The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
“The Silence of the Lambs” was directed and produced by Jonathan Demme, which he directly adapted from Thomas Harris’s third novel, also named “The Silence of the Lambs”, published just three years earlier in 1988. During the time building up to Demme’s critically acclaimed motion picture which was released around Valentines Day in February of 1991, “there was scarcely a month during 1988 when Thomas Harris’ novel, The Silence Of The Lambs, was not on or around the top of the New York Times list of America’s bestselling books”; making the novel a prime candidate to be adapted on to screen by many film thirsty directors, “there’s your run-of-the-mill crime novels, and then there’s The Silence of the Lambs”. Nonetheless, not every great novel automatically transfers into a spectacular picture.
As we know, Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” is now regarded as one of the most outstanding films ever be released on the big screen in America, “it became one of only three movies to win Oscars in the five major categories”. Evidencing just how effective and influential Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece really is; arguably one of the most successful adaptations of a novel ever created into a motion picture. Screenwriter “Ted Tally”, now an Oscar winning screenwriter, had seldom produced a screenplay of this magnitude before “The Silence of the Lambs”. His previous experience before 1991 having been writing only for plays and TV, which highlights his excellent achievement and performance in his adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel. Also, there were Oscar “acting wins for Hopkins and Foster” who played the roles of Doctor Lecter and Clarice Starling respectively.
Demme’s profoundly intense crime-thriller takes you on an odyssey, beginning with an F.B.I cadet, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who has been given the task of tracking down and capturing a dangerous serial killer at large, Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb (Ted Lavine). Along with the assistance of an unsuspecting associate, an even more salacious serial killer, Doctor Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
However, before we plunge into narrative and characters within “The Silence of the Lambs”, the predominate thematic nature of this film makes it’s necessary to translate some of the themes and motifs that form the basis of it’s undiscovered psychological terror. Thus generating for you a much more obvious and concrete concept to the film, but no less terrifying.
Perhaps the very first underlying message discovered was before the film premiered in 1991, discreetly imbedded within the movie poster. The fact “The Silence of the Lambs” team decided to use Salvador Dali’s illusive image hidden on their movie poster laid the foundations for the terrifying mysteries and unconscious thrills to come. As seen above, the moth and it’s family member, the butterfly, are undoubtably the most important thematic symbols of the film. The concept of metamorphosis from a larval caterpillar, to a confined cocoon, to eventually renewing itself into an exquisite butterfly or moth defines the traditional symbol of transformation. In this case, it represents the entire arc of the narrative, the attempted transformation of vermin into beauty.
There are so many references to moths and butterflies included within the storyline, especially in relation to Buffalo Bill and his obsessions; highlighting this idea of death, transformation and rebirth. For example, when Clarice Starling carries out an autopsy on Buffalo Bill’s third victim Frederica Bimmel, she finds a chrysalis in the throat. When Clarice investigates some truth about Buffalo Bill in the town of Belvedere, inspecting Frederica Bimmel’s mother’s bedroom, she is enclosed by butterfly wallpaper on all sides. Inside Bill’s house where we see he’s been specifically naturing and breeding the ‘Death’s Head hawkmoth’ (the one seen on the movie poster). Once again, inside of Bill’s house when he tucks his penis between his legs and spreads his multicolored dressing gown taking on the symbolic shape of a butterfly. Even moments after Clarice’s showdown with Bill, again in his house, is a decorative wind chime with illustrated images of butterflies casually spinning with chaos going on all around.
This concept of death, transformation and rebirth appropriately defines Buffalo Bill, characterizing his deep inner issues flawlessly. There were complaints “from the gay lobby in the US” that Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gump was being represented as a homosexual gone mad, that his homosexuality was the “root of all his crimes”. However, Jonathan Demme immediately came out and spoke to “Empire Magazine”, saying “the movie’s villain is, of course, not homosexual. He’s not portrayed to be gay. Nobody says he’s gay”.
By examining Gump’s body language, his voice, his mannerisms and general behaviour, we can understand why some people would be inclined to believe he is characterized as a homosexual lunatic. However, that is far from the case because Gump is not sexually driven by his attractions to men. Gump’s significant issue is that he despises himself, he feels so alien in his own skin, so utterly disarranged with himself that he wishes he was something else entirely, “who loathes himself so much that he wants to be the farthest thing away from what he fundamentally is – he wants to be a woman”. Thus confirming that the entire Buffalo Bill plot line revolves around a gender dilemma, that’s what the narrative is about, “sexual identification”. Which evidences just how important the moth symbol really is; it’s a story of Jame Gump’s evolution, his journey through death and destruction, to finally metamorphosing to rebirth.
In addition to the symbolic moth motif, another important plot line is given away in the title of the film “The Silence of the Lambs”. Well, where are these lambs? The first lamb symbol that comes to mind, is agent Clarice Starling, “a small woman, surrounded ominously by large groups of uniformed men”, who represent the sheep. Clarice Starling is innocent to the malignant forces that seek to control. She’s young, inexperienced, an F.B.I cadet still in training, perhaps representing a lamb at the early stages of their adolescent life’s.
Another angle to look at this idea would be to observe the scene between Clarice and Doctor Hannibal Lecter, where he’s being held in a cage waiting to be transferred to another asylum. As they both converse through the bars an incredibly emotional act of quid pro quo takes place where “Hannibal and Clarice become analyst and analysand, teacher and pupil, father and daughter, lover and beloved”. Evoking quid pro quo, Hannibal asks Clarice to describe her worst childhood memory in exchange for clues to Buffalo Bill’s whereabouts. This scene is made exceptionally intense by Anthony Hopkin’s Oscar-winning performance, as Ted Tally, the Oscar-winning screenwriter explains, “he blinks only one time in the entire movie, and he does it very slowly and dramatically when he evokes some incredibly painful memory in her about the death of her father”.
We learn that as a young girl living with a foster family on a ranch, Clarice woke up to lambs bleating in panic one day. The lambs were screaming from fear, having figured out that they were to be slaughtered soon. Clarice couldn’t save those innocent beings from death on account of her age and lack of power within that household. Because Clarice as a child was powerless to save those innocent creatures from harm, the symbolism of the screaming of the lambs become mightily important to the narrative. As Hannibal says, “you still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs”. “Yes”, Clarice replied. “And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs”. Shift now to a grown-up Clarice, an F.B.I agent fixed on to this new Buffalo Bill case, where his victims die for no apparent reason, she has this overwhelming obligation to put that particular ghost to rest. Hence her sheer will and dedication into solving the Buffalo Bill case and preserving the life of Senator Ruth Martin’s daughter, Catherine Martin.
As we discussed, Clarice as a child was helpless to save the innocent lambs from their eventual slaughter, however, now as an adult, she will not allow the same fate to happen to Senator Martin’s ‘lamb’, Catherine. Incidentally, Catherine Martin found herself kidnapped and trapped in a well under Buffalo Bill’s house, waiting to be killed. There too, was Buffalo Bill’s small fluffy dog ‘Daria’, who looks unmistakably similar to a lamb. Coincidental? I think not. Both symbols of lambs, Daria and Catherine Martin, are in the hands of the dangerous murderer and it is up to Clarice to save them from being slaughtered.
Perhaps the lambs are supposed to represent us humans on a grander scale; childlike, kept in the dark from the truth, unaware of the destructive forces that seek to control our destinies, silently screaming in fear of our suspected slaughter. Perhaps if we’re not slaughtered in the springtime, we’ll grow up to be sheep and remain on the same monotonous path?
Coincidently, in a final face-off with Clarice, Jame Gumb is slaughtered before he’s allowed to fully bloom into a beautiful butterfly; so perhaps in the end she did find the redemption she was searching for. However, through the famous last words of Hannibal sent by a telegram to Clarice, “Have the lambs stopped screaming?”.
Only Agent Starling will know.