Thomas Harris, Clarice Starling, and Me

The name Hannibal Lecter was a constant in my household. Long before I was cognizant of the context, I knew the infamous character and his creator, Thomas Harris, were held in reverence. My mom and sister vociferously devoured (pun intended) the 1981 novel Red Dragon and its fame-eclipsing sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, on constant repeat. When the trilogy-ender Hannibal was published in 1999, I was nine years old, and vividly remember the ecstatic family furor leading up to its release. That haunting, grotesque cover of harsh reds and blacks, depicting a snake-like creature devouring an agonized man, is one of the iconic images of my youth.

I wasn’t allowed to read them, of course, despite my growing interest in crime fiction. The most I managed was sneakily skimming the first fifteen pages of Hannibal at my sister’s kitchen table. I was entranced, to say the least; the seed of fascination had been planted through osmosis.

Four years later at thirteen, I’d already seen my fair share of violent R-rated movies: Terminator 2: Judgment Day under parental supervision, Halloween by myself one late night in a darkened basement. My parents knew what I gravitated toward and cautioned rather than forbid, unless something struck them as inappropriately explicit for adolescent minds (i.e. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). So when I begged my mom to let me rent a VHS copy of The Silence of the Lambs from our local rental store, she allowed without issue. She even let me watch it alone, unsure of her own interest given her devotion to the novel.

Every cinephile remembers the moment when a specific movie blew their minds apart. Nothing would touch the effect Silence of the Lambs had on me for at least a decade.

For ages I didn’t understand why, or how, or even the full extent. I just knew, like a lightning strike to my bones, something had switched in how I understood the language of film, the crafting of it; its potential to challenge, inspire, prophesize. Clarice Starling, and by extension Jodie Foster, was the definitive heroine of my formative years. Thomas Harris became a literary icon, once Mom granted me freedom to consume the books. I rented it over and over and over again, wearing out the tape that didn’t belong to me; I pored over TVGuide schedules so I could record it off a movie channel onto a blank VHS; it was one of my first DVD purchases when I had enough earned money in my pocket.

I watch it around Valentine’s Day every year (not an idea I take credit for— the film was released on February 14th, 1991), and I’m never not enthralled anew, even as I’ve memorized every frame, every cut, as every music cue strikes goosebumps of remembrance.

The best part? It isn’t about the good doctor.

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