The Silence of the Lambs

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Hannibal Lecter trilogy
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Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in the film version

The Silence of the Lambs is a novel by Thomas Harris, his second to feature sociopath psychiatrist and cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In the novel and the film based on it, Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee, is sent to question an imprisoned sociopath/psychiatrist to get information on one of his former clients, a serial killer given the name Buffalo Bill, who is abducting women and skinning them.

The film adaptation was released in 1991 and directed by Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for Best Director. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins both won Oscars (for their roles as Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, respectively); the film won additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. It is thus only the third picture to win the five most prestigous Academy Awards (after It Happened One Night, 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975).


Plot summary

Note: This summary is based on the novel, but the movie adaptation remains rather faithful to the book. See below for differences between the book and film version.

The novel opens with Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee, being asked to carry out an errand by Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI division that draws up psychological profiles of serial killers. Starling is asked to present a questionnaire to a serial killer named Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist and genuine sociopath, currently serving a life sentence in a Maryland insane asylum.

We also learn of the hunt for a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill, who has abducted five different women, keeping them for up to three weeks before killing them and taking parts of their skins. The nickname was started by Kansas City Police Homicide Division, on the theory that "he likes to skin his humps." Starling asks if she should ask Lecter about Bill, but Crawford tells her not to.

At the asylum, Starling is clumsily chatted up by its warden, Dr. Frederick Chilton. Eventually, Starling gets to talk to Lecter, who is seemingly quite polite and civil, but after toying briefly with Starling, he refuses to take the questionnaire. As she leaves, the prisoner in the cell next to Lecter flings semen at Starling. Lecter, offended at this display of bad manners, calls Starling back and gives her some cryptic information. He later talks this inmate into killing himself by swallowing his tongue.

The information leads Starling to a rent-a-storage lot where the possessions of Lecter's last victim, Benjamin Raspail, are contained. Hidden in Raspail's vintage car is a severed head in a jar. Back at the asylum, Lecter explains that the head is that of a man named Klaus; he was Raspail's lover before, Raspail claimed, he killed Klaus in a fit of jealousy over a new partner. (Lecter is dubious about Raspail's explanation, telling Clarice "The Swede probably died in some banal erotic asphyxia transaction") Lecter predicts that the next victim will have been scalped. He suggests an insight on Buffalo Bill's motivation: "He wants a vest with tits on it." And finally he offers some thoughts of his own: he has been in a windowless, stone-walled cell for eight years and will never get out while he is alive. He draws pictures of his favorite sights ("The Duomo, as seen from the Belvedere" in Florence, Italy is brought to our attention early on) but these can be taken away. What he wants is a room with windows.

When Bill's sixth victim is found, Starling helps Crawford perform the autopsy. Crawford's wife has a terminal condition and is not expected to survive for much longer; many at the Bureau marvel at Crawford's ability to function. Regardless of home-life distractions, he and Starling perform the autopsy. A moth chrysalis is found in the throat of the victim. She has been scalped. Triangular patches of skin have been taken from her shoulders. Autopsy reports, furthermore, indicate that he killed her within four days of her capture; whatever it is he does with them, he's getting better and faster at it. On the basis of Lecter's prediction, Starling believes that he knows who Buffalo Bill really is. Lecter, however, is not going to reveal such information easily.

Starling takes the chrysalis to the Smithsonian, where (much later in the book) it is eventually identified as the "Death's Head Moth," so named because of the signature skull design on its back. It lives only in Asia and, in the United States, must be hand-raised.

When Buffalo Bill kidnaps a new victim, Catherine Martin, the daughter of the junior US Senator from Tennessee, Ruth Martin, the urgency of the Buffalo Bill case is heightened even further. Starling is sent back to Lecter to obtain more information from him. She presents Lecter with a deal: if he gives information which leads to Buffalo Bill's arrest and saves Catherine Martin's life, Lecter will be transferred to a new institution and given greater freedom. Unknown to Starling, however, the deal is a phony, concocted by Crawford as a last-ditch effort to get Lecter to talk. (It is not a particularly good one, though it at least has windows.) Lecter, in a position of power, demands information from Starling: in exchange for details of her personal life, he will offer his views on who Buffalo Bill might be.

He starts by asking Starling about her worst childhood memory: the death of her father, a policeman who was killed by two crooks on a night patrol. In exchange, Lecter explains that Bill is seeking to change himself, and that he is a transsexual, or rather, someone who thinks he is a transsexual; Bill's obsession with moths stems from the metamorphosis they go through, caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. He has probably tried to apply for gender-reassignment surgery and been rejected. Starling doesn't pick up on how this will help her, so he asks for more information. Starling relates her past: After her father's death, her mother couldn't support her and she was sent to an uncle's ranch in Montana. Two months later she ran away. Lecter, quid pro quo, explains that checking through the records of people turned down for gender-reassignment surgery because of convictions for violence would be a good place to start a search for Bill's true identity.

The quest to save Catherine Martin takes a turn for the worse when Chilton interferes with the investigation. He tells Lecter that Crawford's deal is a lie, then offers a deal of his own: If Lecter reveals Buffalo Bill's identity, he will indeed get a transfer to another asylum, but only if Chilton gets credit for getting the information from him. Lecter insists that he'll only give the information to Senator Martin in person, in Tennessee. Chilton agrees. Unknown to Chilton, Lecter has managed to fashion and conceal a handcuff key. He knows that once he is outside the asylum, he will be in the custody of police officers who will use handcuffs on him, rather than strait-jackets.

In Tennessee, Lecter toys with Senator Martin briefly, enjoying the woman's anguish, but eventually gives her some (misleading) information about Buffalo Bill. This information in hand, the FBI races off to save Catherine.

The next day, with Lecter held in a makeshift cell, Clarice Starling confronts him. She suspects that Lecter has given false information to the Senator. Their conversation continues from before, with Lecter giving clues as to Buffalo Bill's identity in exchange for stories about Starling's childhood. One night at the ranch, she awoke to hear lambs screaming as they were being slaughtered. Lecter now understands Clarice Starling, but Chilton interrupts the conversation, preventing Lecter from transmitting to her a parallel understanding of Buffalo Bill. Starling is escorted from the building. She is further ordered by Justice Department deputy Paul Krendler to return to Quantico and study like she's supposed to; failure to do so will result in her flunking out. (Krendler later figures prominently in the plot of the sequel Hannibal.)

That evening, Lecter uses his makeshift handcuff key to free himself, beats both guards to death with a truncheon, outmaneuvers the Tennessee PD and SWAT teams, and escapes to the airport in an ambulance. He kills the ambulance men and a tourist.

Starling's shock at all these events is put on hold when she realizes that Lecter has left some further clues for her. With the help of her roommate, Starling realizes that there is something significant in the way Buffalo Bill's first victim, Frederica Bimmel, was killed: she was killed first but found third, suggesting that Bill wanted to hide her body. Starling surmises that she knew Bill in personal life. She accepts that she will flunk out of Quantico and Crawford sends her to Bimmel's home town, Columbus, Ohio. There, Starling discovers that Bimmel was a tailor. Dresses in her closet have triangular templates on them, identical to the patches of skin removed from Buffalo Bill's latest victim. Recalling Lecter's summary of Buffalo Bill's motive - "He wants a vest with tits on it" - Starling figures that Buffalo Bill wants to make himself into a woman by fashioning himself a "woman suit" of real skin. She telephones Crawford, who is already on the way to make an arrest. Lecter's transsexual-surgery theory has yielded a positive ID from Johns Hopkins: a Jame Gumb who lives just outside Columbus. Crawford instructs Starling to continue interviewing friends of Bimmel.

Starling learns that Bimmel once worked for a woman named Mrs. Lippman, who lived in Belvedere, Ohio. At Lippman's house, however, the door is answered by Jame Gumb. (The FBI, we find out later, had a business address.) Starling has no idea who he is, but when she spies a Death's Head Moth flapping around in the background, she knows who she is dealing with. Starling attempts to arrest Gumb, who flees into the basement. She follows him down. She manages to make contact with Catherine Martin, who is fortunately still alive, and is hunting Bill when the lights go out and Starling is left in darkness. Gumb, wearing night vision goggles, creeps up behind Starling and cocks his gun. Starling hears and fires back, killing him. Starling calls for back up and Catherine Martin, finally, is rescued.

Life returns to normal for Starling. She is not going to flunk out, but they are cutting her very little slack. With her roommate's help, she plans to graduate. She has approval where it counts, though: from Crawford, from some of her instructors, and of course from Catherine and Ruth Martin.

In a Detroit hotel room (one with windows), we find Lecter writing farewell letters. He is planning some self-administered cosmetic surgery to keep his anonymity, but for now he has some loose ends to tie up. To Chilton, he promises horrible retribution. To Barney, a nurse at the ward who was civil, Lecter appends a generous tip. Finally, to Starling, he sends a promise that he will not come after her, "the world being more interesting with you in it." He also reminds her that she owes him an answer in future; he would like to know about it, should she ever defeat her inner demons, and find herself in the silence of the lambs.

Differences in the film version

  • Starling's struggles as an FBI trainee are downplayed, with only occasional hints at difficulties, often based on sexism. It is not directly suggested that she was in danger of flunking out.
  • Bimmel's hometown is depicted as Belvedere, Ohio, the same as Gumb's.
  • Lecter never tells Starling that Buffalo Bill wants "a vest with tits in it." Starling deduces this specific motive of Buffalo Bill on her own after seeing a dress in Bimmel's closet.
  • After escaping from his cell in Memphis, Lecter is next shown at the end of the movie contacting Starling by telephone immediately followng her graduation ceremony from the FBI Academy. Lecter, who informs Starling he is "having an old friend for dinner" is shown ostensibly on a Caribbean island while his nemesis Chilton nervously deplanes nearby.

Real life influences

Jame Gumb is evidently based on four real-life serial killers:

  • Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who robbed graves and murdered women in order to flay their bodies and make outfits out of them.
  • Ted Bundy, who killed dozens of women in the 1970s, often luring victims by pretending he was injured with a cast on his arm, a technique Gumb used to lure Catherine Martin into his van; also offered to help investigators find other murderers by "giving insights", while he was in death row.
  • Ed Kemper, who killed his grandparents when he was an adolescent, just like Gumb.
  • Gary Heidnik, who held women captive in a deep hole in his basement.

See also

External link

de:Das Schweigen der Lmmer de:Das Schweigen der Lmmer (Film) eo:The Silence of the Lambs es:El silencio de los corderos fr:Le Silence des agneaux ja:羊たちの沈黙 nl:The Silence of the Lambs sk:Mlčanie jahniat sv:Nr lammen tystnar


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