“Will is a more interesting protagonist than Clarice Starling—or, for that matter, Will Graham in Manhunter. Clarice, while memorably brought to life by Jodie Foster, is too purely good to be all that engaging as a character.” —Mark Peters, Slate
“Over this odd world, this half the world that’s dark now, I have to hunt a thing that lives on tears.” —Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs
Once, Jack Crawford called up a trainee barely old enough to rent a car, and asked her to interview the most notorious serial killer currently living, in order to catch one that was, for the moment, slightly less notorious. He knew he was making her a sacrificial animal; the second he saw her, Hannibal Lecter knew it, too—the hidden language of powerful men who understand each other. Hannibal was offended to have been sent a student; he had been prepared to crack whoever Crawford sent him until they broke, and felt he’d been robbed of an honorable victory by being given someone so green and so doomed to failure.
But she was Clarice Starling, and she won.
You’re very frank, Clarice. I think it would be quite something to know you in private life.
NBC’s Hannibal has received due praise for its dark, lush retelling of the liminal space in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal novel series, the footnote of the canon chronology in which Hannibal is technically “aiding” the FBI with serial killer investigations, barely able to restrain his glee at the hundreds of cannibal puns that nobody caught on to for thirteen episodes. This season, Will Graham (who got framed but good) is locked in prison, wearing Demme-Hannibal blue, and out for revenge. It’s a dark twist to Harris’s work, and while there are a lot of callbacks to canon, it’s not a show obsessed with faithfulness; it’s already abandoned the course set by the books, charting uncertain but interesting new territory.
Will Graham is a compelling protagonist even before you count the nuanced lead performances; naturally, this twist makes him still more compelling, not least because of the zest of the unexpected in what’s falling out before him. In canon, Will Graham is an upstanding agent, haunted by his own brilliance (but of course), whose discovery of Hannibal’s crimes is a shocking revelation of how deeply he can be mistaken in someone. It leads to a sudden and terrible attack that forever shakes him and affects how he approaches investigations, and years later, he comes under the gun again thanks to Lecter’s slow-burning revenge for being found out. Handily, this ongoing feud keeps both Graham and Lecter alive in the narrative, trapped in a symbiosis of consequences. The show presents a darker timeline, and so Will Graham is darker, too—and at this point, as much a damsel as a mirror. The show also has the benefit of charting that breakdown over a dozen hours, rather than a single film; the slow-burning fever that literally and figuratively consumes Will is a curtain pulling back painfully slowly on a terrible tableau. It’s a story of betrayal, from someone who trusted where he shouldn’t have trusted.
Clarice Starling hears of Will Graham through FBI scuttlebutt; she looks up Lecter’s history and the events around his arrest during her research. To be surprised by someone you thought was a colleague and an ally is devastating; to know what Hannibal is creates its own dread. There’s never a moment of doubt that she’s in danger—Crawford tells her, Chilton warns her, and as comes to be a defining trait, she’s done the necessary legwork on her own. She knows exactly whom Hannibal’s ruined, and how, before she ever faces him.
That’s why you sent me in there, isn’t it? To get his help on Buffalo Bill. Sir? Well, if that was the case, I just wish I was in on it, that’s all.
The first lines Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter exchange are pleasantries. The next are an argument over her credentials. He asks her to step closer so he can see them—something she’s been warned against, something he knows she’s not supposed to do. On the surface, it’s a test to see if she’ll obey a seemingly innocuous request that would feel like a defeat. She knows that’s what it is.
Still she steps forward (her face passing through shadow and back into the light), holds up her credentials only inches from the glass, and looks Hannibal Lecter straight in the eye. He looks away first.
She looks him in the eye when answering his question about the obscenity his blockmate Miggs aimed at her; she looks him in the eye when he calls her a rube. She never once drops her gaze when he’s daring her to. (He gets more practice in; he flinches away from her again after he asks if Jack Crawford thinks of her sexually and she counters with, “It sounds like the sort of thing Miggs would say.”)
Director Jonathan Demme had a very deliberate design for this film, a low-level visual and psychological warfare that plays out over every line of dialogue. There are dozens of close-ups of men from her POV in the first third; aside from some establishing shots and travel sequences, her field of view is dominated by men in positions of power over her. Lecter’s close-ups are partially for the benefit of the audience—a prurient glimpse of the monster in question, close enough to get bitten—but it’s no accident that Demme shot Starling’s first impressions of Crawford and Lecter identically, their faces swamping the shots, or gave us a tour of Chilton’s nostrils. They are all, the camera recognizes, treating her appallingly. (And for all their vague platitudes about being careful, it’s worth noting that the film makes sure her ostensible mentor Jack Crawford never even explains to her what Hannibal really is. When she asks him, there’s a smash cut to the exterior of the hospital, where Chilton gets the honors of the line, “A monster”—singular, as if there’s only one she need worry about.)
But Demme restores a visual balance of power by flooding the frame as much with Clarice as with any of the men. Every reaction—fear, frustration, triumph, relief—is up close and personal, her body removed from the camera’s objectifying gaze and her internal psychology front and center. The iconic close-up of a piercing Dr. Lecter finds an uncanny mirror in her later in the film—a less famous shot, perhaps, but no less effective. The audience feels the force of her gaze; the camera understands how easily she fills the mind.
In a movie rife with symbols, made from a story rife with symbols, perhaps there’s no moment more illustrative than Starling coming across a door she can’t open. There’s no sufficient help, so she brings a jack from the trunk of her car, and fights it open just enough to squeeze through. (Barely—the door draws blood as the price of admission.) She hands a bystander the number to call, should the worst happen; then she vanishes into the dark unknown, with nothing but a flashlight for company.
That is rather slippery of you, Agent Starling. Sit. Please.
Looking at the antiheroes with which popular culture is currently decidedly enamored, it becomes very easy to dismiss goodness as blandness. Protagonists are caught in impossible positions, forced to give up the very last of themselves, live with terrible secrets. Pleasant and stalwart sorts in such stories are often presumed to be excluded from all that, and duller; they exist to provide a control group for the interesting stories. Not very complicated. The oatmeal of people.
The Silence of the Lambs seems on the surface to be a heavily psychological procedural. It isn’t. The actual procedural aspects are fairly standard, a frisson of transphobic exploitation and a stack of symbols working to give depth to a standard serial-killer narrative. Despite the ever-present Jame Gumb, Hannibal Lecter is by design the center-stage antagonist. He’s also, without doubt, a monster. His laughable edict that he eats “the rude,” as if deputized by some celestial finishing school to reclaim the dropouts, is a thin veneer over much less discriminating appetites, literal and figurative. (Clarice gets reminded, just before she meets him, of the damage he did to a nurse who was leaning over him during a medical emergency he feigned.) And later, he becomes the ultimate Harris antihero (particularly in the deeply uneven Hannibal, a sequel that slides so far off the rails that the movie version altered the ending wholesale), the gentleman killer so intelligent and discriminating that his mythos in the genre does attain something of the supernatural after all.
But not in The Silence of the Lambs. That story exists to profile Clarice Starling. The novel is a proof of goodness not as default, but as something at stake.
Clarice is ambitious, she’s angry, she’s easily frustrated; her ability to work well within the FBI system is dictated almost entirely by how much she can placate men—her most painful assay might be her initial attempt to smooth-talk Chilton out of a snit, but there are, unfortunately for her, plentiful opportunities to try again. Half a dozen times she allows herself to think about violence against the men in her way. (She only acts on it once, and no one will begrudge her a serial killer here and there.) There are suggestions that her disadvantages have actually prepared her to be sharper, faster, and more effective than the men who surround her. She and her roommate Ardelia recognize coded speech—the senator’s plea for the life of her daughter, a psychological gift to a man in power—in a way the men around her notice but don’t parse. After a single brief meeting Clarice is able to decode Lecter’s advice, too, unpicking his words with a nimble ruthlessness, staying closer to the case than anyone else can manage, and already trusting her reasoning more than she trusts her orders.
It’s the essential irony of the film that the only man who sees closest to the truth of this is the supernaturally perceptive serial killer; her boss hazarded a guess, but, the film suggests, doesn’t recognize her true potential (the camera frames them accordingly, with him repeatedly turned away from her, a not-quite-cold shoulder in a car or a funeral home, meaning well but always elsewhere). Hannibal Lecter gives her his full attention, even—especially—when his plans for quid pro quo backfire on him. He hopes to get her to reveal secrets, but her refusal to be ashamed has all the power of a magic spell or a master key; he turns his face away from her honesty like it’s a too-bright sun.
When speaking of the thing that lives on tears, she’s thinking of the death’s-head moth, but of course that’s the least of the predators she knows. The thing that lives on tears is Hannibal Lecter; the thing that lives on tears is Clarice, alone in the world, and determined to save the ones who are weeping.
Clarice Starling’s goodness isn’t a default in a character description, an absence of anything better. It’s a weapon, a flaming sword that cuts through everything in her life and drives her forward, sparing neither herself nor Hannibal Lecter (who ends up more deeply rattled by her than the reverse). She’s in the FBI to get justice for victims, her intelligence as an investigator subject to that compulsion as strongly as Will Graham’s talent for profiling, and with as complicated a psychology behind it. For Clarice, to be good is to be constantly struggling upstream; by the end of The Silence of the Lambs, the camera lingers on a face much more guarded than at her introduction; she’s already being molded and shaped by the struggle, adapting to the need.
She confesses to Hannibal at last a childhood trauma of trying to save lambs from the slaughter (Harris wasn’t risking anyone missing the point), which was also her first failure to save anyone, including herself—she was sent to an orphanage as a result of her disobedience. But that’s a footnote in her reverie, a side effect of a moment’s weakness: “I thought if I could save just one, but he was so heavy.”
And when Hannibal asks if she thinks saving Catherine will stop the screaming of the lambs in her memory, there’s no idealist’s platitude waiting in the wings. Clarice answers, voice cracking in the middle, “I don’t know.”
She does save Catherine. It’s a close thing, but there’s no real doubt that Clarice will win; she’s very good.
I have no plans to call on you, Clarice. The world’s more interesting with you in it.
As it turns out, the imprisoned and obsessed serial killer who tries to string her along is the least of Clarice’s opponents. (He gives her just enough information that she and Ardelia put the rest together in the end; if anything, he’s an accidental sidekick.) Even Jame Gumb is a secondary concern. Clarice’s greatest enemy is everyone else.
It’s Chilton, who smarmily asks her out even before he’s taken her to see Hannibal Lecter. It’s well-meaning Dr. Pilcher, who asks her out even before the death’s-head moth is out of its cocoon. Above all, it’s the boys’ club of the FBI, where she’s repeatedly sidelined and patronized to the point that the organization and its members become, in specific and in general, her primary antagonist. Jack Crawford champions her, but Hannibal’s seed of doubt was well planted, and Clarice becomes swiftly disenchanted with Crawford’s willingness to use and manipulate her. In a wider sense, the FBI prevents her from doing her best work, and when she does it despite them, the FBI dismisses her discoveries. (For all Hannibal‘s shortcomings, Harris made a careful through-line of Clarice’s impassable, impossible frustration within the system designed to ignore her.) It’s framed as a superhuman feat that she takes down Jame Gumb—not because in itself it’s so difficult to do, but because she’s done it against so much, and so alone.
The FBI think she’s too young to get involved (not too young to be sacrificed, just too young to do anything about it). After she begins to unravel the mystery, they insist she’s following a secondary lead. And all the while she’s on the phone with Hannibal Lecter, getting a lifetime dispensation from a man she’s bested with sheer strength of character, they think she’s still a bit too inexperienced to know what she’s doing. They think she’s lucky, but too sweet; too simple.
They think she’s too purely good to be all that engaging.