The Silence of the Lambs: 30 years later

Jonathan Mack takes a look at the film's chequered cultural legacy on its 30 year anniversary

Johnathan Mack
24th February 2021
Image: IMDb
It's February 14th 1991 and it’s the opening night of Jonathan Demme’s ambitious adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel - The Silence of the Lambs.

For many people this is their introduction to the eerily mystifying Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and the persistent FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Less than a year later it would become only the third film of all time to win the ‘big five’ at the Oscars. The film is both a commercial and critical hit.

Image: IMDb

Flash forward 30 years and Hannibal Lecter has his place in villainous superstardom, and references to the film litter popular culture. The Simpsons, South Park and The Office are just three examples of shows which have parodied Anthony Hopkins’ stellar portrayal of the psychopathic psychiatrist.

Even children’s entertainment is not free from the jaws of Hannibal, with Phineas and Ferb’s Dr Doofenshmirtz adopting his iconic mask, and Alvin, of the popular chipmunks, quoting his dialogue in their second film outing.

On the surface, it may seem that the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs can be boiled down to a caricature villain and parodies of his most iconic lines, but the film carries a much deeper, and occasionally problematic, legacy.

The 80s were a prolific decade for horror. Franchises like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street dominated the genre and, with their penchant for schlocky gore and sexualised teens, horror films were hardly seen as a viable route towards critical success.

Enter The Silence of the Lambs.

It remains the only horror to win the Best Picture Oscar, but set the precedent for films like Get Out

Kicking off the 90s with a cerebral and atmospheric approach to horror, the film generates horror in a different way to its genre predecessors. Rooted in reality – no dreamscapes to be seen here – Silence of the Lambs gives gravity to its terror. The film elevated the horror genre from the trappings of the teen flick and raised it up to be a contender for critical accolades. Silence of the Lambs opened the door for horror to be explored in a far more psychological way.

More accurately, it blew the door from its hinges.

Scooping the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally), Silence of the Lambs redefined what horror could be and the acclaim which the genre could receive. It remains the only horror to win the Best Picture Oscar, but set the precedent for films like Get Out, which was nominated for 4 Oscars, to thrive. Horror and critical success were no longer mutually exclusive.

Horror wasn’t the only genre which Silence of the Lambs sunk its teeth into – probably with some fava beans and a nice chianti – as procedural crime has been shaped by the film. Just look at the complex relationship of Eve Polastri and Villanelle in Killing Eve, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s overly analytical Sherlock to see the impact of Clarice and Hannibal.

Eve Polastri and Villanelle
Image: IMDb

Even the true crime documentary cannot escape its reach. Our cultural obsession with simultaneously horrifying and intriguing serial killers continues today. It's hard to imagine this trend taking flight without Hannibal Lecter’s explosive popularity acting as the frontrunner.

Criminal profiling, too, though it has long been debunked, remains glued to media representations of crime. Netflix’s recent brooding crime drama, Mindhunter, is based upon the book written by John E. Douglas, who happened to help Scott Glenn prepare for his role as Jack Crawford. Evidently, the apple of criminal profiling in media has not fallen far from the tree in 30 years.

Clarice proved that women were capable of navigating roles beyond that scope, paving the way for professional powerhouses like Scully and Jessica Jones

When I first watched the opening of The Silence of the Lambs, where Clarice tackles the FBI assault course, I foolishly assumed that she was destined to meet a grizzly end at the hands of the famous cannibal within the next few moments. All discussions about the film had been dominated by Hannibal that I’d hardly thought about the other characters that occupy the narrative.

Clarice Starling shattered my expectations and continued to do so until the credits rolled.

The character has gone on to cement herself as one of cinema’s most iconic heroines. Jodie Foster’s Clarice is exceptionally intelligent, persistent, and thoroughly engaging to watch, and redefined the roles which women could occupy in film. Women had mostly been confined to the roles of love interests and damsels, but Clarice proved that women were capable of navigating roles beyond that scope, paving the way for professional powerhouses like Scully and Jessica Jones.

Image: IMDb

Throughout the film we see Clarice navigate a world of vile murderers, but also of infuriating sexism. As unsettling as the graphic images are, the quiet discomfort of Clarice’s isolated journey as a woman in a male-dominated workplace is just as fundamental to the narrative. Silence of the Lambs brought the theme of female struggle in a sexist workplace to the mainstream and it continues to be tackled in films like Bombshell (2019) where echoes of the repulsive Dr Chilton linger.

the film has been under fire from the LGBTQ+ community concerning its problematic implication of a link between transgenderism and Bill’s murderous tendencies

An unfortunate aspect of the film’s legacy is, however, that the trailblazing performance by Jodie Foster has been entirely eclipsed by the popularity of Hannibal Lecter. Our collective memory of The Silence of the Lambs is dominated by a character who spends much of the runtime offscreen and unfortunately the incredibly pointed discussion of workplace sexism, as well of Clarice’s character writ large, is pushed to the background or forgotten entirely.

A more problematic aspect of Silence of the Lambs' legacy is its troubling depiction of its antagonist, Buffalo Bill, and the harmful impact this has had on the transgender community.

Since its release, the film has been under fire from the LGBTQ+ community concerning its problematic implication of a link between transgenderism and Bill’s murderous tendencies. The film denies that Bill is a transgender character and a few lines of dialogue from Hannibal which awkwardly attempt to distance Buffalo Bill. Unfortunately, these lines are not sufficient to counteract the overtly queer-coded depiction of Buffalo Bill and doubtlessly damaging to the transgender community since its release.

It is disappointing to see The Silence of the Lambs, which cast a bright light upon its protagonist's struggles with sexism, simultaneously marginalise other groups with an incredibly harmful depiction of a queer-coded character.

30 years on and the legacy of The Silence of the Lambs is still going strong, but whether its more problematic elements will stand the test of time remains to be seen.

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