January 12, 2008

The Silence of the Lambs 1

Filed under: Literature — duncan @ 9:37 pm

A while ago, for reasons best know to my subconscious, I became fascinated by Thomas Harris’s novel ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. (In my defense, this fascination is clearly fairly widespread; the book was a bestseller, after all. But still, it can’t be altogether healthy.) I spent a bit of time reading academic essays on ‘Silence…’ (of which there are, believe you me, plenty), with the vague idea of working my thoughts up into some sort of essay. That never happened, partly due to general inertia, and partly because I found it very difficult to get my thoughts into an intelligible shape. The book’s extremely dense, and I found it difficult to structure my comments in such a way that they a) weren’t unbelievably repetitive and b) didn’t presuppose ideas that I hadn’t yet got round to formulating. Anyway, for whatever reason, the essay died the death.

Now I’ve got this lovely blog, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post up some ‘Silence…’ comments. This is the first in a very occasional series. I’ll put up thoughts when I get sick of writing about economics, or whenever the infrequent mood strikes me. These posts are probably going to be even more rambling and disastrous than my usual ones. But you don’t have to read them. And, you know, maybe they’ll be fun. (Not much chance of that… )


One reason I thought it was sort of worthwhile to write about ‘Silence’ was that none of the critical responses I’ve read seem to me to really get to the heart of what the book’s doing. There’s a good Derridean essay in New Formations by Lisa Trahair; but it really only uses ‘Silence’ as a way of making other points, and it’s fairly limited in the areas of ‘Silence’ it discusses. Furthermore, like most of the academic stuff that’s been written about ‘Silence’, it focuses on the film, not the book. There’s a reason academics write about Jonathan Demme’s movie and not Harris’s novel: the film exemplifies/thematises, possibly more than any other movie ever made, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze. I don’t know to what extent the film’s deliberately responding to Mulvey’s work – the impression I get from interviews is that Demme probably knows his feminist film theory: he’s said that one reason he wanted to adapt Harris’s novel was its critique of patriarchy. But the movie could scarcely be better designed to tie in with the concerns of much modern film scholarship. Quite apart from the film’s positive and/or dubious focus on a strong female character’s attempt to succeed in a male institution, and its dubious/deplorable treatment of the ‘Buffalo Bill’ character’s apparent homosexuality/transexuality, there are also all sorts of formal techniques the film uses that resonate powerfully with film theory’s preoccupations. Demme insistently shoots scenes from Starling’s point of view, for instance; but then, in the climactic confrontation with Buffalo Bill, we not only see things from Bill’s perspective – Bill’s is the only perspective, because the scene takes place in pitch blackness, and Bill wears infra-red goggles. This is so neat it’s hard to believe it wasn’t invented for the film – but it wasn’t: the same set-up’s there in Harris’s book, where it’s considerably less powerful, because it doesn’t resonate with the medium in the way it does when put on screen. The involuted network of identification this scene generates – we identify with Starling, the film’s protagonist, but we are, at this crucial moment, completely cut off from her perspective, and instead see things through the killer’s eyes; which at once exemplifies and (given the context of the movie as a whole) critiques the standard slasher portrayal of male killer and female victim; not to mention the fact that our identification with Starling has throughout been mediated by her professional relationships with men who have power over her; and the fact that Starling’s professional success has in large part depended on her own powers of identification: with Bill’s victims (a perspective closed to her middle class male colleagues), but also with Bill himself, whose perspective we now, in this final scene, adopt; all this in addition to all the usual ambiguities and complexities of identification we find in a ‘straightforward’ slasher movie – this involuted network is just crying out for lengthy academic exegesis.

Which academics have supplied. But as I say, nothing I’ve read really seems to me to get to the heart of the matter. And this is partly because so many people have focussed on the film not the book.

As we’ll see if I ever get around to finishing this projected series of posts – these complexities of empathy/identification are completely central to ‘Silence’. But they operate differently in the film and the book. A few words on the differences between the two, then, before I jump into commenting on the book alone.

First off, it’s obviously completely legitimate to treat the film without referring to the book, or even caring that there’s a book from which the film is adapted. These are different cultural products, and can (perhaps should) be studied independently. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s incidental to the structure or plot or themes of the film that it was adapted from a book. Various aspects of the film which may resist analysis if the film is taken on its own become explicable if they’re understood in terms of the source material from which they’re derived. And while the film’s treatment of this material is, I think, in many ways superior to the book’s, the nature of (and motives for the creation of) the material can I think best be understood if Harris’s book is taken into account. For what that’s worth.

As regards the differences between the film and the book (and here already I run into the problem I kept facing in my would-be essay: how to say what I want to say without presupposing stuff I haven’t already said…) a lot of critics (for instance Yvonne Tasker in her BFI monograph on the film) find the movie’s attitude to its characters – and, in particularly, to ‘Buffalo Bill’s victims, much more sympathetic than the novel’s. I agree. Compare the novel and the movie’s treatment of the scene in which Starling visits Frederica Bimmel’s home. [It probably goes without saying that these posts won’t make much sense if you’re not familiar with ‘Silence…’; not much way round that, as far as I can tell, but I’ll try not to make things totally impenetrable.] The movie’s perspective is sympathetic and warm (and therefore moving); the novel’s is sardonic and judgemental (and, pretty clearly, neurotic). I agree that here the film is just a whole order of magnitude better than the book; and the same goes for a number of other scenes. But I also think this is a product of the most general difference between the movie and the novel: the movie is the work of many creative intelligences; the book is the work of Thomas Harris alone. This matters particularly for this film/novel because of its themes. Clarice Starling, in the novel, is entirely the product of Harris’s imagination. In the film, Clarice Starling is the product of Harris’s novel, Ted Tally‘s screenplay, Demme’s interpretation/adaptation of that screenplay, and Foster’s performance. For reasons that’ll become clearer as this series of posts progresses, I think this matters enormously. Starling, who is the heart of the story (Hannibal Lecter can fuck off, in my opinion; his importance is overrated) is a very different figure in the film from in the book; and this is a function of the method of the character’s production. To be very schematic about it (I’ll try to be much more nuanced later… this is the structural problem I was talking about…): one of the story’s main themes is male violence towards women. Obviously this is exemplified by ‘Buffalo Bill’; but everywhere Starling goes she is faced by a world in which she is attacked because of her gender – whether it be the institutions of law-enforcement, the sexual harassment of a hospital administrator, or the media’s portrayal of her involvement in the ‘Buffalo Bill’ case. And this pervasive misogyny is exacerbated by Starling’s beauty – even though her beauty is also a source of her influence and advancement (as in the implication that Crawford chooses Starling as his disciple because of his desire for her). The way in which we relate to Starling – and in particular to Starling’s sexual appeal – is very different in the film and the book. In the novel, Starling’s beauty is entirely the creation of Harris’s imagination. In the movie, Starling’s beauty is Foster’s beauty. Given the story’s themes, our relationship to these different presentations of beauty are problematic. In the novel, to be simple about it, Starling is (among other things) Harris’s sexual fantasy. This is troublesome not in itself (as a Freud fan, I tend to think most products of the imagination are in some sense sexual fantasy), but because Harris has invented a desirable protagonist, and then put her through hell for reasons that don’t seem very different from those driving the sexual sadism of his villains (more on this later). In the film, to my mind, Foster’s performance distances the character, to some extent, from the story’s manipulations. Because Foster’s creative intelligence is working partly independently of the fantasy that created her character, Starling in the film is a richer and more compelling character than Starling in the book. But of course the film’s portrayal of Starling/Foster is also problematic – not least because the industry in which the film was produced is overwhelmingly focussed on the beauty and desirability of its female stars. ‘Silence’ presents a story in which a strong female protagonist advances through a sexist institution despite constant attempts to see her in purely sexual terms. But Foster’s opportunity to portray this character is a product of her status as a Hollywood star, which is in turn the product of a sexist institution’s determination to see her largely in sexual terms. Of course the film critiques this sexism; but it is also conditioned by it (not just in the sene that it is a product of the Hollywood film industry, but also because this apparently feminist film remains bound up with the generic conventions it partly critiques and partly endorses.) I don’t want to get into the politics of the film industry – as I say, I want to focus on the book. My point is just that both the book and the film are problematic in their dual treatment of the story’s ‘feminist’ themes and of Starling’s beauty; but they’re problematic in different ways. For my money, the book is more troubling – but we’ll go into that in another post.

So that’s the film, very briefly. In the next post (which may, I’m afraid, take months to arrive) I think I’ll discuss the book’s religious imagery. ‘Silence of the Lambs’ is jam-packed with Christianity; it’s impossible to understand what Harris is up to unless you follow this stuff. But nothing I’ve read on the book places religion centre stage. So that’s where we’ll start. If I ever get round to posting more.

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