As I’ve written previously, I adore watching scary movies during the Halloween season. Of course, a perennial favorite of such monster marathons is always the excellent 1991 film version of The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins. The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay; it was also the first horror film to win Best Picture. I realize it’s a bit cliche to say that this is one of my favorite movies, but that’s the sole reason why I waited so long to read the book.
If you have neither seen nor read it, Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs is about Clarice Starling, a top student at the FBI academy, who is sent to interview imprisoned psychopath Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter. Dr. Lecter takes a liking to Clarice & decides to help boost her career by giving her clues to the identity of serial killer at large, Buffalo Bill. When a new victim is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill, the FBI knows they have only a few days to rescue her before it’s too late. Will Clarice be able to decipher Dr. Lecter’s clues in time?
I initially bought this book because of my love for the movie, but then it sat unread on my shelf for ten years (not an exaggeration, it was actually ten years). I know among book circles it’s practically taboo to say anything positive about a film based on a book, & not without good reason. But this is a really good movie, and I didn’t want the book to spoil that (please refrain from coming after me with pitchforks until the conclusion of this post).
Faced however with the loss of my usual scary movie marathon due to this book challenge, I decided it was the perfect time to finally pick up this book. And you know what? It’s exactly like the movie! I mean, a few things here & there have been trimmed or condensed as must needs be for film adaptations, but for all intents & purposes, the film is scene-by-scene true to the book.
I don’t know why that’s so rare these days! I’ll never understand it when a movie studio says, “This is a great book! Everyone loves it! Let’s adapt it into a movie & change everything about it!” But that’s not the case here, which is a true compliment to author Thomas Harris; his story works equally well on page and on screen, & that’s no easy feat.
The film even improved upon the book in one aspect – it gave us the line, “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again” (which IS in the book, but not exactly in that form). And that line in turn became so iconic that it’s been parodied in South Park, Family Guy, & countless others. There’s even a song about it.
But I can see you sharpening your pitchforks, so give me a moment to tell you what the book does better than the film.
Film students are constantly admonished to “show, don’t tell,” which means that a lot of beautiful writing gets necessarily left behind in film adaptations. In the case of The Silence of the Lambs, what gets…well, not totally lost, but loses its punch…is the description of Clarice’s childhood in a poor West Virginia town.
When the body of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims is pulled from a riverbed in West Virginia, Clarice is tapped by the FBI to go get finger prints. She travels there with Jack Crawford, agent-in-charge of the FBI’s behavioral science unit. Having arrived at the funeral home in Potter, WV, Clarice watches some local deputies.
Starling looked at these men as the cruiser pulled into the lot, and at once she knew about them. She knew they came from houses that had chifforobes instead of closets and she knew pretty much what was in the chifforobes. She knew that these men had relatives who hung their clothes in suitbags on the walls of their trailers. She knew that the older deputy had grown up with a pump on the porch and had waded to the road in the muddy spring to catch the school bus with his shoes hanging around his neck by the laces, as her father had done. She knew they carried their lunches to school in paper sacks with grease spots on them from being used over and over and that after lunch they folded the sacks and slipped them in the back pockets of their jeans.
She wondered how much Jack Crawford knew about them.
Snippets like these are powerful & could be delivered in exposition, but so much dialogue would weigh down a film. As bookworms know, to get the full flavor of a story, you must read the book, and so I have learned my lesson well.
But perhaps the lesson can go both ways. Though many, many film adaptations are terrible, there are that handful of elite adaptations (The Silence of the Lambs, Fight Club, Misery, Howl’s Moving Castle, etc.) that a bookworm could be forgiven for loving.
Changing gears now (sorry for the whiplash), I’d like to talk about a middle grade book (yes, another one), Doll Bones by Holly Black.
Doll Bones is about three lifelong friends, Zach, Poppy, & Alice, who are engaged in a never-ending make-believe adventure about pirates, warriors, and mermaids using their toys as the cast of the story. The star of the show, however, is a bone china doll (normally kept locked in a cupboard by Poppy’s mom) called the Great Queen. But when they kids start having odd dreams about the doll, they decide to go on a real adventure to uncover the truth.
“Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?” Poppy said, tapping a porcelain cheek. “Her clay was made from human bones. Little-girl bones. That hair threaded through the scalp is the little girl’s hair. And the body of the doll is filled with her leftover ashes.”
I know I’m not the target audience for this book, but I struggled with this one. To me, Doll Bones feels like two little stories who don’t get along being forced to share a bedroom.
One story is about the quest the doll gives the kids & has a handful of fairly creepy moments, probably just right for a middle grade level book. The other story is about the three tweens struggling to redefine their childhood friendship now that they’re growing up. Although it sounds fine, this is the one I didn’t like.
My biggest issue is that Black seems hell bent on beating you over the head with how GRITTY & REAL her characters are. Poppy is neglected. Alice lives with her militant grandmother. Zach has a strained relationship with his dad, who abandons & rejoins the family whenever it suits him.
Parents who might lose their jobs. A half-hearted love triangle. A metric ton of pointless squabbling.
None of these things are too much on their own. Dispensed in small, incidental layers around a story centerpiece, everything would’ve been fine. But Black really lays it on in big thick chunks as if these facts are the true headliners of the show.
The inside of Poppy’s house was always a mess. Discarded clothes, half-empty cups, and sports equipment covered most surfaces. Her parents seemed to have given up on the house around the same time they gave up on trying to enforce any rules about dinners and bedtimes and fighting – around Poppy’s eighth birthday, when one of her brothers threw her cake with its still-lit birthday candles at her older sister. Now there were no more birthday parties. There weren’t even family meals, just boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of ravioli, and tins of sardines in the pantry so that the kids could feed themselves long before their parents came home from work and fell, exhausted, into their bed.
There is a decently satisfying ending on the other side of all this drama. But in order to get there, the kids basically act like hooligans (stealing, trespassing, destroying property), so whatever likability the reader may have previously scraped together on behalf of these characters is wasted away by the end.
Maybe I’m in the minority, but when I finish reading a book, I want to feel as if there was a point to it all. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending or a character who learned a valuable lesson or anything like that, but it should feel like the story needed to be told. And Doll Bones just doesn’t.
And so, my verdict:
The Silence of the Lambs = heck yes.
Doll Bones = meh. Read The Halloween Tree instead.
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All movie stills via Movie Stills Database; intended for editorial use only.