Sample Film Analysis on Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs: Feminism, Psychology and more
The Silence of the Lambs is a multiple award-winning psychological thriller that revolves around Hannibal Lecter, a respected forensic psychiatrist turned serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies, and Clarice Starling, an ambitious female FBI trainee. It is a film full of Easter eggs and presents characters suffering from a mental illness . The Silence of the Lambs was written by Thomas Harris and was adapted into a film in 1992 with the screenplay written by Ted Tally and the direction of Jonathan Demme. This analytical essay will dive into The Silence of the Lambs ’ characters and symbolism.
The Story Behind the Title "The Silence of the Lambs"
The title of the movie itself, The Silence of the Lambs, implies a lot of meanings. One of them can be easily picked up from the backstory that Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee, told Hannibal Lecter, the incarcerated cannibal serial killer, in a quid pro quo agreement. Clarice recalled a story about how she ran away from her relatives’ ranch in Montana after being awoken by the sound of crying lambs that were being slaughtered. Before the film ends, Hannibal asked Clarice in a phone call “have the lambs stopped screaming?” This is the simplest explanation one can draw from the title.
To go beyond the surface of what can be observed by even the casual film-goer, what this possibly means is that Clarice, just like her 10-year-old self, is still attempting to save the lamb. This time, the lamb is in the person of Catherine Martin who was kidnapped by a notorious serial killer Buffalo Bill. Clarice makes it her mission to save the innocent girl’s life as she was unable to save the lamb from being slaughtered in her childhood. Hannibal Lecter found the need to ask Clarice if the lambs have stopped screaming because he knows that Clarice had been successful in her endeavor.
It is highly likely that Clarice being able to rescue Catherine has indeed finally silenced the lambs that plague her nightmares at night. However, the suspenseful ending in the film did not present Clarice as having finally silenced the lambs that haunted her since her childhood. Though in the book, the author Thomas Harris inserted a scene wherein Clarice was peacefully sleeping therefore signifying that the lambs have been indeed silenced after she had saved Catherine from Buffalo Bill.
Another possible twist to what can be easily observed is that Clarice herself may be the lamb in question. A lamb is the symbol of innocence, gentleness, purity, and meekness. All of which are characteristics of Clarice. Furthermore, Clarice Starling’s being a woman presented her as someone needing protection or someone to be protected at times despite her capabilities. Clarice had the chief of the Behavioral Sciences Unit Jack Crawford as her mentor and Hannibal Lecter’s help that serves as her shepherd throughout the film.
Aside from those two, The Silence of the Lambs also sheds light on how humans can sometimes manifest animalistic behavior or tendencies. That some humans may be predators, while others are prey. Lambs may also refer to the trusting nature of lambs to the point where they can be slaughtered without making a sound. Clarice hears the lamb’s cries on her relatives’ ranch is quite odd when one equates how peacefully a lamb goes when slaughtered.
The Story Behind its Characters
As said earlier, the film The Silence of the Lambs is riddled with Easter eggs waiting to be discovered. There is much to discuss the film because it is like a goldmine for those who seek to analyze it. This paper will not dig too deep into character analysis and instead will discuss the meaning of the characters’ names. Like many other famous authors , Thomas Harris crafted the names of his characters in The Silence of the Lambs to represent their role in the story and to give the audience a clue about their individual characteristics.
Hannibal Lecter’s name suspiciously rhymes with the word cannibal. Of course, this is an obvious observation and a clue to what he does to his victims before he was incarcerated. But aside from the “Hannibal Cannibal,” another thing worth noting is his namesake the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, one of the greatest military commanders known in history. The characteristic they both share, obviously, is their ability in strategizing which enables them to move pieces through the chessboard smoothly.
As Tung (2016) has pointed out, Hannibal’s surname, Lecter, may be traced to lechier an Old French word that means to lick, to live in debauchery or gluttony. Again, another obvious implication of his cannibalistic tendencies. Hannibal Lecter is known to eat his recent victims’ tongues out. His sexual behavior, which falls under debauchery, is evident in the way he casually brings the subject up in conversations with Clarice Starling and Catherine Martin’s mother.
- Clarice Starling
Clarice is of Greek and Latin origins and bears the meaning of brilliant, bright, and clear. This is evident in how Clarice, even in a state of confusion and being barely able to understand what’s going on without Hannibal’s help, still manages to have a clear mind that enables her to navigate through the dark. She is seen as a brilliant light even by Hannibal Lecter.
Her surname Starling indicates that Clarice is an intelligent woman. Just like the bird, Clarice is strong and swift herself as seen in the opening montage of her running in a training course.
- Buffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill’s actual name is Jame Gumb. In the novel The Silence of the Lambs, it was revealed that Jame was actually a misspelled James. His parents didn’t bother to correct it. However, Jame is a name that parents consider when wanting a unisex name for their child. Buffalo Bill, as both readers and watchers of The Silence of the Lambs know, is posing as a transgender who is known for taking skins from his victims and stitching them up to make a suit. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, is the byname of an American soldier who was also a buffalo hunter, William Frederick Cody. He was known to have once skinned a buffalo he hunted and fashioned it into a coat. Thus, referencing how The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill takes the skins of his victim and uses them to make a suit.
- Multiple Miggs
Multiple Miggs’s name refers to quite disgusting things like urine and manure. The state of his cell reflects this, and also how he threw his semen at Clarice. He is the first character to die in The Silence of the Lambs after Lecter decided to kill Miggs because of what he did to Clarice by manipulating him into swallowing his own tongue. The “Multiple” in his name refers to his possible multiple personality disorder.
Symbolisms in The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs is full of symbolism. A casual watcher may not notice it right away and most likely will need to rewatch the film in order to catch all of the hidden meanings. However, this essay will provide a list of some of the symbolisms found in the film, apart from the lamb, which has been discussed earlier and is tied with the title of the film itself.
- The moth
The Silence of the Lambs poster showcases a moth placed over the girl’s mouth. The moth symbolizes change as it, like the butterfly, goes into the stage of transformation or metamorphosis. After the metamorphosis, a moth gains the ability to fly – of having freedom – even for such a short time. Buffalo Bill has a fascination with butterflies and moths. His residence is full of it and some of the decorations in his house have pictures of the winged creatures in it too. He longs for transformation or change, as Hannibal Lecter said.
- The terns
Bravely, Clarice Starling baits Hannibal Lecter with the promise of visiting an island. She mentions a very nice beach where terns are known to nest. Terns are aggressive when it comes to protecting their territories and is also a protected species. Terns are hunted by larger species of birds that prey on them. Ironically, it is Clarice who mentions this. Like a tern, Clarice, being in a man’s world, is constantly being hunted by the bigger and more powerful men.
- The well
The well in Bufallo Bill’s residence, where he keeps his victims, may be likened to a wishing well. This wishing well represents Buffalo Bill’s desire to use his victims for his own transformation. It’s like tossing a coin into the wishing well, but in Buffalo Bill’s case, he throws in his victims for good measure.
- The cage
When Hannibal Lecter was up for transfer, he was put in a cage-like cell where he was being brought food like a prized animal. Like a caged animal in a zoo, he was put in the center of the room, like he was some sort of attraction. The restraints the authorities have put on him when he was talking to Catherine Martin’s mother also show how he is being treated like an animal because of his animalistic tendencies.
The Silence of the Lambs and Feminism
Clarice Starling’s feminine presence in the FBI is heavily emphasized in the Silence of the Lambs. Right from the first montage where part of her morning training was shown and up to the instances where male co-workers surround her. As an FBI trainee, her presence should be nothing new to the men there. But this was not the case because when she was summoned, the stares she received on her way to the building were evidence of this. As a female, she was constantly being gazed upon because she was obviously different.
The shot where she rode the monitor further emphasized her difference from the men working there. Her small and slender frame really contrasts the difference in her body from the men standing behind her in the elevator. The men look at her as if wondering what she was doing in a place where the majority are men. Another man looks at her with disbelief written all over his place like he was judging her for being there.
Her boss, Jack Crawford the chief of the Behavioral Sciences Unit, had also made a sexist remark in the movie despite him being a well-mannered man. During their visit to a funeral where they had to go and examine one of Buffalo Bill’s latest victims, Crawford told the sheriffs present to not talk in front of a woman. He later explained to Starling that he only said that because he had to get the sheriffs out of the room. This slightly angered Starling and she told the sheriffs to get out of the room herself.
The Silence of the Lambs shows what it’s like when men stare at women for absolutely nothing. It shows how men degrade women, even unknowingly, through their words and actions. The Silence of the Lambs also shows the true prowess of a woman if given the chance to showcase it like Clarice Starling. She was truly capable of achieving her ambitions. The Silence of the Lambs is a reminder that a woman is capable of so much more than what society thinks or dictates as her limit.
On Serial Killers and the Serial Killers in The Silence of the Lambs
There are a number of documentaries, series, or movies on Netflix that tell the tale of serial killers. People enjoy watching it and even find themselves fascinated by the actions and decisions of serial killers. Because of shows like this, the watcher then begins to think that he knows what a serial killer exactly is. The viewer often relies on a series of behaviors that the serial killer exhibits in the show. Some of them also do their own research to solidify their guesses.
So what is a serial killer? In The Silence of the Lambs, the audience is given three examples of serial killers who are nothing alike. Hannibal Lecter, Multiple Miggs, and Buffalo Bill do not exhibit any similar traits apart from the fact that all of them are serial killers. Based on viewers, the usual “tells” of a serial killer is having a traumatic background and having a tendency to be abusive towards animals. The Silence of the Lambs gives the viewers nothing of the like of the three serial killers present in the film.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Institute of Justice define serial killers in different ways – even if both are deemed problematic because of the many holes in their definition of serial killers (Brogaard 2017). However, this does not mean that the two entity’s definitions should be completely discarded as they also help. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines serial killers as having committed a series of 3 murders in different locations with at least a month of an emotional cooling-off period in between each murder. The National Institute of Justice’ take on serial killers is a person having murdered at least two persons with a psychological and sexual motive.
Based on the circumstances, these two definitions may seem incomplete because of some isolated cases of serial killers. And more often than not, the conventional stereotype of serial killers having a mental disorder is not mentioned in the two definitions as the cause. The National Institute of Justice only recognizes the psychological involvement of the serial killer as a motive and not the reason as to why one is committing a series of – sometimes prototypical – murders. In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, Multiple Miggs, and Buffalo Bill all seem to be suffering from a psychological disorder or two.
The three men could not be more different from each other. From the first impression alone, Hannibal Lecter is regarded by the audience as being a frightening snob who recognizes the need for manners and is cultured – in a way; Multiple Miggs gave the impression of a disgusting deranged man who has no care at all for what is proper; and Buffalo Bill, like Hannibal, is seen as a manipulative person and unlike Hannibal, he poses as someone weak and in need of help. The Silence of the Lambs juxtaposed the three serial killers’ appearances, motives, and psychological differences even if they have not shared a single frame together.
Hannibal Lecter exhibits symptoms of having Antisocial Personality Disorder – a disorder common among serial killers – and grandiose narcissism. The Antisocial Personality Disorder is often characterized by a person having impulsive, manipulative, exploitative, remorselessness, brutality, and often criminal behavior. Hannibal Lecter clearly exhibits all of those. Apart from that, he also exhibits grandiose narcissism which is evidenced by how he desires being needed by Clarice for the case she was working on and by Catherine Martin’s mother. He did not fail to fulfill his manipulative behavior whenever he was seen to be helping these women.
Multiple Miggs, on the contrary, show no signs of being cultured even in the short time he was present in the film. His name suggests that he has Multiple Personality Disorder, although that has not been seen in the short time he was on screen. It is also possible that he has multiple disorders. Apart from that, Multiple Miggs, like Hannibal, exhibit Antisocial Personality Disorder and also psychopathic tendencies. This is seen in the way Multiple Miggs treated Clarice in the only time he was shown in The Silence of the Lambs.
Lastly, Buffalo Bill, exhibits Antisocial Personality Disorder, psychosis, and possibly gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is characterized by the feeling of discomfort with one’s birth-assigned sex. Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria is evidenced by the scene where he dressed up in women’s clothing, wore a wig, put on makeup, and even made an effort to hide his manhood. To add, he was dancing with the body suit made of women’s skin he was making in the background.
The Silence of the Lambs pushes its curious viewers to learn more about how women are treated in a predominantly male workplace and mental health disorders, among others. The film gives a lot of insight into topics that tend to be overlooked on a daily basis. The Silence of the Lambs is crafted to make the viewer stop and think about what is going to happen next – or if the person they’re sitting next to in the theater is actually a serial killer. A psychological thriller such as this truly deserves all the nominations and awards it received.
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Brogaard, Berit. “What Defines a Serial Killer.” Psychology Today , 31 May 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201705/what-defines-serial-killer.
The Silence of the Lambs. Directed by Jonathan Demme, performances by Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Ted Levine, Scott Glenn, and Brooke Smith, Orion Pictures, 1991.
“The Silence of the Lambs.” IMDb , www.imdb.com/title/tt0102926/awards.
Tung, Angela. “6 Significant The Silence of the Lambs Names to Sink Your Teeth Into.” Mental Floss , 16 Feb. 2016, www.mentalfloss.com/article/75411/6-significant-silence-lambs-names-sink-your-teeth.