There are great books that flop as movies. There are lousy versions of the printed word. There are films that rely so heavily on their sources for action and dialogue that they encourage you to run back to the original material.
And then there are wonderful adaptations that distil the essence of the source within the framework of cinema’s unique language. One such page-to-screen journey, which retains the haunting quality of the book on which it is based while creating a hypnotic watching experience, is Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
The movie is available on Prime Video. The Silence of the Lambs is one of Demme’s best-loved films, as well as one of the most intelligent serial killer thrillers to come out of Hollywood.
The source material is formidable. Thomas Harris’s riveting 1988 bestseller of the same name continues the dastardly adventures of the cannibalistic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter.
Harris’s Red Dragon had already explored the idea of getting a Federal Bureau of Investigation profiler to consult Lecter on a serial killer case. In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is approached once again for his insights into monsters like him, this time by FBI trainee Clarice Starling.
Clarice’s boss Jack Crawford tasks her with pumping Lecter for a psychological profile of Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who skins his female victims. Bill’s brutality isn’t the only thing that unnerves Starling. She’s still grappling with her father’s death, is trying to find a foothold in a largely male organisation, and is desperate to succeed.
Don’t let Lecter crawl inside your head, Crawford warns Clarice. Yet, that is exactly what the flesh-eating psychopath does. The novel’s title is derives from the personal experiences that Clarice is forced to share with Lecter in exchange for information on Buffalo Bill – a “quid pro quo”.
Harris has the luxury of explaining how Clarice’s smart footwork combines with Lecter’s gnomic leads. Demme’s film, written by Ted Tally, converts Harris’s gritty prose into a sensory experience of seeing, listening and feeling. The movie stars Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter, both in crackling performances.
Some of the key dialogue is taken straight from the book. The exchanges are filmed in a mesmerising way. Just like we seek our way through a dark passage towards a light at the far end, a series of tight close-ups draw us towards Bill, Clarice and Lecter.
The movie’s use of frontal close-ups has been widely analysed. Tak Fujimoto’s camera moves in close on Clarice and Lecter – she petrified as well as curious; he manipulative but sensitive to Clarice’s feelings. As they confront each other, we too are made a part of the conversation, as though we are seated directly in front of the characters and are being dragged closer to them.
The framing is vital to understanding what is meant when Lecter says, what does he do, this man you seek? The answer to that riddle helps Clarice crack the case.
In the book, Clarice replies to Lecter, he kills. The movie takes it a further step: he kills women. If the novel’s Clarice sounds a lot like the FBI men she is trying to emulate, Jodie Foster’s Clarice is visibly less sure of herself, more aware of her femininity. In several scenes, she is the only woman in the room, and acutely aware of it.
Clarice’s first viewing of one of Bill’s victims is another masterly montage of close-ups. Despite its gory theme, the movie doesn’t indulge the viewer’s bloodlust, being respectful to the women who have died horrible deaths. As Clarice stands over the victim’s body, it is her act of looking closely that yields the first, major clue.
The sustained close-ups make it hard to forget even the minor players. The movie gives Kasi Lemmons, as Clarice’s classmate, a starring role. Whether it’s the odd-eyed scientist who flirts with Clarice or the noxious administrator at Lecter’s asylum, Jonathan Demme ensures that no face is forgotten in a film that is primarily an intimate waltz between Clarice and Lecter.
Also read in the Start the week with a film series