Silence of the Lambs - full story breakdown
I’ve heard Michael Connelly call The Silence of the Lambs a “teaching book” and equally, it’s a teaching movie, which is why I always encourage my workshop students writing in all genres to study this classic. I could literally watch this film frame by frame and never get tired of finding new brilliance in it. So let’s go through it, Act by Act.
I’ll start with some background on the books.
The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are the platinum standard of serial killer novels.
It was Thomas Harris who mythologized the serial killer to classic monster status, although Stevenson’s Jekyll/Hyde, Stoker’s Dracula (supposedly based on the real-life Vlad the Impaler), and various depictions of Jack the Ripper were strong precursors. We are fascinated by the idea of pure evil in a human being. And because of Harris, the serial killer has become an iconic modern monster, like a vampire or werewolf or zombie (maybe replacing the pretty much defunct mummy!).
Because with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, Harris did a completely brilliant thing. In the 1970’s Special Agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit) began a series of interviews with incarcerated serial killers to see what made these men tick and hopefully develop strategies for catching them. The agents, along with Professor Ann W. Burgess, an internationally recognized pioneer in the assessment and treatment of survivors of trauma and abuse, compiled their findings into a textbook and started to train agents as criminal profilers. (Their story is now dramatized in the great Mindhunter TV series). This new department got a lot of press and media attention and a large number of authors and screenwriters jumped all over that research. But judging by the books that resulted, very, very few of those writers seem to have actually read those interviews.
Thomas Harris, though, took the same research that was available to everyone, and used a combination of absolutely precise fact and police procedure—and a haunting, intricately developed mythological symbolism—to create those first two books, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs (and then Hannibal went off the rails…). The result was two of the best horror/police procedural blend novels ever written. The killers Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) and Francis Dolarhyde were both more and less than human. And Hannibal Lecter, of course, is a mythic archetype of the evil genius.
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