Tuesday, February 15, 2005

#13: The Silence of the Lambs

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."
"One what?"
"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?

                    PRENTISS (V.O.)
          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.


Anonymous said...


I've been reading your reviews here with great interest. Your insights are fascinating, entertaining, and sometimes funny as hell.
I'd like to comment on your analysis of the screenwriting commandment-breaking involving the extended SWAT-team sequence. It is true that neither Starling nor Lecter aren't present and the SWAT team and their procedures have to carry the weight.

But have you considered the sheer genius sense of filmmaking sleight-of-hand that was employed? Although the scene does not feature Lecter, it is wholly and in all accounts about Lecter. It is a short thrill-ride featurette embedded into the drama, like an unexpected downhill in pitch dark in a county-fair spookhouse. On its own, it could have at best provided some cheap thrills, but with the tremendous build-up of Lecter's immensely dangerous character and the extent to which law enforcement must go to ensure his imprisonment.... well, the emotional investment I'd made by that point (saw it in the theater opening night) had me gripping my seat. I was goddamn terrified, simply because 1) by that point, I felt that Hannibal Lecter was some kind of demon-god, capable of almost anything, and 2) since he was capable of almost anything, I had no clue what the hell he was going to do.

The use of push shots on the elevator floor indicators going up and down (and nice design of old-fashioned gothic-iron indicator needles) gives the viewer the food he starves for: The scene IS about Lecter, and it DOES feature Lecter, at least the spirit and the pure, brilliant and terrible maliciousness of him. It could be argued that, in a rare feat of moviemaking, Hannibal Lecter carries this entire scene without really being in it.

The benefit of Lecter's character build-up cannot be overstressed: examine the first quarter-hour of Glazer's "Sexy Beast", where, with brilliant performance by the principles, we are instilled a sincere and utter dread for Don Logan before seeing one frame of him.

In addition, we can even feel a tinge of the spirit, at least, of Starling in this scene, for two reasons. Firstly, the movie takes great pains to portray very accurate SWAT, FBI and enforcement procedure (from the early scenes in the movie with Starling's continued training); the militaristic procedure, while impressive, scares us even more, because we're still convinced that even such finely honed procedures will be child's play for monster Lecter. The by-the-book procedures echo Starling's vulnerability and perhaps naive dependency on "the law" and "the book".

Also, the SWAT team scene is precursored by Lecter and Starling's final dialogue, and as we all know, their first ever physical contact. It is a milestone that ups the possibility of Lecter's interest in Starling. When we're faced with the possibility of Lecter escaping, we don't know if he might immediately go after our hero, Starling. Granted, immediately following the payoff climax, Starling tells her friend that she's pretty confident Lecter won't come after her ("... he would consider it rude.") But that's after we've been run through the meat grinder. Please forgive the metaphor, but her line is very nearly a post-coitus cigarette, allowing us to relax for the first time in nearly half an hour.

So, in sum, I feel that a great trick is pulled by the filmmakers that, really, should not have worked as well and probably won't be employed as effectively agan for a long while: a pivotal scene is presented without either of our principles, yet the scene drips with the spirit of both of them, and we care, and we're terrified.

p. zachos

Olli Sulopuisto said...

Considering the movie was released in 1991, I'd find it surprising if it were edited on an Avid. (Compare that Murch did his first Avid cut in 1996 for the English Patients.)

* * *

I find your blog to be flawless in idea and execution. Hopefully you can keep it up in the future.

Matthew Dessem said...

Peter Zachos,

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. I very much enjoyed your comments about the scene, & learned from them. I hadn't thought about the way they hold off on the line about why Lecter wouldn't go after Starling until afterward, and how that adds to the tension -- but you're right, it's fear for Starling, not the SWAT team, that infuses the scene with dread. Anyway, thank you for the insight.

Matthew Dessem said...

Olli Sulopuisto,

You're right that it makes historical sense for the film to have been edited on, well, film. It was just strange for me, watching a DVD, to see grease pencil marks and be forcibly reminded that the image I was seeing had come from a physical object, a roll of film, that an actual person had drawn on with an actual pencil. It made the process suddenly much less abstract. Thanks for the kind words re: the blog -- I'm glad you're enjoying it!

Anonymous said...

Hope your New Year is off to a good start.

This is a near perfect film, isn’t it? I almost regret Jodie Foster pointing out in her commentary the one big technical goof (the shadow of Gumb’s gun on her back in the final shootout). I have watched this three times in the past few weeks and have found it difficult to approach analytically. All elements work so well here, the film simply grabs me and takes me for a ride every time. Exactly what you want a film to do. I also reread the novel before watching this, and as you point out, the screenplay is a masterful distillation of the book.

Your analysis of the opening scenes building up to Lector’s first appearance is illuminating (as is that of one of your readers concerning the SWAT team scene). But about that Plexiglas: in addition to adding to the impression of Lector’s invincibility, I think it serves a more practical purpose. In the novel Lector is imprisoned in a barred cage surrounding an inner layer of netting. The Plexiglas makes it a lot easier to film the alternating point of view shots that comprise most of Clarice and Lector’s scenes together. It also allows them closer physical proximity/intimacy, as when they are both pressed up tightly on either side of the glass immediately after Meigs assaults Clairce.

Jame Gumb is more or less what we expect a criminal to be. Lector, however, is particularly frightening because he subverts that stereotype. He is erudite, well mannered and poised. Yet no amount of refinement can tame this beast. That’s pretty scary.

I read this book and saw this film back when they were first released. Hopkins’ performance is so indelible that I’d forgotten that The Silence of the Lambs isn’t really about Hannibal Lector. It is about Clarice and her journey (the opening scene of a solitary Clarice running that obstacle course is an excellent visual metaphor of the entire film). And I would bet that many people tend to forget that Lector is not the villain here. Gumb is the villain of the piece. Lector is Clarice’s sidekick. Does this mean Hopkins is too good for the film?

Matthew Dessem said...


My year's off to a great start, thanks! Hope yours is going well also; it can't be going too badly if you've been watching The Silence of the Lambs.

Re: the way everyone misremembers Hannibal Lecter's importance, Hopkins steals the film. He's not as memorable in the novel (or in Red Dragon, for that matter). You might enjoy Martin Amis's review of Hannibal (you can find it in The War Against Cliché), which has a concise explanation of the way Thomas Harris ruined the franchise by focusing on Lecter. When he's on the sidelines, he's an unforgettable character, but when he's center stage, the implausibilities add up very, very quickly.

Timothy Liebe said...

Three years later, but good point about how Lecter's "face turn" (making him a into cool antihero rather than the cultured monster he was in the earlier books) sort of ruined the character, Matthew. In Harris's last two books (HANNIBAL and HANNIBAL RISING) he becomes closer to the Dully Handsome Prince than the Beautiful Beast of Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST - all threats that he will someday kill Clarise aside, he's essentially settled into marital domesticity...with the woman who's hunted him! Even ZARDOZ's turning adversaries Sean Connery and Charlotte Rampling into lovers didn't have as great a narrative WTF?

Timothy Liebe said...

That said, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the greatest Roger Corman movie ever - a brilliant piece of high-end pulp done by smart filmmakers who Love Their Trash. I've always felt that was this film's genius - how Demme managed to transmute junk into art, or near-art.

The only place his B-movie reflexes tripped him up was that laughably pulpy moment near the climax where Crawford's team bursts into the wrong house, and Crawford hisses, in despair, "Clarise...!" - right before cutting to Gumb letting Clarise inside his house! A dozen viewings later, and that bit Still Cracks Me Up.

Anonymous said...

I always found this to be a pretty standard thriller and never really understood why it's considered by so many to be a "great" film. Frankly, I prefer
this guy's take
on it.

jk said...

the perfect thriller...nostalgic days.one of my favorite Top 10 thriller movies of all time

KinchStalker said...

The Silence of The Lambs, in my mind, deserves its status as a classic. I know a lot of people who don't care for Jodie Foster, but I have to agree with the AFI when they have Clarice Starling and Ellen Ripley as the highest-ranking female heroes (and the only ones in the top 10) on their 50 Heroes...50 Villains list. I respect the books, but the sequels were just depressing to me; as much as I love Julianne Moore (especially her work with P.T. Anderson in Boogie Nights and Magnolia), I'd rather have no Clarice than no-Jodie Clarice. It just feels...sad otherwise.
And Hopkin's performance is still a tour-de-force. It says a lot about this man's talent that I was as moved by him in The Elephant Man as I was horrified by him in Silence. And looking at Jonathan Demme's output before this, I was floored by his adaptability to such a different vein of film; the closest thing to a whacko he'd ever dealt with beforehand was David Byrne of Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense! (Come to think of it, he also directed that Sun City music video in, what, 1986?)