The suspense thriller Silence of the Lambs — whether you look at the novel written by Thomas Harris in 1988, the working screenplay and storybook by Ted Tally from 1990, the resulting movie directed by Jonathan Demme in 1991, or the magical performances of its lead actors, all of those pieces come together to make “Silence of the Lambs,” the movie, an American suspense thriller classic. While most of fans simply enjoy watching it, it is interesting to see where the genius came from. Very few novels ever make good screenplays, and I feel the
better the book the harder it is. A novel is largely about what people think, while a movie is about what they do. Reading thru this novel and screenplay, 95% of the screenplay comes from the novel, to Harris’ credit; but Talley left large chunks of the novel out of the screenplay and Demme left chunks of the screenplay on the cutting room floor, because a gesture or a quick camera shot can convey many pages of text. The trick, is to show all that thinking and back story through action, motion, gestures, and inflection. I have adapted three of my own suspense thriller movels into screenplays, keeping it tight is easier said than done. In this case, a 352 page hardback novel was adapted into a 120 page screenplay, and an even tighter, superbly edited movie of only 118 minutes. The screenplay and movie stay very true to the plot and characters which Harris wrote. However, both Tally and Deme made a number of small, but very magical additions. The best is the final scene at a small Caribbean airport where Lecter watches his nemesis, Dr. Chilton arrive, while Lecter is on the phone congratulating Clarice Starling for graduating from the FBI Academy. As Lecter hangs up and begins following Chilton up the street, we all know what he plans to have for dinner. The novel ends with Lecter writing Starling a congratulatory note which tells her he will not come after her, because the world is a better place with her in it. Tally’s screenplay has the airport scene with Chilton and Lecter saying these things to Starling over the phone, but the scene is at night. When Demme films Silence of the Lambs, he has the scene in broad daylight so we can see the nervous panic on Chilton and the glint of coming revenge in Lecter’s eyes. That stroke of brilliance gives the movie viewer one more chill up his spine before the final credits. When you read the working screenplay while watching the movie, you can see many, many more examples where Tally tightened and added to the novel, and where Demme made further cuts and added some wonderful touches. You can see more of Demme’s Silence of the Lambs brilliance in the story boards he sketched to show the feel he wanted in certain scenes. While praising Harris, Tally, and Demme for their genius, it is impossible to ignore what Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, and Ted Levine brought to their characters. In his introductory scene, Hopkins is able to scare the hell out of us by just standing still and looking out through the bars of his cell, absolutely deadpan, while Foster uses accent, mannerisms, and phrasing to create a memorable character of a backwoods country girl. One could cite dozens of other examples in the writing, directing, and acting; but in the end, what makes it a great suspense thriller, one of the very best ever made is that all of those pieces came together in 118 minutes of film. I would also cite “Day Of the Jackal,” in 1971, “The Eagle Has Landed,” in 1975, and “Eye of the Needle,” in 1978 as excellent adaptations of very good thriller novels. The resulting films have stood the test of time, which proves that a great suspense thriller can be made without a single ‘blue screen,’ computer-generated special effect, or other gimmick. Imagine that!
William F. Brown is the author of 5 suspense thriller novels with over 300 Five-Star Reviews: The Undertaker, Amongst My Enemies, Thursday at Noon, Winner Take All, and now Aim True, My Brothers. They are all available on Kindle and now on Audible Audio Books. You read about them at billbrownwritesnovels.wordpress.com