When adapting Silence of the Lambs to the big screen, filmmakers dropped some visual descriptions from the novel.
Hannibal Lecter’s path to pop culture immortality was surprisingly complicated. Jonathan Demmes the Silence of the Lambs remains the centerpiece of the entire franchise, despite being preceded by the well-regarded man hunter and source novels by Thomas Harris. There is indeed a certain tension between the novels themselves and the movies and TV shows created in the wake of the 1991 Oscar-winning adaptation, both in tone and in the means of achieving it.
The Harris novels embrace their symbolic nature more openly. The author more easily incorporated surreal or dreamy details to get his point across, resulting in a certain embellishment of the details. The movies, on the other hand – at least Silence and man hunter, which established Lecter in the popular eye – took a more clinical and forensic approach, which meant leaving out some of the more gruesome details. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the description of Dr. Read yourself.
Lecter begins Harris’s novels behind bars, and the circumstances of his unveiling help establish the character in the minds of the public. In the books, as in the movies, he’s supposed to resemble the devil himself, lurking in the bowels of the Baltimore Sanitarium where he’s housed to seduce the federal agents who take his advice. The new version of The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t skimp on the details. Lecter’s eyes are described as ‘auburn’, with his teeth serrated and sharpened. The most startling detail is the sixth finger he has on his left hand, a traditional sign of the infernal.
The details made Lecter even more of a monster than he already was, but both man hunter and The Silence of the Lambs she deleted. In both cases, these details went against the stripped-down approach of the filmmakers. man hunter Lecter revealed in an empty white cell, while actor Brian Cox gave the character a deceptively affable demeanor, suggesting he lured people in with a friendly facade and only gradually revealing his sinister nature. Enjoying more noticeable details like sharpened teeth and extra fingers would destroy the impression.
Silence fleshes out the idea with a carefully crafted introduction to Lecter. Clarice Starling is led down to the increasingly grim bowels of the asylum, past gates and armed guards, to what the dialogue describes as an utter monster. The journey includes an invisible photograph of a nurse’s face after Lecter chewed some of it, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in all sorts of horrifying details. The build-up reaches its climax when Starling reaches Lecter, only to find a calm, neatly dressed man who politely wishes her good morning.
Lecter’s evil is portrayed as plausibly well-hidden, in keeping with the character’s pre-arrest background as a celebrated psychiatrist. That goes against Harris’ descriptive flourishes. Plus, they make his escape far less plausible from a purely plot perspective. A man with six fingers becomes absurdly easy to detect, like Lecter’s other infernal traits, and while the novels make an effort to address the issue, they remain resolutely unconvincing. It’s easier to just leave out the more cartoonish elements rather than go to such lengthy explanations.
Subsequent adaptations proved more willing to embrace the Grand Guignol content of the novels and movie sequel Hannibal contains a brief image of an x-ray showing that Lecter had his sixth finger surgically removed in an attempt to disguise himself. But such narrative acrobatics were not necessary to prove the character’s wickedness, and while Harris could only use the written word to underline it, adaptations of his work could use different means to create the same impression. Lecter became less bizarre on film, and probably a lot scarier because of it.
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