Maidens and monsters in modern popular culture: The Silence of the Lambs and Beauty and the Beast
The monster and the maiden. La Belle et La Bête. The star-maker Svengali and his Trilby. The Phantom of the Opera and Christine Daaé. And now FBI trainee Clarice Starling and Dr Hannibal Lecter. Throughout his original novel, Thomas Harris evokes memories of social and professional bondings between a beautiful ingénue and a sinister monster/mentor who inhabits a subterranean domain. 72-point tabloid headlines underscore the novel’s mythic associations: ‘“BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN!!” screamed the National Tattler from its supermarket racks’ (p. 62).1 And comparably haunting references likewise pervade Jonathan Demme’s phenomenally successful film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs wherein Anthony Hopkins’s burning eyes, spectral pallor and imperious demeanour are eerily reminiscent of Lon Chaney’s make-up and mannerisms, as well as the bloated, blood-red lips and the white mask worn by Michael Crawford as the Phantom of the Opera. As the film’s brilliant designer, Kristi Zea, intended, the demon Lecter’s face and dungeon seem primal nightmare images, like a painting by Francis Bacon. Red Dragon, Harris’s previous best-seller (Bodley Head, 1982) that introduced the fiendish psychiatrist, Hannibal (‘The Cannibal’) Lecter as a monstrous modern version of Professor Moriarty, was very intelligently filmed by Michael Mann. Like The Silence of the Lambs the earlier thriller is concerned with metamorphosis and myth, visually encapsulated in William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun from which the book takes its title. But Manhunter (as Mann’s film was prosaically titled) was not a mega-hit of comparable force, arguably because it lacks the single most distinctive component of The Silence of the Lambs. And that is the female agent without which Jonathan Demme’s film would be engrossing entertainment, but not an unfor gettable thriller. Simply substitute a male detective in the place of Clarice Starling and the impact is gone. It is the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling that, simultaneously, takes us into the twilight zone lying somewhere between symbolism
and realism and, in its radical departure from the familiar Svengali/Trilby paradigm, dramatically breaks new ground.