Literature: The Silence of the Lambs

Dr. Hannibal Lecter: What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?
Clarice Starling: Anger, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustration...
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That's his nature.

The Silence of the Lambs is a 1988 novel by Thomas Harris (Black Sunday), and the second to star Hannibal Lecter.

There's another serial killer on the loose, "Buffalo Bill", who abducts women, kills and skins them, and shoves chrysalitic moths down their throats. Behavioral Sciences, the section of the FBI that deals with violent crime, is stuck; section chief Jack Crawford has no idea how to stop this guy. The game-changer comes in the form of ambitious young trainee Clarice Starling. Pulled into the investigation almost by accident, she is sent to interview the incarcerated psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter—"Hannibal the Cannibal"—for insight into Buffalo Bill's psychosis. Lecter agrees to help in exchange for Clarice's most traumatic memories, and the two develop a weird symbiotic relationship. And the clock is ticking, because Buffalo Bill's latest victim is the daughter of a US Senator, and if they can't get him now, all hell will break loose...

This book was a huge success, and was adapted into an even more successful 1991 film starring Jodie Foster as Clarice and Anthony Hopkins in a career-defining performance as Lecter; the film became the third, and to this day, the last film ever to win all five major Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay), which for a February-released thriller/horror film was astonishing. (The other two films to sweep the major Oscars are It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Of all the Hannibal Lecter books and films, The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps the only true classic, and indeed both series are often referred to as "The Silence of the Lambs Series".

Overall, one of the most successful and widely popular book/film series of the modern era, blending the merits of crime novel and literature, detective thriller and art film, and permeating popular culture with its scenes, themes, and its characters who have become household names. Its influence on other works in the same genre can't be underestimated.

The Tropes, Clarice, tell me about the Tropes...

  • Affably Evil: The cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter is an interesting example in that nobody can be really sure if his affability is just an act, particularly as he's prone to sniping insults at visitors who displease him. The simple answer is that he is genuinely nice and respectful to people who are genuinely nice and respectful to him, exhibiting this both towards Clarice Starling and an orderly who broke his arm to stop him from attacking a nurse, but was otherwise always respectful and never rude. As the orderly points out at one point, Lecter "prefers to eat the rude".
    • Faux Affably Evil: As respectful or even kind as Lecter can sometimes be, he is still a sadist. For a select few (Clarice, Barney and Sammie) he is genuinely nice, for the rest it is a sham to get him what he wants. Senator Martin is not only courteous to him but actually gives him the transfer he wants, unlike Clarice who deceived him. He expresses sympathy for Catherine, complains about Clarice and Crawford wasting time in the investigation and tells Senator Martin that he will help her without reading her affidavit so the investigation can go underway sooner. Of course, he has known Buffalo Bill's real name the entire time, has sat through six deaths, was perfectly content to let Catherine die until he was given a transfer and didn't actually give his real name anyway. He also needlessly taunted Senator Martin about Catherine's predicament and took pleasure in her pain.
  • All Men Are Perverts: You can count on one hand the number of men who don't hit on Clarice. And, arguably, the number who don't have some kind of psychosexual disorder, given the subject matter.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Clarice confrontation wth Buffalo Bill.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: There really are a couple of types of moths that have skull shaped patterns on them.
  • AM/FM Characterization: While in the prison cell in Tennessee, Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music just before his prison break. This tells the audience that even though he's a psychopathic cannibal, he's still Wicked Cultured.
  • Anti-Villain: Lecter in his other appearances; a serial killer and cannibal who is unfailingly polite, and helps Clarice even when she can no longer offer him anything in return but her story.
  • Asshole Victim: Dr. Chilton is portrayed as sleazy, underhanded, uncooperative and a publicity hound, and almost costs Catherine Martin her life. At the end of the movie it's clear that Lecter will kill and eat him.
  • Author Appeal: Hannibal's detailed knowledge of wines and foods apparently greatly reflects Harris' own expansive knowledge of food and wine.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Averted when the FBI successfully identify the killer only to end up at the wrong house. In both cases the real climax comes when the hero is unexpectedly thrust up against the killer, unprepared and with no backup.
  • Black Best Friend: Both Hannibal and Clarice have one. Hannibal's is a combination of Black Best Friend, Worthy Opponent, and Friendly Enemy.
  • Black Comedy: After Clarice exposes Lecter to the most private and painful part of her past, which is her witnessing the slaughter of spring lambs and her inability to save them, Lecter thanks her and tears well up in his eyes. After she leaves he orders a second dinner: Lamb chops, extra rare.
  • Boxed Crook: Hannibal is offered much better accommodations if he helps the feds find Catherine.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Dr. Chilton warns Clarice not to leave anything in Hannibal Lecter's cell and mentions several objects, among them pens. He himself leaves one there, and there is a long shot of it. He later cannot find it for signing a document. Hannibal Lecter is then seen with a part of it in his hands... He uses it to unlock his cuffs, allowing him to kill his guards.
  • Chess Master: Hannibal Lecter.
  • Click Hello/Dramatic Gun Cock: As Buffalo Bill stalks Clarice through the darkened basement, she has no idea where he is—until he pulls back the hammer of his gun. Hearing this, she instantly turns around and empties her gun into him.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Buffalo Bill enjoyed letting his captives loose in his basement, shooting their legs and watching them crawl around in the dark. However, he stopped playing his "basement games" because the struggling women damaged their skins and ended up being unusable to him.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Lecter/ In his deranged Crowning Moment of Awesome he bites a guard on the face, then pepper sprays him, then bludgeons the guard's friend to death with a truncheon—a friend who is unarmed, and has his hands handcuffed to the cage bars. Then he listens to a piece of classical musicnote  that makes the cell kind of like a high-end restaurant.
  • Composite Character
    • In the film, Benjamin Raspail, a flutist in the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra and a patient of Lecter's who was romantically involved with Jame Gumb, with Klaus, one of Buffalo Bill's victims and whose head is discovered by Clarice. The new film character has Raspail's name and history as a lover of Gumb, but the fate of Klaus of being killed by Gumb.
    • Gumb himself is a composite of three Real Life serial killers. His Wounded Gazelle Gambit is a hallmark of Ted Bundy, his tactic of imprisoning women in his basement is that of Gary Heidnik (though unlike Heidnik, Gumb has no sexual interest in his captives), and his skinning the women in order to make a suit of them was part of Ed Gein's MO.
  • Consulting a Convicted Killer: The novel is the Trope Maker, along with Red Dragon. And most other depictions of this trope are intended as direct Homages to the film adaptation, especially Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. In Lambs, Clarice Starling visits Hannibal in his cell on multiple occasions for help with catching another serial killer called "Buffalo Bill". Hannibal ends up giving Clarice cryptic clues in exchange for information about Clarice's unhappy childhood. Hannibal later uses an agreement to disclose Buffalo Bill's real name in exchange for a transfer to another asylum as an opportunity to escape.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Buffalo Bill, though it's not a straight example. Both the novel and movie go out of their way to tell the audience that being a transsexual, in and of itself, is not connected to violence—specifically, Clarice says (and Lecter agrees) that Bill cannot be a transexual because transexuals are not violent. According to Lecter, Bill only thinks he's a transsexual due to his "hatred of his own identity." This reflects the Fair for Its Day but out-of-date psychology that the book and film relied on. Transsexuality was conflated with transvestism (crossdressing) and was at the time thought to be a mental disorder, albeit a benign one. Which is kind of the point here: no records or proven cases indicated that transsexuality predisposed a person to violence, and so Bill is dismissed as being a "true" transsexual. Nowadays a distinction is drawn between transvestism (crossdressing now considered a common lifestyle choice) and transsexuality (transgender people whose gender identity doesn't align with their physical sex). Neither of these, in and of themselves, prevent someone from being a homicidal maniac.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Buffalo Bill collects parts of the skin of his victims to make a "woman suit".
  • Cut Apart: Famously used to set up the Alone with the Psycho climax.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Migs, the patient in the next cell over from Hannibal, does this at Clarice when she's on her way out of the asylum basement. Hannibal is so horrified that he agrees to help Clarice find Gumb to make up for it.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: As a serial killer, Hannibal is known for killing rude people; he really doesn't like people who are rude. His definition of "rude" can often be different than a normal person's.
  • Empty Elevator: Played with. In search for Lecter, the Police find an already empty elevator.
  • Enemy Rising Behind: Hannibal does this.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: While Crawford insisted that Lecter did it to amuse himself, after Miggs assaulted Clarice sexually, he not only gave her the first important clue to Buffalo Bill—he also made Miggs kill himself for the inappropriate attack that he made upon Clarice.
  • Failure Knight: Starling, with dead lambs forming the center of the story's central analogy.
  • Fakeout Escape: Hannibal gets bonus points for not even escaping himself, but letting the guards load him into an ambulance, thinking he is their mutilated colleague.
  • Fan Disservice: The Buffalo Bill dance scene.
  • FBI Agent: Starling is in training to be one; she only gets her badge at the end of the story.
  • From a Certain Point of View: In the novel of Silence, Starling tells Lecter that her father was a marshal. Later on, when she is recounting to him how he died, Lecter catches enough clues to deduce that the man had actually been a night watchman. Starling's defense is that the official job description had read "night marshal". (Lecter doesn't press the point.)
  • Genius Bruiser: Hannibal.
  • Genre Shift: Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs were cop thrillers with an emphasis on using forensics, profiling and detective work to track down a serial killer. Hannibal was blend of romance and revenge with the detective angle diminished.
  • Genuine Human Hide: Buffalo Bill's modus operandi.
  • A Glass of Chianti: Trope Namer—although in the book, Lecter ate the liver and beans with "a big Amarone." Both are dry reds that pair well with rich meats, such as liver.
  • Hairpin Lockpick: Hannibal unlocks his handcuffs with a pen clip.
  • Hand Cannon: Buffalo Bill's Colt Python.
  • Hand Signals: In the 1991 film a police officer uses them to communicate with other officers when he thinks Lecter is nearby listening to them.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Trope Namer.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Clarice and Ardelia, with Krendler making the sort of comments you'd expect out of a Fan Boy.
  • Horny Scientist: Clarice gets hit on by two; she may even have wound up in bed with one of them by the end of the book.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    Starling: "Much oblige [sic], Ardelia. I got to make one more call. If I can get done with that in time, I'll catch up with you in the cafeteria, okay?"
    Mapp: "I was so in hopes you'd overcome that ghastly dialect. Books are available to help. I never use the colorful patois of my housing project anymore. You come talking that mushmouth, people say you eat up with the dumb-ass, girl."
  • I Ate WHAT??:
    • A common response of Lecter's dinner guests, which included prominent local politicians in Baltimore, apparently. Some of his guests ended up hospitalized for crippling anorexia.
    • A long-delayed horrific version in Hannibal Rising. Possibly it genuinely hadn't occurred to him for twenty years, or possibly he'd just refused to admit it to himself, but he ate his dead little sister as well, disguised in a stew.
  • Idiot Ball: Hannibal Lecter is so terrifying that he is escorted everywhere by multiple squad cars, forced to wear a straitjacket and a hockey mask when not in his cell, guarded by about 20 armed officers waiting outside—and when it's time to open the cage and feed him, two slow-moving, dull-witted cops plus one set of handcuffs will apparently suffice for security purposes.
    • This is explained more thoroughly in the book: Lecter agrees to the exchange of information solely for the chance to be subjected to the lesser security measures of the Tennessee state police, which he knows will not be as effective as Barney's. Barney is aware of this and offers to advise them on how to handle Lecter, but is turned down. The police don't know what he is capable of, so it only takes a bit of chumminess and meek cooperation from Lecter to convince them to abandon Chilton's time-consuming and seemingly excessive security measures.
  • I'm a Humanitarian
  • Improbable Taxonomy Skills: Averted, in which identifying the species of an insect pupa found on the bodies of the victims is a plot point, and the professional entomologist consulted needs time and equipment to answer the question.
  • Insufferable Genius: Crawford and Starling identify this as Lecter's only weakness - he needs to be the smartest guy in the room, and he has to know you know that.
  • Ironic Echo: "Ready when you are."
  • It Amused Me: The motivation for a fair few of Lecter's actions. It is mentioned that Lecter treated unstable people and set them loose on society for kicks and Crawford says that Lecter killed Miggs to amuse himself.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Buffalo Bill uses this to address his victims ("It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again!"). Discussed beforehand when Senator Martin delivers a televised plea to Buffalo Bill, repeatedly referring to her daughter by her given name "Catherine" in the hopes that he will have a harder time depersonalizing her. Given the above line, it clearly didn't have much effect, or he didn't watch the news.
  • Just Desserts: At the end, Hannibal, while in hiding, informs Starling that he's "having a friend for dinner." He's staring right at an oblivious Dr. Chilton as he speaks the line.
  • Karmic Death: Some of Hannibal Lecter's victims (at least in Lecter's mind).
  • Kubrick Stare: This is Lecter's default expression when revving up the creepy.
  • Living Lie Detector: Downplayed. Lecter's very good at reading body language, but he does miss a few lies and half-truths Clarice feeds him.
  • Macabre Moth Motif: Buffalo Bill and his death's head moths. A moth flapping around is what makes Clarice realize that she has found the killer.
  • Male Gaze: Played straight, even literal. A large portion of the film displays male gaze in close-up.
  • Manipulative Bastard
    • Hannibal Lecter; arguably also Chilton and Krendler, with their manipulations being wildly outclassed by Lecter's.
    • Jack Crawford, who intentionally sent Clarice to Lecter with no clue as to why she was really doing it, because if she had known Lecter would have figured it out. He also entices Lecter with a phony deal from Senator Martin, and fakes a sexist attitude in front of the sheriff in order to get him to talk alone.
  • Mascot Villain: Hannibal Lecter is notably closer to this than Villain-Based Franchise. While definitely the series' mascot and quite evil, he could only be considered a flat-out villain in the film Hannibal, and instead usually acts as an adviser to help catch other villains.
  • Meaningful Name: A starling is indeed a songbird, but if you live in New England, it is also a structure placed upstream of a bridge to intercept any large and dangerous objects that may damage it.
  • Monster Misogyny: Buffalo Bill only kills women, although we discover he has his... er, reasons...Somewhat shaken up by the implication that Jame Gumb doesn't specifically hate women as much as he is bitter towards them due to jealously, as indicated by his last line in the novel. In the film it's hinted at further during the infamous skin lotion scene. He refers to Catherine Martin as "it" and refuses to address her directly. Finally, her pleas for her mother get to him and he starts crying before screaming at her to put the lotion in the basket, indicating that he felt a moment of guilt or remorse for what he's doing, a sensitivity he tries to restrain by treating his captives as objects. This is pointed out by Clarice when she comments on the Senator's plea, noting that she repeats the name to humanize her daughter, making it harder to tear her up.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: During the raid of Buffalo Bill's alleged hideout in Calumet City, large hills can be seen in the background. (The scene was actually filmed near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)
  • Named After Someone Famous: Hannibal Lecter takes his first name from Carthagian general Hannibal Barca. Buffalo Bill is nicknamed after Buffalo Bill.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Hannibal was shot in Richmond, Virginia; local news anchor Ric Young appears in the news report about Starling's shooting at the start of the movie.
  • No Kill Like Overkill: Clarice empties all six chambers of her revolver into Buffalo Bill's chest at point-blank range. As he's lying on the ground dying, she reloads.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent
  • Nothing Is Scarier
    • Subverted, or at least played with, in the Silence film's climax, when Clarice is in Buffalo Bill's house. He turns out the lights, plunging the basement into darkness. We then see the scene through Bill's night-vision goggles, as he watches her stumble around helplessly.
    • Another version of this in the autopsy scene. When Clarice is taking note of the condition of the body, we don't actually see the body outside of a shot of the hand and some partial shots of its face. We know what condition it's in (rotting and with a bullet hole in the chest) because of Clarice's note-taking. Her facial expression says it all and makes it even more disturbing. Then they flip the body over and we see exactly what it looks like and it is still fucking disturbing.
  • Phone-Trace Race: When Hannibal calls Clarice at the end of the film, he tells her he wonít stay on for long to avoid detection.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Jame Gumb.
  • Reminiscing About Your Victims: Hannibal does seem rather fond of remembering that postal worker whose liver he ate.
  • Room Full of Crazy:
    • Buffalo Bill's basement has several. The sewing room has a large black wardrobe filled with the skins of women. The doors are plastered with newspaper clippings.
    • Jack Crawford has a heroic version, as his office features the same Buffalo Bill clippings as well as crime scene photos.
  • Scary Black Man: Played with in the movie. Our first shot of Barney the orderly (from Starling's POV) makes him look pretty grim, but When He Smiles...
  • Scenery Porn: Ahh, Florence...
  • Serial Killer: Some of the most famous examples. Buffalo Bill is a composite of several notorious serial killers—Ted Bundy (wearing a cast on his arm and claiming to need help), Gary Heidnik (imprisoning women in his basement), and Ed Gein (murdering women and flaying their skin in order to make a "woman suit").
  • Shirtless Scene: Hannibal's chest is bare when he injects himself with sodium amytal in order to recall his sister's murderers.
  • Shout-Out: Silence'' closes with a To Be Continued. After the Copyright notice and MPAA logo, a logo appears with the text "A Luta Continua"—Portuguese for "The Struggle Continues" ("To be continued"). Which three other Jonathan Demme films also have.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Anthony Hopkins holds the record for the shortest amount of screen time to win an Academy Award for Best Actor: he's only in the movie for around 18 minutes.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance
    • Dr. Lecter beats the life out of two police officers while the movie plays Bach's The Goldberg Variations.
    • Buffalo Bill creepily dancing to 80's song "Goodbye Horses" while Catherine Martin is in his basement well.
  • Sparing The Aces: Put simply:
    Hannibal: The world is more interesting with you in it.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lecter definitely counts in relation to Starling.
  • Stealth Pun
    • When Lecter escapes he murders two people and mutilates their bodies. One he strings up on the wall like a butterfly. He cuts the other's face off and wears it to disguse his identity. Both of these things are references to Buffalo Bill's crimes. Also, Lecter wearing the guard's face as a disguise is foreshadowing to the reveal that Bill wears women's skins in an attempt to change his identity; one last clue to Clarice.
    • At the FBI graduation party, when we see a shot of them slicing the cake shaped like the FBI logo, it's a good moment to shout out: "Justice is served!"/"Justice for all!"
  • Step into the Blinding Fight: Jame Gumb turns off the lights and stalks Agent Starling while wearing night-vision goggles.
  • Tear Off Your Face: Lecter does this to one of the guards as a component of his infamous escape sequence.
  • Themed Aliases: Jame Gumb also goes by the name John Grant and identifies himself to Starling as Jack Gordon.
  • There Are No Therapists
    • Subverted, since Lecter is imprisoned in a psychiatric institution and has been visited by a number of shrinks. Since he's a brilliant psychiatrist himself, this rarely works out right.
    • An even more interesting subversion is that Lecter mentions to Clarice that he's using his skills as a therapist to work with one of the other patients. He gives the impression that he's sincerely trying to help the man, though it's possible he's doing it out of sheer boredom (and more possible he made the whole thing up to screw with her head.) The latter being especially plausible, since Lecter derides psychiatry as being composed of "ham radio enthusiasts and other personality-deficient buffs."
  • Timeshifted Actor: Young Clarice in the flashback to her father's funeral.
  • Title Drop: The phrase "the silence of the lambs" are actually the last words in the novel.
  • Trivial Title: It refers to an anecdote told in the story. It's also a Title Drop as the last words of the novel (not of The Film of the Book).
  • Transsexual: 'Buffalo Bill' thinks he is a trans woman, though if you trust Lecter, he's not. He doesn't want to be a woman: he wants to be his mother.
  • Uncanny Valley
    • Intentionally invoked by the acting of Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill, when he mocks Catherine's screaming. The flat, emotionless sound, combined with his completely blank facial expression create an effect that is entirely inhuman.
    • Also employed by Hopkins, who did his best to never blink on camera.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Before World War II, Hannibal was a cute and caring boy.
  • Wake Up, Go to School, Save the World: In the book version of (the film mostly dropped the plotline) Clarice is juggling her hunt for Buffalo Bill with her FBI training, knowing she's in danger of being held back for non-attendance despite being a brilliant student who's busy doing Bureau work.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Catherine, who lives in an apartment, is shown in the film to have a cat she didnít have time to feed when she was abducted. Itís never made clear whether anyone else fed the cat instead of her.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: "Buffalo Bill" uses a fake cast and an unwieldy object he's supposedly trying to put in a van to lure Catherine into position to kidnap her. Fun fact: This was frequently the M.O. of Ted Bundy when he was active as a serial killer in the 1970s (Impersonating an Officer being the other). He would put an arm in a sling to fake injury, approach his victims asking for help carrying something to his car, and then beat them unconscious and kidnap them.
  • You Monster!: Dr. Frederick Chilton, the head of the insane asylum that houses the cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter, describes Lecter as a monster.
    Chilton: [to Clarice Starling] Oh, he's a monster. Pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive. From a research point of view, Lecter is our most prized asset.

Thank you, Clarice...

Alternative Title(s):

Silence Of The Lambs, The Silence Of The Lambs