Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in the film version

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The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is a novel by Thomas Harris, his second to feature Lithuanian count, sociopath psychiatrist and cannibal Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter. In the novel and the film based on it, Miss Clarice M. more...

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Starling, a young FBI trainee, is sent to question an imprisoned sociopath/psychiatrist to get information on one of his former clients, a serial killer given the name Buffalo Bill, who is abducting women and skinning them.

The film adaptation was released in 1991 and directed by Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for Best Director. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins both won Oscars (for their roles as Clarice Starling and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, respectively); the film won additional Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. It is thus only the third picture to win the five most prestigious Academy Awards (after It Happened One Night, 1934 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975).

Plot summary

Note: This summary is based on the novel, but the movie adaptation remains rather faithful to the book. See below for differences between the book and film version.

The novel opens with Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee, being asked to carry out an errand by Jack Crawford, the head of the FBI division that draws up psychological profiles of serial killers. Starling is asked to present a questionnaire to a serial killer named Hannibal Lecter, a former psychiatrist and genuine sociopath, currently serving a life sentence in a Maryland insane asylum.

We also learn of the hunt for a serial killer dubbed Buffalo Bill, who has abducted five different women, keeping them for up to three weeks before killing them, taking parts of their skins and dumping them in rivers. The nickname was started by Kansas City Police Homicide Division, on the theory that "he likes to skin his humps." Starling asks if she should ask Lecter about Bill, but Crawford tells her not to.

At the asylum, Starling is clumsily chatted up by its warden, Dr. Frederick Chilton. Eventually, Starling gets to talk to Lecter, who is seemingly quite polite and civil, but after toying briefly with Starling, he refuses to take the questionnaire. As she leaves, the prisoner in the cell next to Lecter flings semen at Starling. Lecter, offended at this display of bad manners, calls Starling back and gives her some cryptic information. He later talks this inmate into killing himself by swallowing his tongue. Lecter's revenge toward this man is a form of showing his admiration and respect toward Starling.

The information leads Starling to a rent-a-storage lot where the possessions of Lecter's last victim, Benjamin Raspail, are contained. Hidden in Raspail's vintage car is a severed head in a jar. Back at the asylum, Lecter explains that the head is that of a man named Klaus; he was Raspail's lover before, Raspail claimed, he killed Klaus in a fit of jealousy over a new partner. (Lecter is dubious about Raspail's explanation, telling Clarice "The Swede probably died in some banal erotic asphyxia transaction") Lecter predicts that the next victim will have been scalped. He suggests an insight on Buffalo Bill's motivation: "He wants a vest with tits on it." And finally he offers some thoughts of his own: he has been in a windowless, stone-walled cell for eight years and will never get out while he is alive. He draws pictures of his favorite sights ("The Duomo, as seen from the Belvedere" in Florence, Italy is brought to our attention early on) but these can be taken away. What he wants is a room with windows.

When Bill's sixth victim is found, Starling helps Crawford perform the autopsy. Crawford's wife has a terminal condition and is not expected to survive for much longer; many at the Bureau marvel at Crawford's ability to function. Regardless of home-life distractions, he and Starling fly to West Virginia to investigate. A moth chrysalis is found in the throat of the victim. She has been scalped. Triangular patches of skin have been taken from her shoulders. Autopsy reports, furthermore, indicate that he killed her within four days of her capture; whatever it is he does with them, he's getting better and faster at it. On the basis of Lecter's prediction, Starling believes that he knows who Buffalo Bill really is. Lecter, however, is not going to reveal such information easily.


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