Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Silence of the Lambs

Go To

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women...
Hannibal Lecter: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

The film adaptation of the novel The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme, starring Jodie Foster, and released in 1991.

Clarice Starling (Foster) is a young FBI trainee assigned to help catch serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who kills and skins young women before putting moths in their bodies. Clarice is tasked by her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) with 'profiling' cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) with the secret goal of obtaining his insights on Bill's methods. But Buffalo Bill is slippier than the FBI thought, and Lecter a lot more cunning than Clarice expected.

The film also stars Anthony Heald as Dr. Chilton and Brooke Smith as Catherine Martin.

Like the book, the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs is self-contained, and features even less references to both Red Dragon and its 1986 film adaptation, Manhunter (though a number of visual motifs from that movie carry over here), to say nothing of this movie recasting every role that had previously appeared in its predecessor (in part because Brian Cox wasn't available to return as Lecter, with the rest of the Manhunter cast never being approached afterwards).

A sequel series to the film, titled Clarice, premiered in February 2021 on CBS.


  • Adaptation Species Change:
    • The cocoons Buffalo Bill used were from black witch moths in the book but the film understandably went with the more iconic death's head (although at least one death's head moth does show up later in the book).
    • Precious, Jame's beloved and very spoiled pet dog, is a poodle in the books but a bichon frise in the movie.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • In the film, Clarice uses her own investigative skills and methods of deduction to figure out why Buffalo Bill needs his victims' skins, while in the book it’s Lecter who reveals it to her during one of their conversations.
    • Benjamin Raspail in the book enters a relationship with Gumb even after he murders his boyfriend, citing a male version of All Girls Want Bad Boys; in the film, however, he's understandably freaked out when Gumb murders a transient and it appears that this is why Gumb ultimately ended up killing him.
  • Adapted Out: Many of the minor characters and short scenes from the book are missing from the film, due to time constraints. One notably missing is the Johns Hopkins surgeon, whose scene with Crawford might have covered some of the more problematic representation of transgender people (although not entirely, as the views shown were somewhat out of date). As it is, an argument that Bill isn't transsexual and a line that "transsexuals are very passive" handwaves this in the film.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: While he was a crazy killer trying to fulfill a twisted fantasy and his death is partially a relief, Gumb being so lost and broken makes it hard not to feel a little sorry for him, especially because his demise was not written to be cheer-worthy as well.
  • Answer Cut: At the beginning of the movie, when Crawford is warning Clarice about Lecter, he tells her, "Never forget what he is", to which Clarice asks, "And what is he?" Cut to Dr. Chilton at the asylum Lecter is imprisoned at, telling Clarice, "Oh, he's a monster."
  • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gumb/"Buffalo Bill" is dead, the FBI have rescued Catherine and Starling graduates and becomes a full agent. However Lecter has escaped, killing five people in the process and is a far greater threat than Gumb ever was. While Lecter does insist to Starling that he won't go after her—and hints strongly that he's gonna pay back Chilton for everything he put him through too, the fact that Lecter's still out there at all still doesn't make her any less uneasy about it though.
  • Book Ends: An inter-film example: Manhunter opens with a Murderer P.O.V. shot of Dolarhyde breaking into the Leeds' home in the dead of night, as seen through the lens of his film camera and flashlight. The Silence of the Lambs ends with a similar POV sequence of Bill stalking Clarice through his darkened basement, as seen through the lenses of his night vision goggles.
  • The Cameo: Roger Corman appears as FBI Director Hayden Burke and Chris Isaak as a SWAT commander.
  • Central Theme: Being Watched, as noted by Lecter: "We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don't your eyes seek out the things you want?" Many shots of the film are from Clarice's POV at people looking directly at her.
  • Chekhov's Classroom: Inverted. Dr. Chilton instructs Clarice on the extremely stringent physical procedures in place for dealing with Lecter in his cell. By the end of the film, Clarice has violated almost all of them.
    Do not reach through the bars, do not touch the bars. You pass him nothing but soft paper - no pens or pencils. No staples or paperclips in his paper. Use the sliding food carrier, no exceptions. If he offers you anything, do not accept it.
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • During the autopsy scene we learn that the pieces of skin Buffalo Bill cuts from his victims' bodies are not all the same. Later in the movie, after seeing dressmaking patterns, Clarice realizes that the pieces of skin are to be used to create a "woman suit...made out of real women".
    • We see Buffalo Bill using his night-vision goggles early in the movie to watch Catherine Martin, and near the end he uses them while stalking Clarice inside his house.
  • Clothespin Nose Plug: A non-noseplug variation in occurs when the police officers rub Vicks VapoRub under their noses to block out the smell of a corpse they're examining.
  • Composite Character: 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, being killed by Gumb.
  • Conversation Cut: In a scene at the beginning of the film where Crawford is telling Clarice to be careful with Lecter, Crawford says "Never forget what he is." Clarice says, "And what is that?" Cut to Dr. Chilton at the asylum saying, "Oh, he's a monster. Complete psychopath."
  • Delivery Guy Infiltration: SWAT team's leader at Buffalo Bill's old address masquerades as delivering flowers.
  • Deranged Dance: Serial killer Buffalo Bill's infamous scene of him dancing in the buff and in makeup to "Goodbye Horses" in his disorganized basement, a scene that highlights his Psychopathic Manchild and Sissy Villain traits.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • After Miggs throws his semen at Clarice, the unnamed prisoners call him a "stupid fuck" and a "freak", but Lecter is the most affected, as he actually shouts for Claricenote  to return to his cell to talk to him, explaining that he cannot abide rudeness, giving her info about Buffalo Bill, and then loudly telling her to leave. While Crawford insisted that Lecter did it to amuse himself, 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.
    • Buffalo Bill is an unrepentant serial killer, but when Catherine starts sobbing for her mother, he becomes genuinely distressed and drops his stoic demeanor. Discussions throughout the film suggest that Gumb wants to be an unfeeling monster with no standards, but can't suppress his empathy enough to do so.
  • Exact Words: "I do wish we could chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner." Lecter ends his phone call with Clarice by basically saying that he's going to eat Chilton.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • In the FBI Academy training exercise scene Clarice Starling forgets to check behind her after entering a room and an instructor behind her puts a gun to her head and "kills" her. At the climax, when Buffalo Bill sneaks up behind her in the dark and does a *Click* Hello she hears the sound, turns and shoots him to death.
    • Every step of Lecter's elaborate Great Escape foreshadows some aspect of Buffalo Bill's M.O., possibly hinting that he was trying to leave Starling a few clues before he vanished. First, he mutilates one of the guards by tearing flaps of skin from his back and splaying them out like wings hinting at Bill's obsession with moths. Then he gets out of prison by cutting off a guard's face and using it as a mask, hinting at Bill's desire to change his identity by making a suit from women's skin. Finally, he confuses the police by switching clothes with one of the guards and throwing the guard's corpse into an elevator shaft, much like Bill moves into his victim's house to confuse anyone who finds his old house.
    • In his first scene, Lecter says that his drawing is the "Duomo, seen from the Belvedere." Buffalo Bill is in Belvedere, Ohio. Makes you wonder just how much Lecter was aware of before Clarice showed up. (In the book, Crawford suggests Lecter knew Buffalo Bill from the outset).
    • Even the poster counts as this, it shows a moth covering the mouth of a ghostly female face. Part of Bill's M.O. is placing a moth in the mouths of the women he kills.
  • Genre Mashup: Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, but it's got equal doses of Psychological Thriller, Police Procedural, Reverse Who Dunnit, and Coming of Age Story.
  • Glassy Prison: Hannibal Lecter's cell at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is the only one in the unit to have a glass wall facing the hallway whereas the others have normal bars, as he's by far the most dangerous inmate there. In the book, his cell was normal bars with an extra net behind them to keep visitors safe; the director of the film chose glass because it made it easier to shoot both actors clearly without bars covering their faces up.
  • Hand Signals: A police officer and a SWAT team leader use hand signs to communicate with other officers and each other when they think Lecter is nearby listening to them.
  • Homage: Jonathan Demme took many of the asylum scenes from From Beyond and incorporated them into the film; Demme was well acquainted with Stuart Gordon in the New York underground film scene.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Played for Drama. After attempting to sway Buffalo Bill with promises of a ransom or political favors, Catherine breaks down and starts sobbing desperately for her mother: "I wanna see my mommy!" It's so heart-wrenching that Bill himself is affected by it.
  • Kill the Lights: When Clarice Starling is hunting Buffalo Bill in his house, he kills the power and leaves her in darkness. He then dons his Night-Vision Goggles and The Hunter Becomes the Hunted.
  • Man Bites Man: During his escape from Memphis, Lecter takes a bite out of Officer Jim Pembry's face before attacking him with his own mace.
  • Malevolent Architecture: The basement of Mrs. Lippman's building is a hopelessly haphazard, labyrinthine maze of rooms. Kirsti Zea, production designer for the movie, also built the set to resemble a figurative descent into Bill's mind, a nightmarish clash of building styles in various states of disrepair and decay.
  • 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.)
  • Murderer P.O.V.: We get this through Bill's night vision goggles as he stalks Catherine and later Clarice.
  • Night-Vision Goggles: Buffalo Bill uses night goggles while carrying out surveillance of Catherine Martin and while hunting Clarice Starling through his darkened house at the climax.
  • Nominal Importance: The film sure places a lot of attention on that minor guard character going to the hospital, right? Of course, it's Hannibal wearing his face. A possible case of Tropes Are Tools, since the knowledge that something is up with Pembry borders on Dramatic Irony.
  • 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. Played straight in that during this scene there is no soundtrack, and little sound of any kind other than the small noises Clarice makes as she stumbles around.
    • 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.
    • The nurse that Lecter attacked during an EKG. Dr. Chilton shows Clarice a photo and describes the aftermath (and that Lecter ate her tongue). However, the camera never shows the photo, so the rest is left to the imagination, and our view of Starling's reaction to it.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The film ends as Hannibal Lecter walks away into the crowd.
  • Oh, Crap!: Downplayed, but the audience can clearly see this cross Starling's face when the moth lands nearby. She clearly was unnerved and suspicious by Gumb's behavior up to that point but the minute she sees the moth, she realizes who she's now in the home of by herself...
  • Rule of Cool: Jonathan Demme admitted that Dr. Lecter never would’ve had the means, much less the time, to have staged the scene in the chamber after murdering the guards and escaping from his cell.
  • 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.
  • Sinister Nudity: One of Buffalo Bill's most unsettling scenes features him casually sewing his "woman suit" while completely naked, idly humming along with music on the radio and completely ignoring the screams of his newly captured victim at the bottom of the well behind him.
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: The film adaptation is a Type 4 (Near Identical Adaptation) and sticks close to the content of the book, only excluding the chapters that aren't essential to the main plot.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • Dr. Lecter beats the life out of two police officers while a tape recorder on his table plays Bach's The Goldberg Variations.
    • Buffalo Bill creepily dancing to 80's song "Goodbye Horses" while Catherine Martin is in his basement well.
  • Troll: In a meta-example, Anthony Hopkins has been known to go out of his way to attend screenings of this film for the sole purpose of messing with audience members.
  • Two Scenes, One Dialogue: Played with when Crawford and the SWAT team ring the doorbell at Buffalo Bill's old address and Clarice arrives at his new one.
  • Visible Victimology: All of the women kidnapped and later murdered by Buffalo Bill are of larger than normal size. He starves them for a while to loosen their skin, cuts off pieces of their skin in specific patterns and sews the pieces together to make himself a "woman suit".
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Catherine, who lives in an apartment, is shown to have a cat she didn’t have time to feed when she was abducted. It's never made clear whether anyone else fed the cat instead of her.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Silence Of The Lambs


Wrong Address

While Buffalo Bill is in his basement, the FBI are seen surrounding a house before attempting to infiltrate using a delivery guy ruse. When Buffalo Bill hears someone knocking on the door and answers it, it's revealed to be Clarice. Meanwhile, Jack realizes the agents are at the wrong address and Clarice is alone with Bill.

How well does it match the trope?

4.8 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / CutApart

Media sources: