Secrets of the Silver Screen, 4
I’d been thinking about Silence of the Lambs just the other day, so when I stumbled across it the other night while channel surfing, I set the remote down. SotL won five Oscars, including one for best adapted screenplay, so obviously the entire team did a lot of things right. But what I find most notable about this film from a writer’s perspective is the emphasis placed on motivation.
In SotL, motivation isn’t just a necessary bit of fuel propelling the character toward his goal; it’s a theme. Understanding why someone chooses to do something becomes a riddle, an obsession, even “food” of sorts for a flesh-starved sociopath. The story also gifts us with two kinds of motivation to think about, for the underlying desire of every significant character in SotL is to transform, and that kind of desire taps into subconscious motivation. Deeelicious!
Enter Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter who, as a former psychiatrist, is a master at dissecting (if not consuming) the subconscious mind. He may be the only person capable of unraveling the mystery of rampant serial killer, Buffalo Bill. When FBI student Clarice approaches him to do just that, Lecter deduces from one look at her cheap shoes what her obvious motivation is: to advance, to be something more than a poor West Virginian. When he reveals he’d like a room with a view instead of the enclosed walls he’s lived with for so long, a deal is struck. But Clarice later learns the deal was bum to begin with, and Lecter shuts down, putting the investigation in jeopardy. Though she was warned to never let Lecter inside of her head, she can’t resist when the devil asks for a dance – in exchange for information about what’s really beneath her desire to find Buffalo Bill and rescue his latest victim, a senator’s daughter by the name of Catherine.
Lecter: ... Quid pro quo. I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no? Yes or no, Clarice? Poor little Catherine is waiting.
Clarice: Go, doctor.
Lecter: What is your worst memory of childhood?
Clarice: The death of my father.
Lecter: Tell me about it and don't lie, or I'll know.
Clarice reveals that her father’s death led to a series of events that eventually landed her on a sheep ranch. One night, she woke to a shrill, awful sound—a sound like screaming. It was springtime, and the lambs were being slaughtered. She tried to save them all, opening the pen, but they would not move. She chose just one lamb to save, lifting it and carrying it off with her into the night. But it was heavy—so heavy—and she inevitably was found by the rancher, and the lamb she tried to save was killed with the rest of its kind.
Lecter: You still wake up sometimes, don't you, wake up in the dark, and hear the screaming of the lambs?
Lecter: And you think if you save poor Catherine you could make them stop, don't you? You think if Catherine lives you won't wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.
Clarice: I don't know. I don't know.
Lecter: Thank you, Clarice. Thank you.
Hannibal Lecter provides valuable clues in the case after these revelations by Clarice. Why? What’s his motivation? Lecter plays the give-and-take game with her because he’s feeding off of her—not off her outer flesh, but off her inner self. It gratifies him to absorb people in whatever way he can, to take them in.
Gradually, Lecter reveals clues to Buffalo Bill’s motivation: Bill was an abused child who now hates himself. (Obvious motivation: Bill wants to change.) Bill thinks he’s a transvestite, but he’s not. He's interested in metamorphosis, hence his obsession with moths. He wants a new skin for himself. Once Clarice pieces together Lecter’s skillful clues, she understands the awful truth.
Clarice: He's making himself a 'woman's suit'...out of real women. And he, he can sew, this guy. He's, he's very skilled. He's a tailor or a dressmaker. That's why they're all so big. He has to keep them alive, so he can starve them awhile, so he can loosen their skin...
Deep motivation in SotL isn’t just left in the hands of the primary characters, either. Crawford, the FBI boss, has his own deep stuff going on--where is his wife? And have you ever noticed that victim Catherine leaves her pit-o-hell prison cuddling Bill's dog Precious? The same dog who'd been driving her crazy and who she'd nearly killed?
The writer spent time and a lot of thought creating meaningful motivations with these characters, and going deep never meant throwing in some contrived monkey wrench just to amp up tension. In the words of Hannibal Lecter himself:
Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: 'What is it in itself, what is its nature?'
Complex motivations are powerful, because they can truly root behaviors and make a story more believable. And, as Hanibal might argue, they'll feed your readers unquenchable hunger for delicious fiction.