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.
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.