The Perfect Ending? Hollywood Versus the Novel, Part 1

220px-The_Silence_of_the_Lambs_poster[1]T.S. Eliot opened his poem “East Coker” with the line: “In my beginning is my end,” and he closed it, “In my end is my beginning.”

I wrote about beginnings in my last Poisoned Pen Press blog post–specifically, the form and function of a great opening line to a novel. My next post for that blog, still a work in progress, is on the form and function of a great closing line, and whether the end is indeed “in the beginning.”

In the process, I became intrigued by a related issue: the contrast between what works in a movie versus what works in a novel. A recent New York Times article on the struggles of adapting a novel (or other written source material) to the screen highlights those challenges. One way to look at the issue is to compare the closing lines in a novel to the closing scene in the movie-adaptation of that novel.

I picked three great movies, each of which has a famous closing line and each of which is based upon a highly regarded novel.

This first post examines the endings of Silence of the Lambs, which was a bestselling and well-written suspense novel about a serial killer that got turned into a blockbuster movie that swept the Oscars that year, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

While both the novel (by Thomas Harris) and the movie (directed by Jonathan Demme) are ostensibly about the FBI’s efforts to track down a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, what drives that story, and elevates it above the typical serial killer tale, is the intense, complex relationship between Clarice Starling, the young FBI trainee, and Dr. Hannibal Lector, the brilliant forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic sociopath who is serving 9 consecutive life sentences in a mental institution for a series of horrific murders. Lector has insights into Buffalo Bill’s psyche, and Starling tries to develop a relationship with him in the hopes of finding the serial killer before he murders again. The result is one of the oddest love stories in literature or Hollywood.

But what about the endings? Both need to include a reference to the phrase “silence of the lambs.” The phrase dates back to Clarice’s childhood on the farm and her trauma when she awoke at night to the sounds of the lambs screaming as they were being slaughtered. Dr. Lector concludes that Clarice wants desperately to save Katherine Martin, the missing Senator’s daughter, because she feels that by saving her, she’ll be able to silence her memories of those lambs that she was unable to save.

So, too, both endings need to include some mention of Hannibal Lector’s nemesis, Dr. Frederick Chilton. He is the pompous, incompetent director of the asylum near Baltimore where Dr. Lector has been imprisoned. Dr. Lector has masterminded an escape from the asylum. Surely he must have something nasty in mind for Dr. Chilton.


Thomas Harris ends his novel on a soft, almost poignant coda. Dr. Lector is somewhere in South America. He has just finished an note to Dr. Chilton suggesting that he would be paying him a visit in the near future, after which it would “make sense for the hospital to tattoo feeding instructions on Chilton’s forehead to save paperwork.” But then he starts a gentler letter to Clarice Starling: “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” He ends the letter by gazing out the window at the constellation Orion, telling Clarice that “I expect you can see it too. Some of our stars are the same.”

The final paragraph begins: “Far to the east, on the Chesapeake shore, Orion stood high in the clear night, above a big old house, and a room where the fire is banked for the night, its light pulsing gently with the wind above the chimneys. On the large bed there are many quilts, and on the quilts and under them are several large dogs.” That paragraph, and the novel, ends: “the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.”

The movie version ends on a wittier but macabre note that takes full advantage of the big screen. Dr. Lector calls Clarice from an undisclosed Caribbean location near an airport. He starts by asking her, “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?”  But then he spots his nemesis, Dr. Chilton, getting off the plane. “I do wish we could chat longer,” he says, “but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” He hangs up as she keeps repeating into the phone, “Dr. Lector? Dr. Lector? Dr. Lector?” The scene and the movie end with a long tracking shot of Dr. Chilton walking through a noisy, crowded street while Hannibal Lector, in a cream-colored suit and panama hat, leisurely strolls behind him. Here’s the clip.

Two endings, each terrific, and adapted to its medium.


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