Hannibal Lecter – psychiatrist, psychopath, purveyor of ghastly canapés – is an ambiguous presence in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981) and its sequels. Rarely the outright villain, he tends to play the role of a genteel monster with whom the reader is, scandalously, invited to sympathise.
In The Silence of the Lambs, the best of Harris’s novels, the FBI requires Lecter’s insight in order to catch serial killer Buffalo Bill, who enjoys parading about in the flayed skins of his victims. Clarice Starling, a pretty trainee agent, is sent to visit Lecter in prison and charm him into offering help.
Lecter agrees, on the condition that Starling reveal details of her early life for analysis, and much of the novel is devoted to their queasy tête-à-tête. Lecter is a polite, even avuncular presence, but you’re never sure whether he is more interested in picking Starling’s brains or merely pickling them.
As the cover of Arrow’s 25th anniversary edition demonstrates – “Seen the film? Now read the book …” – there is another sort of cannibalism going on here. While this is a finely crafted thriller, and there is a relishable, hard-bitten quality to Harris’s prose (“She could see the dying moon, pale and thin as a bone fishhook”), The Silence of the Lambs has been swallowed whole by Jonathan Demme’s unforgettable screen adaptation.
After the movie, it becomes impossible to think of Starling without recalling Jodie Foster’s delicate performance, to read Lecter’s lines without hearing Anthony Hopkins’s fricative-laden delivery. Thus does pop culture eat itself: with fava beans, and a nice Chianti.