. You couldn't do the movie without this sequence, and the payoff (Lecter in the ambulance) is entirely worth it, but it is weird; the audience hasn't spent any time with the SWAT team before, and here they have to carry the movie. Adam thinks, and I agree, that this is why Chris Isaak was stunt-casted as the SWAT commander. He's a recognizeable face, so the audience feels like they know him (he has maybe three lines); it makes this sequence less disorienting. It's a smart cheat.
- The extras on this DVD include excerpts from the FBI crime classification manual; descriptions and case studies for Organized Sexual Homicide, Disorganized Sexual Homicide, Mixed Sexual Homicide, and Sexual Sadism. Fun reading. The menu to this section breathlessly informs us that Clarice Starling would have studied these classifications (actually, the extras have a lot of stuff that seems to assume that you're more interested in serial killers than filmmaking). Anyway, it's unclear what Harris would think of this being treated as useful information, but it's clear what Lecter would think. It doesn't come across in the movie, but in the book, the questionaire that Starling has brought Lecter is part of that classification system. Here's Lecter and Starling:
"They're dividing the people who practice serial murder into two groups—organized and disorganized. What do you think of that?"
"It's...fundamental, they evidently—"
"Simplistic is the word you want. In fact, most psychology is puerile, Officer Starling, and that practiced in Behavioral Science is on a level with phrenology...Organized and disorganized—a real bottom-feeder thought of that."
Next up, Shock Corridor. No fooling this time.