The other night, I watched The Silence of the Lambs and became confident that it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. However, it got me thinking about the book. It’s been years since I read it and I could only vaguely recall the differences between the two. So after I was done, I decided to check it out for the first time in a long time.
It’s a good book, at times very good, but perhaps not a great one. Harris’ great creation: the menacing Dr. Hannibal Lecter, comes off as more of an irritant than a monster. His monstrous appeal is seen more through his perspective, when Harris dares allow us a peak into his fevered mind. Anthony Hopkins took the best of the character while making it his very own; his ability to be deeply impersonal is what makes Lecter a monster.
What I didn’t notice as much the first time I read it, and what the movie can only tease at, is how Harris uses Clarice Starling to examine class in the United States. She is at once desperate to be free of the rural white background to which she came from and also defensive of it when considering that many of Bill’s victims had the same experience she did. The dynamic of her anger towards Catherine Martin’s spoiled, underachieving life despite the immense privilege she holds as the daughter of a US Senator added real depth to the story. Starling wants to solve this almost in spite of who she thinks Martin is and she has to work hard to let it go.
There’s a lot more I could say but just to piggyback on that last point: Harris and the movie use both Starling and ostensibly criminal justice to make a stark point about the rotting core of the American empire. That all of the toxic masculinity, the guns, even the overmedication of a savvy operator like Jack Crawford cannot prevent the monsters from coming out in what is an inherently misogynistic society. I keep thinking of the scene in both the movie and the book where Lecter is trying to escape. Cops everywhere, all armed to the teeth and yet, they’re helpless in trying to stop him. Men making jokes about serial killer Buffalo Bill and yet they have no idea how to catch him.
Psychiatrists are supposed to help us communicate our feelings so our rage doesn’t manifest in transgressive, violent ways. But when the symbol of psychiatry is trying to push the world closer to chaos, the ensuing tableau is frightening to look at. That’s what makes this story so powerful and what made an interesting, if at times repetitive crime/horror tale translate perfectly to a visual medium.