The Dark Fate of Clarice Starling

Across decades of Silence of the Lambs sequels and spin-offs, Hannibal Lecter has become a pop-cultural juggernaut. Starling, not so much.

Clarice Starling played by Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs
Orion / Everett Collection

If metaphor is art, then consider Thomas Harris an old master: His finest work, 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs, is a Gothic carnival of symbolism and allusion. The substance of the novel is how society ritualistically depersonalizes, objectifies, and consumes women. Jame Gumb, the serial killer being pursued by the novice FBI agent Clarice Starling, takes this mission literally, stalking and skinning women in a macabre quest to turn them into “material.” The police, the media, and the FBI reduce victims to exploitative clichés or nameless bodies. Throughout the novel, Starling is dissected as a physical object and a psychological one, offered up as bait and leeringly scrutinized. When an inmate at an institution for the criminally insane throws his semen at her, the gesture is a cruder, more animalistic version of the asylum director’s propositioning of Starling only minutes earlier.

Harris’s novel was a striking examination of institutionalized misogyny, but Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation, released in 1991, went further. From the beginning, the movie shows its audience how exposed Starling (played by Jodie Foster) is to the world’s predations. Before the opening credits have wrapped, an older man in an FBI cap is shown staring after her as she jogs away from him. Moments later, Starling—the lone woman in an elevator with eight much larger men—gazes nervously up at the ceiling. Repeatedly, Demme has the men Starling interacts with look directly at the camera, forcing the audience into the role of object. In a canny act of inversion, we, the ones watching, are winked at and ogled alongside her.

Clarice Starling played by Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs surrounded by other male officers during FBI training
(Orion / Everett Collection)

I love Clarice Starling, and I especially love the way Foster plays her, swallowing the anger Harris makes explicit in the novel and refusing to be rocked. Gothic art has always played with doubling, and in the movie Starling is the elusive, empathetic, uncultured antithesis to Hannibal Lecter’s extravagant psychopath. Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) is in The Silence of the Lambs for only 26 minutes, beginning with a scene in which Starling consults the serial killer, forensic psychiatrist, and notorious cannibal for help on the Gumb case; he proceeds to assess her so brutally, it’s almost like watching a dissection. And yet he’s the one imprinted on the pop-cultural psyche, a charismatic obscenity of a character who turns his atrocities into perky rhyming couplets. After Silence came out, Hannibal received a sequel, a prequel (both adapted into movies), and a television show. Starling got an ending in Harris’s novels that bewildered and outraged her fans, and now, decades later, she has earned the gloomiest of all fates: her own network procedural.

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In the seven years that pass for Starling between The Silence of the Lambs and its 1999 sequel, Hannibal, something bleak and unanticipated happens to her: She molders. “Her failure to advance in the FBI after a brilliant start was a new and awful experience for her,” Harris writes. “She batted against the glass ceiling like a flea in a bottle.” Her triumphant capture of Gumb and rescue of a senator’s daughter have led her nowhere, because the FBI is still an organization run by men, and, Harris suggests, those men at some primal level dislike and distrust women. Paul Krendler, an assistant attorney general who drunkenly hit on Starling one night and was rebuffed by her, has dripped just enough “poison into her personnel file” to keep her from getting promoted. Starling is stuck: too honorable to play games and ascend, too brilliant to be relegated to the basement.

The new CBS drama Clarice is set in the period when things went wrong—between the two novels and shortly after the collaring of Gumb. The title itself is telling: In the books, Harris refers to his character as “Starling,” an act of professional respect that’s countered by Lecter’s deliberately intimate deployment of her first name, Clarice. (Surely you can hear it—Hopkin’s singsongy, high-pitched drawl and his over-sibilant second syllable, as if a rattlesnake has suddenly started speaking.) Starling is an agent; Clarice is a target. This is a show less concerned with the actions of a promising agent than with the tediously over-trod subject of a woman’s trauma.

The concept, by itself, represents a change of direction for CBS, whose recent reputation has been defined by sexual-harassment allegations and rote crime dramas—sometimes both at the same time. Clarice is billed as a psychological procedural and horror thriller. The word feminist hovers uneasily around it, not cited explicitly enough to deter male viewers, but implied by its subject’s investigation of crimes against women. The show was created by the screenwriter and director Alex Kurtzman (CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery) and the actor and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, who has a serendipitous connection to Demme—she wrote the screenplay for his luminous 2008 film, Rachel Getting Married.

Before it even begins, Clarice gets tangled up in two cumbersome obligations: its need to explain who Starling is and what happened to her in The Silence of the Lambs, and its legal inability to say the name Hannibal Lecter. (The ownership rights to Harris’s characters are divided between MGM—which produced Clarice and Demme’s 1991 movie—and the late Dino de Laurentiis’s production company, which made four movies out of other Lecter titles.) It’s an awkward two-step. In the opening scene, Starling (played subtly by the Australian actor Rebecca Breeds) talks with her condescending male therapist. “I thought it was done,” she sighs, in a good approximation of Foster’s Appalachian accent. “Buffalo Bill. Seven women. Skinned six. Six of them. I saved one. The last one.” Her shrink, undeterred by the laborious exposition, points out that the previous doctor she saw was “an inmate at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane. You know. Ate his patients.” You know.

Part of the brilliance of Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is its ability to insinuate rather than spell things out, more gracefully even than the source material. “She don’t look half as good as she thinks she does,” a male colleague sneers about Starling in the novel. “I’d put her on like a Mark Five gas mask,” another replies. In the movie, you don’t hear this kind of denigration so much as feel it. When Starling arrives at a morgue to assist with the autopsy of one of Gumb’s victims, she walks into a room filled with male cops, all dressed identically, all staring her down. Clarice isn’t so subtle. It tells instead of shows, maybe because its visuals are consumed with the stylistic tics of network procedurals: a saturated color palette, recurring images slowed down to a nightmarish crawl, exterior shots so gloomy, they’re almost Stygian. This is storytelling that feels the need to constantly regain its audience’s attention after each commercial break.

Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling with a bunch of other FBI agents
(Brooke Palmer / CBS via Getty)

More troubling, though, is the show’s tenuous conception of its central character. Starling is difficult to define, because so much of her is drawn in opposition to—and later, in parallel with—Lecter. In contrast with the casually evaluative glances thrown her way, Lecter’s gaze aims for a deeper reading. “Do you know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes?” he tells her in the book. “You look like a rube. You’re a well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Your eyes are like cheap birthstones—all surface shine when you stalk some little answer.” Later, Starling can’t tell whether he’s truly seen her or simply sketched her in a way that pleases him. The assessment is an act of invasion, almost an assault. “For a few seconds she had felt an alien consciousness loose in her head, slapping things off the shelves like a bear in a camper.”

As a character, Lecter leaves the more indelible mark. Which is maybe why he’s occupied more space in culture than Starling has, including a starring role in Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s baroque, thrilling NBC series, a much more fully conceived show than Clarice. On her own, Starling is a challenge, shaped as she is in response to the men around her: their mentorship, their interest, their harassment, their eyes. With Lecter in particular, she’s sharpened as his antithesis. He brutalizes; she protects. He inflicts; she endures. He’s an aesthete and a hedonist; she’s a spartan and an empath. Demme, who once said that he found Starling more interesting than Lecter, saw the potential in a character whose essence is forces in conflict: vulnerability and strength, impotence and power.

Clarice, though, mostly defines its central character through the stickiness of her trauma. She has flashbacks to Gumb’s basement; she sees imaginary moths (creatures Gumb harvested and deposited in the throats of his victims) around her; she’s plagued by phone calls from Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), the woman she saved from Gumb. “Can you sleep?” Catherine asks her. “Or do moths wake you up? How are you out there in the world?” The show, like the novel, draws much of Starling’s texture from her childhood: her father’s violent death in a robbery gone wrong, her desperate mission as a kid to save lambs from slaughter. In the movie, these moments function as suspenseful breakthroughs that help the viewer understand Starling’s drive; as recurring images trotted out across episodes of Clarice, they lose all meaning. Apart from her backstory, the show gives Starling one main characteristic, which Lecter might describe insultingly as “gumption”: She’s tough enough to withstand the nonsensically hostile treatment of Krendler (played by Michael Cudlitz) and savvy when it comes to saving victims. But who is she, really?

As an adaptation, Clarice is full of half-measures. It touches on its ’90s setting with an episode that explores an FBI standoff at a ranch in rural Kentucky; characters repeatedly mention the Waco siege but nothing enlightening comes of the comparison. It lightly references contemporary ideas about abuse when Starling, at a press conference, urges reporters to say the victims’ names and honor their stories, but in the first three episodes does little of that itself. And it sketches out a character by way of what’s happened to her, instead of grappling with who she might be. Maybe Starling’s simmering anger and the burden of her diminishing career prospects will emerge in later episodes. But I doubt it. The network procedural demands catharsis, and tidy conclusions. Its formula is too rigid for a character whose origins lie in the murkiness of negative space.

Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling
(Brooke Palmer / CBS via Getty)