The First Ten Pages: Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Screenplay by: Ted Tally

Jodie Foster stars along with Anthony Hopkins in this shocking, pulse-pounding thriller about a young FBI agent who enlists the help of a jailed, cannibalistic madman to help her catch a serial killer on the loose. Ted Tally wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Thomas Harris.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION

The main character, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), is introduced in the first paragraph on the first page of the screenplay.

PAGE 1

This scene mirrors the climactic scene. It shows Starling being a heroine. Except, unlike the closing scene when she attempts to capture the serial killer Buffalo Bill, this scene is just an exercise.

PAGE 2

This opening scene is a red herring. It fools us into thinking the main character is in a tense situation, when in fact it is just part of her training as an FBI agent. What does this scene accomplish other than introducing the main character?

First, it shows the character doing what she does. She is a public servant, dedicated to enforcing the law and helping people. This is exactly what will be called upon her for the rest of the screenplay. Lines of dialogue are a poor way to “explain” what a character does; action is always a better way to define character.

Second, it tricks us. By revealing that the scene is just a training exercise, Tally is instilling distrust inside of us. This element of surprise will be repeated in subsequent scenes. This is important because suspense, i.e. not knowing what to expect next, is a crucial ingredient in a thriller.

TONE/GENRE

In addition to being a thriller, Silence of the Lambs is a dark, creepy screenplay that gets under the reader’s skin. The subject material is gloomy, shocking, and intense. The following scene happens on page 9, when Starling visits Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the man she hopes will help her catch Buffalo Bill.

PAGE 9

Tally has filled the first 10 pages of Silence of the Lambs with unflinching passages like this one. He holds nothing back as he establishes clearly this is a grim story about gun-wielding, tough talking FBI agents and the cold-hearted monsters they are trained to apprehend.

DRAMATIC SITUATION

Tally has introduced to us on the first page the main character, Clarice Starling, a young FBI agent trying to navigate her way through an uncompromising world. First, we see her proving herself to be an agent who performs well in a training exercise. This earns her praise from special agent Jack Crawford, who gives her a new job – to interview imprisoned Hannibal Lecter, a convicted serial killer known for eating his victims. The purpose is to create a psycho behavioral profile.

The focus of the screenplay’s plot is clearly explained on page 10, after Clarice approaches Dr. Lecter’s cell and introduces herself.

PAGE 10

The scene before this describes Clarice and Dr. Chilton going to Dr. Lecter’s cell.

PAGE 7

Notice how this excerpt begins on an upper floor and transitions into the next scene, which is on the lower floor.  As Starling and Dr. Chilton descend towards Lecter’s dungeon, Tally paints a picture that evokes a common theme that follows the mythic structure of the Hero’s Journey, described by Joseph Campbell in his classic book Hero With A Thousand Faces. The theme is called the Belly of the Whale, and it represents the final detachment from the hero’s ordinary life.

Descending into a “darker, even grimmer area”, Starling unknowingly leaves her old life behind, one where she is a rising star at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Here, she will come face-to-face with a sadistic psychopath who will manipulate her to reveal her innermost secrets. This is the price she will pay to achieve her objective, to catch a killer on the loose. Starling must learn the escape the prison of her mind, to allow her suppressed nightmares to become known, so that she can come to terms with them.

As we learn in subsequent pages, her reward will be saving the life of a single human being who is trapped in a prison of her own, deep inside Buffalo Bill’s basement.

WORLD OF THE STORY

The world of this story is one that will happen in places that reek of death.  Underground prisons, autopsy rooms, insane asylums, and empty bedrooms furnished with pictures of a kidnapped woman. Tally makes it obvious that this world is dominated by men with power. As a female, Starling will feel sheer humiliation and unrelenting pressure as she attempts to gain a foothold in this unforgiving world. When Starling meets Dr. Chilton, who takes her to see Lecter, she experiences her first sexual suggestion by man attempting to establish power. It won’t be the last.

PAGE 6

Just before she goes to meet with Dr. Lecter, Starling proves she can handle herself in this tough world.

PAGE 8

Here, Tally shows that Starling is able to deftly handle a man who otherwise had tried to manipulate her to his own ends. Why did Clarice wait to tell Dr. Chilton that his presence was not needed for her interview with Dr. Lecter, and just moments before she was to enter Lecter’s dungeon? Because she needed him to guide her there for her own protection. Just as Dr. Chilton suggested that Starling was only important to him for his own sexual gratification, Starling suggests to him that she just needed him to get to where she needed to be.

This moment in the screenplay is well crafted because it sets the stage for her meeting with Dr. Lecter, which happens on the next page. It puts both characters on the same level. Here we have a smart, capable female FBI agent and a diabolically brilliant criminal mastermind, two polar opposites, each able to hold their own. The question will be, who will blink first?

THEME

On page 5, a conversation between Starling and Jack Crawford segues into one between Starling and Dr. Chilton at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. 

PAGE 5

Introducing an asylum as a location so early, on page 6, in this screenplay, 144 pages long, communicates the theme of Silence of the Lambs in a subtle way. This is the story of a female FBI agent, trapped in her prison of pain (Dr. Lecter forces Starling to reveal her worst childhood memory in a later scene), who visits a prison to talk to a serial killer to get help in finding another serial killer who keeps obese women in a prison in his basement.

Indeed, prison is a theme in this screenplay, and we will observe as the characters, each with their own crystal clear objective, trapped in their own respective prisons, will fight to escape.

In conclusion, Silence of the Lambs is a bristling, engrossing screenplay. This is the screenplay, along with the novel, that ushered the unforgettable character of Hannibal Lecter into the collective public consciousness.