Silence of the Lambs
Well this ought to be easy, right? Writing about Silence of the Lambs, a film that I have watched, possibly, a dozen times. This week I am joining Now Voyaging for their BEYOND THE COVER: Books to Film Blogathon. As I mentioned I have chosen to read Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs and compare it with Jonathan Demme’s film.
This is where it gets sticky on two fronts. First, I decided to broaden my vision to the entire Hannibal Lecter series of books; Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and Hannibal Rising and their various adaptations. This becomes very interesting since there are four actors who have portrayed Dr. Lecter, three Will Grahams, four Jack Crawfords, three Francis Dolarhydes and two Clarice Starlings. More on this later.
The second reason is to highlight the horrible transphobia and what it clearly still meant and means to American audiences. Back in February the film celebrated it’s 25 anniversary. This reignited various conversations surrounding the feminist strength of Clarice as well as the fear mongering hate that Hannibal spews.
As you probably know it is a fine and well-made film about a young female FBI agent, Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster. Against all odds, captures a serial killer with the assistance of another serial killer, Hannibal Lector, Anthony Hopkins. It is a well shot with incredible performances. Silence of the Lambs, the film, is a very faithful representation of the novel by Thomas Harris.
There are, as I would expect, a few minor characterizations dropped for time. All-in-all I would say that the movie is actually a little better than the book. This may have something to do with being so familiar with the film prior to my reading, I don’t know.
One thing I did not hear, or at the very least focus on, during any of those previous viewings is Lecter saying, “Billy is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be.” This is nearly a direct quote from the novel. The novel also includes,
Starling: “Dr. Lecter, there’s no correlation that I ever saw between transsexualism and violence – transsexuals are passive types, usually.”
Lecter: “That’s true, Clarice. Sometimes you see a tendency to surgical addiction – cosmetically transsexuals are hard to satisfy – but that’s about all. Billy is not a real transsexual.”
The book then continues to have Hannibal justify his statement quoting a multitude of tests to analyze whether or not people truly wanted to transition. Continuing on this:
“Hold on. The incidence of violence among transsexuals is a lot lower than in the general population. These are decent people with a real problem – a famously intransigent problem.”
In the film they glance over the angle of Buffalo Bill being transsexual whereas in the book it is a major lead the FBI follows in their investigation suggesting that the woman suite that Bill is making is a result of his rejected transgender ideals.
Why this matters.
When I was reading the book for this project it did jump out at me. Jump out and slap me on the face. This led me to the article, My Auntie Buffalo Bill: The Unavoidable Transmisogyny of Silence of the Lambs, by Jos Truitt. I recommend that you read the article; it is fascinating and deeply dives into trans culture and a history of discrimination.
In Silence of the Lambs transphobia is a tool that is used as a proof of criminality rather than reflecting that her crimes are the result of “Sexist and homophobic standards of transitioning.” This may be a chicken or an egg argument but when I look at the news today it is very clear that transphobia, and its criminalization, is alive and, shamefully, continues to cause an uproar.
Does this shatter how I see the film? No. Should it? I don’t know. It is difficult for me to write that because I find myself trying to distance myself from discriminatory artwork. But the memory portrait of Silence has been hung so high for so long that I struggle in taking it down. This one scene in the film, which did not add anything directly to the case, could be removed with no effect aside from making Hannibal Lecter a little more likeable (or less deplorable).
I think that this revelation is why I wanted widen my net. Bringing in more of Harris’s world may better explain the character’s actions. It didn’t, really. Not the way I had hoped. In Hannibal we see a Lecter that infantilizes Clarice, your previously strong feminist character. The film was fine though. Not great, pretty but passable.
The book Hannibal Rising was very boring. I would not try and will myself to finish it and I have heard the film is dreadful. So that’s a pass.
I think Red Dragon is the main reason to expand my research. This is where it really gets interesting, as it relates to the reflection of the source material to its three adaptations.
I originally watched Manhunter because of my enjoyment of William Peterson in CSI. I was unaware it was even a Hannibal Lecter film until Brian Cox shows up halfway through. Looking only at cinematic productions Manhunter is my favorite. Everything about it was perfect for its time and is my favorite Michael Mann film. It is a film that represents what I always assumed was the typical feeling of the early 1980s; memories that were programmed into me as I was too young to manage my own opinions.
My admiration for Manhunter very likely soured the taste of Red Dragon with Anthony Hopkins and Ed Norton, as Will Graham. Also Brett Ratner directed it so I will allow you to make your own decisions. I am fairly confident that the film was a cash grab, and that fine, cash in when you can, right?
But, all of that was to give me that opportunity to include Bryan Fuller’s masterful show Hannibal. I have no doubt that if Fuller had the chance he would have immediately struck the transphobia from the record. They struggled to get the rights to the Clarice Starling character’ and then struggled to get renewed, so that was that.
From the onset of the show it was clear that this would be an adaptation based on Thomas Harris’ characters more than the storylines themselves, although the recreations of the Hannibal novel and eventual Red Dragon novel are delightful. The show acts as a prequel to the story of Red Dragon. Introducing us to Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter before they had an antagonistic relationship.
As a television program all involved were given ample time to flesh out the characters; enough for the audience (or “Fannibals”) to develop deep relationships. The show has production levels to, to me, well exceed anything I remember seeing on television before.
I have been revisiting Hannibal again for the first time since the series went off the air and, while yes it is a show about murder, there is something soothing in the production. (Note: my wife completely disagrees with me on this). Whether it is the meticulous feasts created by Janice Poon or Brian Reitzell perfectly ambient scores I get lost in its trappings, like wrapping up in a warm blanket and cozying up with deer. Except the warmth is blood and the deer is a metaphorical inner-demon constructs of the psychologically pushed Will Graham. And this is saying nothing of the perfect casting.
Fuller was able to fluff the pillow of the franchise and give revitalize the ever tiring police procedural leading me to happily place Hannibal directly next to The Wire if someone asks for my favorite shows. And he was able to do this without resorting to the same gender-based phobias which knocked this train off its tracks.
It may be clear by now that I am a fan of the series even though it is deeply flaw at some moments. A while ago, perhaps it was when I was writing about Some Like It Hot I was chatting with my pal, Laurenn, about judging content of the past by modern standards and how that is often unfair to the original works.
So can you see Clarice as a feminist icon? Sure, yes, but I don’t think you can see The Silence of the Lambs as a feminist film. Whether you personally choose to accept transgendered people I would, at the very least, hope that you would be willing to assume that you do not know what is right for them. The characterization as Buffalo Bill as not transgender in the eyes of a cryptic medical institution does not mean that she was how she wanted to be. They force her hands. It is popular literature, like this, that continues to stop the forward marching of true freedom.