The very first words Thomas Harris writes about Clarice Starling in his 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs are about her appearance: “She had grass stains in her hair and grass stains on her FBI Academy windbreaker from diving to the ground under fire in an arrest problem on the range.” Appearance is an issue, of course, because the trainee has just been called to the office of Section Chief Jack Crawford to learn about her now-legendary assignment to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Still, she’s undeterred: “She knew she could look all right without primping,” Harris writes. His Clarice Starling is ambitious, calculated, and tactical. She wants to look good. She wants to stand out. She makes colorful and dismissive comments about the men she comes across (“Well fuck off, Chilton”) and fights tooth-and-nail to outwit them whenever possible (“Damn if these assholes are going to see me cry”). Harris’ writing is pulpy, muscular. His Clarice searches for strength in the same ways a man would — by making the biggest and best impression she can.
Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally took a different approach when they adapted Harris’ novel for their 1991 film. Through Demme’s lens, Clarice Starling is more human, more dignified, and — as a result — more vulnerable than her literary counterpart. Rather than try to make the biggest waves, the cinematic Clarice syncs up quietly with the current; she listens, learns, and asks questions as long as possible before taking action. She lets Lecter, Chilton, and Crawford — men presuming to be her superiors — talk to their heart’s content. She lets Lecter posture and pontificate. She lets Crawford swagger and command. She lets Chilton ooze and sleaze. Though she grins and bears it with convincing bemusement, what none of these men knows is that the wheels in her brain are always turning. Every one of their actions tells her something about what it means to do this job, to live in this world. Every one of them, too, exposes a weakness in those charged with saving Catherine Martin’s life. For them, it’s about ego. It’s about accomplishment and accolade. Reputation. They’ve all got axes to grind and careers to enrich.