Director Jonathon Demme’s film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel was met with trepidation when it premiered in 1991. But gradually, this film about serial killers and cannibals became a critical favourite, sweeping that year’s Academy Awards. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director. Sorta tells you something, doesn't it?
The film follows FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as she is sent to interview the incarcerated psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkin’s most famous role) in a high-security hospital. Lecter has information to help the FBI find Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), a serial killer making himself into the “perfect” woman – out of the skins of other women. The exchanges between Starling and Lecter form the bulk of the film, building tension and creating a world around these characters. The climax of the story involves Starling hunting Buffalo Bill, and realising that Lecter had been giving her clues all along.
Even if you haven’t ever seen this film, you'll understand references to it. Lines like, “Clarice, I have a present for you” or “with some fava beans and a nice chianti” have entered the pop culture lexicon. Interestingly, the famous hissing noise Lecter makes to freak Clarice out was ad-libbed by Hopkins; it was so effectively creepy that Demme kept it in, and it’s now the most requested “line” from Hopkins in interviews.
Hopkins himself was not the first choice for Lecter. Can you imagine anyone else in that role? Try picturing Jamesh* Bond himself, Sean Connery, in that mask and prison cell. I can’t. Nor was Foster the first choice for Starling. Demme originally approached Michelle Pfeiffer, who rejected the role based on the subject matter. I can’t blame her, but as the film awarded Foster her second Academy Award, Pfeiffer must have been kicking herself.
‘Silence’ wasn't the first film adaptation of Harris’ books, nor the last. In 1986, ‘Manhunter’ featured Hannibal Lecter and was based on Harris’ ‘Red Dragon’, and since ‘Silence’ was released, Hopkins has reprised his role in the sequel ‘Hannibal’ and the remake of ‘Red Dragon’. The book ‘Hannibal’ has a very different ending to the film, and if you’re a fan of Harris’ work, the contrast between what is acceptable on screen and in print is quite interesting.
Also worth mentioning is that not only did ‘Silence’ win five Oscars, it was only the third to win those five, and the first Best Picture winner to be a horror film. It’s not surprising that this film was the catalyst to the follow-up features, and the recent and very popular TV series starring Mads Mikkelsen. ‘Manhunter’ couldn’t inspire that, and it’s clear upon re-watching both films why. Demme and Hopkins manage to arouse a strange fascination with Hannibal the cannibal, and perhaps even a little sympathy for the character. Mikkelsen’s portrayal certainly complements this. Even after 25 years, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ stands out as one of the most interesting and compelling horror films ever made.