30 Years After Its Premiere on February 14, 1991, It Still Ranks as One of the Best Motion Pictures Ever Made.
There was no particular event in the life of Thomas Harris when he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s that attracted him to writing about crime and terrorism. Born in Tennessee in 1940 and then moving as a child with his family to live in the small unincorporated community of Rich in northwest rural Mississippi, he was reserved and liked to read. He bloomed in high school, went to Baylor University, and became a journalist in the South and then in New York City. By the 1970s, he had branched out to writing novels as well.
The first, Bloody Sunday, was published in 1975 and was inspired by the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. It was modestly successful but garnered more attention when it was made into a motion picture of the same name in 1977.
Following that, Mr. Harris tried his hand at writing about a character he invented. A medical doctor. A learned man. A man with culture. But also a serial killer who had suffered through brutal conditions while growing up in Lithuania during World War II that had made him a madman and prone to horrific violence.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Enter the Red Dragon
The character of Lecter first appeared in the 1981 novel by Mr. Harris entitled Red Dragon. Lecter is portrayed as a brilliant psychiatrist but also a cannibalistic and sadistic serial killer, and Mr. Harris was inspired to create him and an original storyline by the real-life cases of other serial killers. He actually interviewed a serial killer in Mexico who was a doctor.
During his 18-months of research and writing the book, he visited Special Agents at the FBI’s Behavioral Science/Analysis Unit at Quantico, Virginia in the late 1970s. These Special Agents were and are (the entity still exists today) a unique group of experienced investigators, created around 1970. Its primary mission is to research and identify serial killers for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies through techniques commonly known as “profiling.”
The name Red Dragon has different meanings, but in this instance, it refers to a symbol of evil portrayed in a 19th-century painting and that is how it was intended here. The book did well, and in 1986 was adapted into the motion picture Manhunter. (The film did not fare well at the box office, and was reworked in 2002, using the same name as the novel.)
Mr. Harris was not done yet with Hannibal Lecter, however. In 1988, he published a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs. It became a sensation, and there was great interest from studios, producers, directors, actors, and actresses into developing it into a motion picture. It did not take long for a film project to emerge. Preparations for filming were underway in 1989, less than a year after the book was released.
The Silence of the Lambs Become a Motion Picture
The plot of the motion picture largely is the same as in the book:
A female New Agent Trainee (Clarice Starling) in residence for three months at the FBI Academy’s Training Division located at Quantico, Virginia is called into a private meeting with a Supervisory FBI Special Agent (Jack Crawford). He manages the Bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit located in another division on the grounds. The two of them have crossed paths before when Starling was earning a double degree in psychology and criminology at the University of Virginia and Crawford was a guest lecturer. Starling also had experience working at a mental health facility.
Although the request was very unusual and out of the ordinary, Crawford had received special permission to ask her to temporarily leave her training and undertake a special assignment. He wanted her to visit an asylum in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, and interview one of the residents whom active the FBI knew well (the brilliant and cannibalistic but insane middle-aged Hannibal Lecter) and obtain his cooperation and insights into how to locate another serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill.” Lecter was refusing to cooperate, and Crawford wanted to enlist Starling as part of a new, urgent approach to obtain vital information.
Starling agrees. After being given her Special Agent Badge and Credentials and revolver, she goes to the asylum. The movie proceeds from there.
Interest from the motion picture industry in this book was strong and competitive, and there was give and take in Hollywood about who would own the film, direct it, produce it, and of course who would star in it. Ultimately, Orion obtained the rights, Jonathan Demme was chosen to direct, Ted Tally wrote the screenplay, and Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, and Ted Levine were selected for the main roles. (None of them were the first choices as hard as that seems today.) Howard Shore was chosen to create the musical score. With everything in place, the FBI was asked to provide technical advice and location shooting. Principal filming began in November 1989 and was completed in March 1990.
It became apparent from the beginning that the movie was going to be a major film. Its title reflects that lambs usually are considered innocent creatures and silent when they unknowingly are led to slaughter. The moth is a “deaths-head hawkmoth” due to a marking that resembles a skull and is placed on a victim by serial killer “Buffalo Bill.” Audiences embraced the film from the time it premiered in the United States on February 14, 1991. Enthusiasm for it extended around the world.
Within a year, the film had won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It is one of only three motion pictures ever made to win all five of these categories. As well, it won awards from the Golden Globes to the American Film Institute (where it is ranked #65 of the “Top 100 Movies.”) In 2011, the film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry located in the United States Library of Congress where it resides permanently.
FBI Assistance with the Making of the Film
For decades, as part of its mission, the FBI’s public affairs personnel at FBI Headquarters has coordinated assistance as requested at no charge to the film industry on projects relating to the Bureau’s programs, priorities, policies, procedures, and cases whether the project is based on fiction or not. The public affairs staff as well as employees at the FBI’s personnel at Quantico, Virginia worked on this motion picture as well.
Supervisory Special Agent/Chief of the Behavioral Analysis Unit John Douglas and his staff assisted Thomas Harris and actors and actresses with conversations and insights into criminal profiling. Special Agents and other staffers in the Training Division provided information and sometimes played themselves in the film. The character of Clarice Starling likely was inspired by a female Special Agent/profiler whom Thomas Harris met and talked with at Quantico.
As well, a small number of other FBI employees were assigned for a short time—a matter of days or weeks actually—to familiarize Ms. Foster herself with a cross-section of the training a New Special Agent receives at the FBI Academy located on the U.S. Marine Base at Quantico, Virginia. She was introduced to firearms, physical fitness, defensive tactics, running an obstacle course, and classroom instruction. One of the FBI employees especially assigned to accompany and orient Ms. Foster was a young female FBI Special Agent in her 20s named Mary Ann Krauss. A native of Mississippi (like Thomas Harris), she was a tall blonde with a mild but noticeable Southern accent and affectionately was nicknamed “Grits” during her earliest days in the Bureau. Ms. Krauss had been a Special Agent for just three years and the two women were around the same age.
For two days, Special Agent Krauss familiarized Ms. Foster with the life of a young female FBI Special Agent, FBI culture, chain of command, conduct, protocols, dress, and interviewing before the filming began. Comments have been made through the years about how Ms. Foster may have been inspired to speak with a soft accent as described in the book as being from West Virginia. Ms. Foster grew up in Southern California and went to college in New England. It appears, though, that the soft accent and mannerisms of Clarice Starling may well have been inspired by her meetings with Special Agent Krauss. Lastly, although not the reason she was selected to assist Ms. Foster, Special Agent Krauss was active in the 4-H when she was young. In one of life’s coincidences, she usually worked with small animals and showed them in competitions.
The animals were lambs.
Where to View the Film
Even though 30 years have passed, The Silence of the Lambs can often be seen on cable television channels or through streaming. It also can be purchased on DVDs in several editions and formats. For serious collectors, one of the best quality choices is The Criterion Collection, which comes with two discs, a booklet, “making of” features, interviews, and a slipcase.
How True to Life Are the Book and Motion Picture?
Although much was accurate, a number of portrayals were modified for dramatic effect. Some of the indoor and outdoor scenes indeed were filmed at the FBI Academy. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were not often on the same set during filming, and Mr. Hopkins never was at the FBI Academy during filming. Mr. Hopkins appears on-screen during the film for only 16 minutes of the 118-minute long motion picture.
Other scenes were shot on sets located at an old building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania made to look like a prison. Clarice Starling was an FBI Special Agent Trainee, partly through the session (around 16 weeks long in 1990). No matter the urgency of the task or how accomplished she was before or during her time at Quantico, it is not likely she would be asked by Jack Crawford to suspend her training to interview Hannibal Lecter. She also would not have been sent to conduct an investigation in the field and carry her credentials and weapon without first graduating and being assigned to an FBI Field Office. As well, it would be unlikely for Jack Crawford to go into the field to help her with the investigation. It always is best to remember, however, that this is a motion picture and a work of fiction.
Finally, and interestingly enough, Thomas Harris chose not to play a role in the making of the film or in writing the screenplay. Ted Tally wrote the screenplay.
Jodie Foster never played Clarice Starling again, reportedly because of scheduling conflicts or since the subsequent movie scripts, the plots, or the subject matter did not appeal to her. Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lector in two more motion pictures before deciding to step away from the character and take on other roles.
Scott Glenn chose not to appear in subsequent Hannibal Lecter films. As well, Director Jonathan Demme chose not to work on the subsequent motion pictures involving Hannibal Lecter.
Ted Levine’s character of Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb was as unsettling as it is memorable. Mr. Levine has appeared since in a number of memorable films and on television, and TV audiences remember him the most for his role as Captain Leland Stottlemeyer in the police procedural series Monk (2002-2009) with Tony Shalhoub. Supervisory Special Agent John Douglas retired from the FBI in 1996 and has written a number of compelling real-life books about serial killers, profiling, and famous cases. Other retired FBI Special Agents have written such books as well, including Roger Depue and Robert Ressler. (For further reference, these books are in FBIOGRAPHY’s Top Books section.)
Special Agent Mary Ann Krauss (since retired) went on to a long career in the FBI, working cases on violent crime, white-collar crime, counterintelligence, and involving aviation and undercover work. She also became an expert with firearms and served as an instructor at the FBI Academy for New Special Agents and other law enforcement personnel, once firing a perfect score known as a “Possible” on a target range with a 9mm pistol, a rare and challenging feat.
Hannibal Lived On
The Hannibal Lecter character continued on with the motion pictures Hannibal (2001) and the 2002 Red Dragon remake (both with Anthony Hopkins) and Hannibal Rising (with another actor). A Hannibal TV show drama followed from 2013 to 2015. There is no current original Hannibal Lecter motion picture or television show.
However, the launching of Clarice in February 2021 on CBS Television indicates that there still is great interest in the character after 30 years. But at least at the beginning of the series, there are no plans for any mention or portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. The rights to The Silence of the Lambs motion picture are owned by one entity, and the rights to the name of Hannibal Lecter in television and movies are owned by yet another company.
The Future of Hannibal Lecter
Will there be another Hannibal Lecter book, television show, or motion picture?
It would not be surprising to see him emerge again, someday or somehow. He is too well known, too popular, of a character to disappear. But in the meantime, be wary if anyone you do not know well asks you over for dinner and tells you they will be serving a delicious entrée, fava beans, and a nice Chianti. Better yet, be wary of anyone with this planned menu that you know well, too.
ERNEST JOHN PORTER
A retired Unit Chief and Supervisory Public Affairs Manager at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC, Mr. Porter worked with authors, radio shows, motion pictures, television shows, documentaries, FBI History, lecturing, and special projects for the FBI for nearly 40 years. He is the developer, owner, and manager of FBIOGRAPHY.