Silence Of The Lambs: 15 Things You Didn't Know
Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter made his first appearance in 1981, in Thomas Harris's crime novel Red Dragon. He was neither the main hero nor villain (that was FBI profiler Will Graham and serial killer Francis Dolahyde respectively), but was easily the most interesting character in the book. Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic killer, who aids Graham in his pursuit of Dolahyde from his prison cell. It was the contradictions in Lecter that made him so fascinating-- he was sophisticated, charming, and polite, but also a sociopathic murderer with a taste for human flesh.
When Harris wrote his next novel, it was Lecter he returned to. 1988's The Silence of the Lambs had a similar basic plot to its predecessor--in this case Lecter helps an FBI trainee named Clarice Starling track a killer known as Buffalo Bill--and the book was an instant success. It didn't take long before work began on a movie adaptation.
Red Dragon had already been adapted by this stage--Manhunter was released in 1986, directed by Michael Mann and featuring Brian Cox as Lecter. But while the movie is now considered an ‘80s classic, it was a flop at the time--would an adaptation of the follow-up book fare any better?
The answer was, of course, yes. Jonathan Demme's adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs hit theaters in February 1991, starring Jodie Foster as Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. It went on to gross $272 million at the worldwide box office and won five Oscars the following year. Lecter was now firmly established as one of pop culture's most iconic villains, and has returned to the screen numerous times since, most recently played by Mads Mikkelsen in the TV show Hannibal.
But as good as some of these other movies and shows have been, The Silence of the Lambs remains the definitive Thomas Harris adaptation. It's an absolute classic, a brilliantly-made combination of procedural crime thrills and ghoulish horror, that still thrills and shocks nearly 30 years later. With the new TV show Clarice set to premiere in the Fall, there's never been a better time to revisit Demme's masterpiece, which can be streamed on Netflix. So here's 15 things you never knew about The Silence of the Lambs.
1. Gene Hackman was going to direct and star
Veteran actor Gene Hackman was heavily involved with the movie in its early days. The star initially optioned Harris's novel, with the intention that he would direct and potentially play Lecter. But according to Harris's agent Robert Bookman, Hackman withdrew from the project after his daughter read the book and asked her dad not to make it.
2. The producers got Hannibal Lecter for free
The movie rights to Harris's novel and the character of Hannibal Lecter were, in fact, separate. The latter was owned by legendary producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis, who had made the previous Harris adaptation, 1986's Manhunter. Luckily for The Silence of the Lambs producers Orion, Manhunter was a financial failure, so De Laurentiis let the studio use the character for free. "We were afraid to make [Silence of the Lambs]," Martha said. "You could be terrible and say no, or you could demand money, which was kind of, 'Why be greedy?' Or you let them use it, and if it's successful, your asset has value."
3. Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan were offered the lead role
Jodie Foster wasn't Jonathan Demme's first--or even second--choice to play Starling. The director initially wanted Michelle Pfeiffer, who had starred in his last movie, the comedy Married to the Mob. However, the dark content of the story led Pfeiffer to turn it down. "It was a difficult decision, but I got nervous about the subject matter," she explained in 1992. Demme then offered the role to Meg Ryan, who declined for a similar reason ("I thought it was dangerous and a little ugly," Ryan said).
4. Sean Connery was approached to play Hannibal
Sean Connery was the first actor that Demme approached to play Lecter. Demme stated that Connery had the "fierce intelligence and also that serious physicality" to play the role, and with Connery having recently won an Oscar for The Untouchables, the director decided that he would take "the most commercial path" and offer him the role before he asked anyone else. But as with Pfeiffer and Ryan, Connery declined on account of the subject matter. "He thought it was disgusting and wouldn't dream of playing that part," Demme revealed.
5. Hopkins did a lot with little
Anthony Hopkins might not have been the first actor to be asked to play Lecter, but his performance is one of the most iconic in cinema, and it is the role that many viewers most associate the actor with. Amazingly for such a defining role, he has only 16 minutes of screen time out of the two hour movie, which is the second shortest of any Best Actor Oscar winner (beaten only by David Niven with 15 minutes in 1958's Separate Tables).
6. Demme's B-movie roots
By 1991, Jonathan Demme was one of the most respected directors working in Hollywood. But like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, he got his first break working for legendary independent producer Roger Corman, and never forgot his B-movie days. The movie has a number of roles for people famous from that world. Veteran B-movie star Charles Napier plays one of the guards who Lecter kills when he escapes, Corman himself appears as FBI Director Hayden Burke, and zombie master George Romero can be seen in the sequence where Starling is dragged away from Lecter's cell.
7. The movie had full FBI cooperation
There was an unusual level of cooperation between the FBI and filmmakers, who wanted to portray the bureau in a realistic and positive way. The scenes set at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia, were actually shot there, with Foster and Scott Glenn, who plays Behavioral Science Unit boss Jack Crawford, immersing themselves in the day-to-day work of agents in preparation for filming.
8. Lector almost never blinks
Anthony Hopkins barely blinks in the film, and the actor later explained that he did it to "keep the audience mesmerized." "It's not so much not blinking, it's just being still," he said. "Stillness has an economy and it has a power about it."
9. Lector's voice had some surprising influences
Hopkins used three very different influences for his performance. "I knew intuitively how to play him," he told Empire in 1991. "I knew how he looked and how he sounded. There were two, maybe three voices that I heard. I thought of him as a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL from 2001."
10. Buffalo Bill's dance
Buffalo Bill's infamous dance--for which he dons makeup and glitter, and, erm, conceals his genitalia--wasn't actually in the script. It was actor Ted Levine who suggested it, based on a scene in the novel. "That's from Chapter 20, where he was in the shower and did the little penis-tuck deal," he said. "That wasn't in the original script, and I asked that that be put in there because I thought it was really pretty key. It made this psychotic monster accessible, in a strange sort of way." Levine also said he needed "a few drinks" before shooting the scene.
11. Bill's Pit
Buffalo Bill's basement was built on a multi-level set in a former airplane turbine factory in Pittsburg. The pit in which he imprisons Catherine Martin could be entered via a trapdoor in the floor or hidden doors on the side. But actress Brooke Smith later stated that she found the whole experience difficult. "I think I really messed with my own head to do those scenes," she said. "I remember being aware that the camera was there and thinking, ‘I'm in all this agony and not only is no one helping me, but they're actually filming me.' I literally felt it."
12. Foster didn't like her accent being mocked
Foster looks momentarily shocked in the scene where Lecter starts mocking her Southern accent--and it turns out that reaction was genuine. "It upset me so much," she said. "It struck a really bad chord in me. Anthony is the nicest man I've worked with in a long time, and the difference between that, of course, and the fury and passion of Hannibal Lecter is very interesting."
13. The actors kept their distance
Jodie Foster kept her distance from both actors portraying serial killers in the movie. She revealed that she didn't have a conversation with Hopkins until after filming was complete. "We got to the end of the movie and had never really had a conversation," she said. "I avoided him as much as I could. I really avoided him." Equally, Buffalo Bill actor Ted Levine explained that he and Foster deliberately kept out of each other's way. "I think that was a good choice when you're the antagonist and you're dealing with the protagonist," Levine said. "I want to keep that kind of thing going."
14. The final scene was written specifically for the film--but it was nearly a lot scarier
In the novel, Lecter says goodbye to Clarice in a letter, but screenwriter Ted Tally decided the movie needed something more cinematic. So he wrote a scene in which Lecter phones Starling from Dr Chilton's house, where Chilton is tied up and about to become Hannibal's next victim. But Demme decided this was "too horrifying" to be the final scene in the movie, so it was given a more ambiguous ending, with Lecter simply following Chilton.
15. The movie was met with protests
Despite the huge acclaim that the movie received, it also came in for considerable criticism over its portrayal of Buffalo Bill. There was an entire year between the movie's release in February 1991 and the 1992 Oscars, and throughout there were sustained protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "The killer in the movie is a walking, talking gay stereotype. He completely promotes homophobia," a GLAAD statement read at the time. Demme himself defended the movie, stating "we knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people." The debate about Buffalo Bill continues to this day.