The Silence of the Lambs is definitely not a romantic comedy (if you’re ‘shipping Starling and Lecter, you’re doing it wrong), but the landmark horror-thriller film was released on Valentines Day in 1991. And what a release it was!
Though the film’s budget was $19 million, it grossed more than $272 million worldwide. It swept the 64th Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director for Jonathan Demme, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ted Tally, Best Actress for Jodie Foster, and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins. The film routinely appears on AFI’s 100 Years lists. It was adapted from the highly successful novel by Thomas Harris. This was the second of his books to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter.
If you haven’t yet seen The Silence of the Lambs (and you really, really should), here is the plot in a spoiler-free nutshell. Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill), a sadistic and disturbed serial killer, has kidnapped Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) daughter of a US senator. Gumb is keeping her in a pit in a basement and plans to kill and skin her.
Clarice Starling, young, inexperienced FBI trainee, is selected by Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford to interview another serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Crawford hopes that Lecter will provide insights that will help the FBI identify and capture Buffalo Bill. Lecter and Starling develop a compelling and strangely respectful relationship. As he provides clues, Starling races against time to solve the mystery of Buffalo Bill and save Catherine Martin.
The film has been lauded as a feminist masterpiece for focusing on a strong and well-developed female character. It deftly illustrates the sexism that she has to deal with in the course of doing her job. On the other hand, the film also faced criticism from groups that found the portrayal of Buffalo Bill to be homophobic.
In celebration of the 17th anniversary of its release, here are four little-known facts about this fascinating horror film!
1. The Silence of the Lambs Was Almost Directed by Gene Hackman
It’s hard to picture how the film would have looked without the vision of director Jonathan Demme, but we were very close to seeing a version with Gene Hackman (The Royal Tenenbaums, Get Shorty) at the helm. The 1988 Thomas Harris novel was hugely popular and widely praised. Hackman was the first to get his hands on the rights to the novel. He’d planned to both write and direct the adaptation, which would have been his first stab as screenwriter and director. After Hackman had some trouble adapting the novel, screenwriter Ted Tally was brought on to take over the job. Tally was thrilled about this, having been a huge fan of Thomas Harris’s book.
Eventually, Gene Hackman left the project altogether. Rumour has it that his daughter advised him against doing the film, due to its violent and disturbing content. Whatever the reason, after Hackman left, Jonathan Demme was given the reins. Demme had previously been known for directing comedy films. But he definitely showed his ability to dive into darker material!
2. Sean Connery Was Almost Cast as Hannibal Lecter
There were a few different actors who almost took on the role that eventually went to Anthony Hopkins. When Gene Hackman was still attached to the project, he’d considered playing the role of the cannibalistic psychopath himself. When he exited the project due to concerns over the violence of the material, a number of other hats were thrown in the ring. After Jonathan Demme signed on as director, he approached Sean Connery to play the role. Thankfully, Connery turned it down and Anthony Hopkins was given the chance to make Hannibal Lecter deliciously, indelibly his. But had Hopkins not been available, it may have gone to one of the other actors in the running for the role. These included Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Robert De Niro.
Ultimately, though, the role did go to Hopkins, who turned in a fascinating performance. Screenwriter Ted Tally praised his performance, saying “I don’t know if you would notice this even, but he blinks only one time in the entire movie, and he does it very slowly and dramatically when he evokes some incredibly painful memory in her about the death of her father or something. It’s like sipping a glass of wine. Otherwise, his eyes are completely wide open. He trained himself to do that.” Hopkins apparently based his performance on a combination of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote, and HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
3. Buffalo Bill Was Based on Three Different Real-Life Killers
True crime aficionados may recognize in the Buffalo Bill character certain behaviours and traits borrowed from three real-life famous serial killers. Most notably, Gumb‘s obsession with women’s flesh and skinning victims was based on killer Ed Gein, AKA the Butcher of Plainfield. Gein was a grave robber who dug up corpses and stole their skin and body parts. Eventually, he “graduated” to killing women in order to satisfy his gruesome urges. Incidentally, Gein’s case also inspired Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Ted Bundy was also a model for the character. In one scene, Gumb wears a fake cast in order to lure and trap Catherine Martin. Ted Bundy would use this ruse on his own victims. He asked several women to help him unhook a boat from his car while feigning an injury. Lastly, Jame Gumb keeps his victims trapped in a pit. This is similar to the way that Gary Heidnik held his own kidnapping victims (two of which he eventually murdered).
4. The Rights to The Character of Hannibal Lecter Were Given Away
After multiple movies and a self-titled television series, it’s hard to believe that anyone could have believed the character of Hannibal Lecter to be commercially useless. But the first film featuring the character, 1986’s Manhunter, didn’t do very well at the box office. Producer Dino De Laurentiis held the rights to the character, and gave them to the producers of The Silence of the Lambs … for free! Think he regretted his decision?