Thematic Analysis of the film The Silence of the Lambs
A classic, critically and commercially acclaimed, and one of the few films to have won Academy Awards in all the top five categories i.e., Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) undoubtedly is a masterpiece.
This psychological thriller is adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel; the screenplay is by Ted Telly and it is directed by Jonathan Demme.
The story revolves around a young ambitious FBI trainee, Clarice Starling, who is interviewing a serial killer now in prison, Dr Hannibal Lecter or famously known as Hannibal the Cannibal, to get his help in finding another serial killer – Buffalo Bill.
An astute psychiatrist, Dr Lecter, agrees to cooperate only if he is transferred to a prison of his choice.
The situation aggravates when Buffalo Bill kidnaps a senator’s only daughter so as to finish his ‘woman-suit’ made from real women’s skin. Clarice knows only Dr Lecter can help her, but when he escapes from the custody she is left with unclear anagrams and a few hours to save the senator’s daughter.
Thematic Thread Runs the Story
What is that which helps weave the plot, the characters, the motivations, and the milieu in a story as one? What is that which subtly runs the story? It is the theme/ the central idea/ the core of a story. The plot builds on and the characters reflect the theme, solidifying the thought behind the tale.
In The Silence of the Lambs too it is the theme that gives enough space and opportunities to the screenwriter and the makers to explore the story cinematically.
Adapting a novel into a film script is not that easy a task, one needs to fix the storyline, make it crisp and compact, shuffle and alter it without disturbing its soul, rewrite it using the cinematic language.
The Silence of the Lambs is a great study to understand film adaptation; not even a second of the screen-time is wasted, with every scene we get closer to catching the serial killer and yet, the suspense continues.
Main Themes in the Film
Clarice Starling, Dr Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill – the protagonist, the pivotal character and the antagonist – all want to bring a change in their lives; they instigate, obstruct and fight not fearing the consequences.
“Lecter – Was it a butterfly?
Clarice – Yes. A moth. Just like the one we found in Benjamin Raspail’s head an hour ago. Why does he place them there, Doctor?
Lecter – The significance of the moth is change. Caterpillar into chrysalis, or pupa, and from thence into beauty. Our Billy wants to change, too.”
Stifled by his real identity, Buffalo Bill wants to become a transsexual, and after failed attempts to achieve it via sex reassignment at selected few hospitals, he decides to stitch a woman suit; he kills women and skins them for it. Accepting this gruesome act as his destined journey from being a caterpillar to a butterfly, he treats his victims as mere objects.
He calls Catherine Martin, the senator’s daughter, ‘it’ and refuses to take her as a person.
“Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it’s told.
Catherine – Mister, my family’ll pay cash. Whatever ransom you’re asking for, they’ll pay it.
Bill – It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. Yes, it will, Precious. It will get the hose.”
Though we meet Bill rather late in the film, his deeds speak for him from the very beginning. It is Buffalo Bill’s case that Jack Crawford (from the Behavioral Science Department, FBI) is unable to decode and thus, sends Clarice to meet Dr Lecter in the hope of getting his help.
Dr Lecter sees through Jack Crawford’s plan, but nevertheless decides to play along, one, because this could be his only opportunity to get out of Dr Chilton’s custody and two because he enjoys talking to Clarice, she is like an interesting subject for him.
In his first encounter with Clarice, he understands how desperate she is to get to the bottom of this case, how badly she wishes to catch Buffalo Bill. He astonishes and scares her at the same time; appreciating Clarice’s genuine desire to do well as a detective, he gives her the first hint.
A change of scene, another place where he could be closer to nature is what he wants in return. Quote –
“What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree or even water.”
And through Clarice lies the way. Playing a game of ‘Quid Pro Quo’, Clarice tells Dr Lecter about the worst day of her life – the day when she tried to save a lamb from getting butchered but failed, allowing Dr Lecter to manipulate her, hoping to gain his trust, determined to know more about Buffalo Bill.
Then, like in the game of chess, Dr Lector moves to check-mate the asylum’s warden Dr Chilton; aware that the abduction of a senator’s daughter by Buffalo Bill could probably be his only chance to escape the life of a prisoner, Dr Lector overtakes both Jack Crawford and Clarice and sides with his ‘nemesis’ Dr Chilton and works out a deal. As demanded he is transferred to the state prison and in exchange he shares his old patient Louis Friend aka Buffalo Bill’s information with the senator.
Confident about breaking away from the makeshift prison at the Courthouse, in his last meeting with Clarice, he, like a teacher, guides a troubled Clarice step by step to understand how Buffalo Bill’s mind works. He asks her to focus on ‘simplicity’ and gives back the case file saying that everything that she needs to know about Buffalo Bill is already in the case file.
Later, he executes his horrifying plan – kills the guards, makes a face mask from one of the guard’s face to fool other officers and once in the ambulance, he kills the medical crew and runs away.
Clarice Starling also wants to bring a change in her life. Her sincere desire to succeed as an FBI trainee is actually, as Dr Lecter psychoanalyse her and reveals, an honest wish for the lambs in her dreams to stop screaming, she wants to save at least one innocent life from getting butchered, she wants to be redeemed. As a child, orphaned after her father was killed, she was helpless and this crippling state of helplessness is what she wants to change forever.
To achieve their set goals, Buffalo Bill and Dr Lecter move forward without any fear, eager to grasp transformation/ freedom, but clever enough to be cautious, while Clarice Starling, vulnerable, anxious yet brave, collects clues, discovers the truth and ultimately meets the butcher before he could make his next kill and ends his journey.
The Strong Feminist Voice
The Silence of the Lambs is a fantastically strong feminist film. It talks about, shows and breaks the “male gaze” beautifully. Clarice Starling is not even close to being a damsel in distress; she is a confident independent individual. Her persona, her fighting spirit breaks the stereotypes we all are usually too lazy, slow and comfy to react to.
Still a student, Clarice Starling is called to be a part of an on-going investigation, but Jack Crawford does not reveal his plan outright. He places her forward as a pawn and waits for Dr Lecter to react, not sure if he will agree to play.
When Clarice confronts him about the same, Jack Crawford says that he did it so as to help her win Dr Lecter’s trust as he would have otherwise simply refused to comply.
Working in a field with a male majority, Clarice does not hesitate to raise her voice or correct her seniors. Jack Crawford tells the Sheriff while examining another Buffalo Bill victim, to discuss ‘this type of sex crime’ in private indicating that doing so in a young woman’s presence might be inappropriate; when tries to clarify it later he gets a blunt reply from Clarice – quote –
“Jack – Starling, when I told that sheriff we shouldn’t talk in front of a woman, that really burned you, didn’t it? It was just smoke, Starling. I had to get rid of him.
Clarice – It matters, Mr Crawford. Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.
Jack – Point taken.”
To discern what “male gaze” actually is, we, the audience, are placed in Clarice’s position almost every time when Jack Crawford, Dr Chilton, Dr Lecter and Buffalo Bill address her, they see directly in the camera while Clarice looks slightly off the camera, their searing, manipulative gaze falls directly on the viewers.
Then there are striking scenes like when Clarice takes the lift at the FBI academy and is the only woman amongst the men who stare at her, also when she tells Sheriff and his men to vacate the room so that she and the FBI team could finish the investigation, every one of them looks straight at her/ the audience, confused seeing a young woman asking them to leave and let her work.
This ‘experiencing’ rather than ‘showing’ of what Clarice goes through in her day to day life, subtly and firmly makes one aware about the disturbing presence of the “male gaze” in our working culture.
But here, effortlessly, Clarice Starling becomes the change she and we all wish to see around us. And she does so by simply not giving up – the horrifying experience at Dr Lecter’s cell, the way she is moved in and out of the Buffalo Bill case does not deter her spirit – and when finally she cracks the case and alone faces the mad serial killer, she stands her ground, fighting her way through the darkness, unaware about Buffalo Bill’s night-vision-goggled-eyes following her and fully alert, she fires on hearing him cock his gun. She fires again and again, the dark glass window shatters and light pours in the damp room.
The transformation process concludes here and is in favour of Clarice Starling.
Symbols and Metaphors –
Symbols and metaphors always assist in developing the theme, plot and characters in a story. In movies, it becomes imperative to utilize every bit of screen space to understand the underlying concepts and motifs that cannot always be explained via dialogues.
Death’s-head moth is a symbol of transformation and also of impending doom in the film. In two of the Buffalo Bill’s victims, moth cocoons were found; not his calling card, but it is rather a ritual for him as he killed them in the hope to transform, to break-open his cocoon and sooner or later emerge as a beautiful butterfly.
But as he had to pay for his grisly, despicable acts, in the end, Clarice recognises Jame Gumb as Buffalo Bill when in his house a Death’s-head moth flies by her side and rests silently on a thread roll; she chases him in the labyrinth of a basement and shoots him down.
Throughout the film, lambs are used as a metaphor for one who is innocent but is still suffering, for a troubled soul wanting redemption. Clarice Starling’s father, a Town Marshal, was killed by two burglars, and an orphan at ten, she could not do anything but watch.
She grew into a brave individual, but still carries that grief, that state of helplessness within and aims to redeem herself by fighting crime. Dr Lecter understands this; he also sketches the profile of Clarice holding a lamb, showing his growing interest in her.
“Have the lambs stopped screaming”, asks Dr Lecter over the phone on Clarice’s graduation day, leaving her surprised. No longer a prisoner, he assures her that he will not come after her and hopes that she will extend the same courtesy towards him. Clarice does not promise him anything.
With this, a well-knitted story comes to a closure where Clarice sleeps peacefully, in the silence of the lambs, but only in the novel. In the film, Dr Lecter leaves Clarice guessing where he could be and hangs up to follow Dr Chilton in the crowd in the Bahamas. Thus, here Clarice’s journey does not end.
Sound clarity is a must when exploring the thematic range of a story. Clarice Starling’s past and present moves parallelly, an aspiring FBI agent she agrees to be psychologically manipulated by Dr Lecter, not only to be a good detective and win praises from Jack Crawford but to truly help rescue Buffalo Bill’s next victim.
Here, it is the theme that builds the plot, structure and moves the characters; it is the theme that writes the screenplay.
The Silence of the Lambs was the first psychological thriller since Rebecca (1940) to win the Academy Award for best picture. A compelling and clever script, tight direction and impeccable acting both by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins make this film an unmissable classic.
With themes like metamorphosis, good versus evil, feminism, male chauvinism and redemption interwoven into the story, the film transcends the single genre of a psychological thriller.
It raises questions for the individual as well as the society for what is nurtured is what comes out of the cocoon, both a butterfly and a death’s-head moth.