Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris

***Spoiler Alert!  I can’t believe I would have to give this warning, but just in case you’re one of the six people left on the planet who has never heard of this book/movie, consider yourself warned.***

There is a serious problem with reading a book that has been turned into a movie that everyone has seen and knows so well.  I realized this while re-reading The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  I first read The Silence of the Lambs during a summer in University where I was reading books that had been turned into movies almost exclusively.  As that time, I think I might have seen the Jodi Foster/Antony Hopkins version once or twice on cable, but without any serious commitment to the story.  Since reading the book for the first time, I’ve seen the movie a couple of times.  The problem is reconciling the book with the images created by the movie.

The plot is well known to all.  Although, really I think I should say plots, as there are two main stories being told. The first is the interactions between FBI trainee Clarice Starling and the serial killer Hannibal Lecter.  Clarice is sent to see if Lecter will assist with psychological profiling of serial killers in general, and of the most recent serial killer (styled Buffalo Bill) in particular.  Dr. Lecter, an incredibly brilliant sociopath trades bits of his knowledge for information on the case and on Clarice herself.  It feels like a deadly dance that the reader is observing.  The second plot centers around Buffalo Bill, the serial killer who is abducting and flaying young woman to create a suit of skin.  We join this plot line after Buffalo Bill abducts the daughter of a US Senator.  The plots do overlap, but they do seem to stand alone as well.

Harris’ work is engaging and interesting, but there is a stylistic choice that I’m not crazy about.  Mainly, he seems to flip between present and past in his narrative.  When you speak or write about a book, you traditionally reference it as being in the present tense (the theory being that they book currently exists), but the narrative story told in books is generally told in the past tense.  It’s the difference between “Clarice walked up to the house” and “Now, here is the house in question.”  Worse, Harris is guilty of using both tenses on the same page.  It’s a little jarring. 

Now, the real problem with reading this book is that it is almost impossible to take the Jodi Foster out of Clarice Starling if you’ve seen the movie.  For an adaptation, the movie holds remarkably close (with a few changes for the sake of expediting story telling), and Foster did a great job in taping into Harris’ character study.  The same could be said for the Hopkins and Lecter.  The result is like reading a screen play; you can see the way Jonathan Demme set the shots as per Harris’ description.  For a thriller of a book, this really kills the flow and interest.  It’s my own damned fault, I know, but it’s still something of a shame that such a great book got ruined by being turned into such a great movie.

So, final verdict?  I don’t know… I guess read it?  But why would you if you’ve already seen the movie more than once?  And when the movie is so great, is there even a need to read the book?  Wow, I didn’t think I would ever say that.  Okay, let me put it this way: read the book as it is part of the zeitgeist, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t hold up to the image of the movie that you have in your head.  It’s still an enjoyable read, but without the suspense that would make it a fantastic read.

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