Clarice Starling
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The rise and fall of Clarice Starling

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Nov 17, 2020, 6:00 PM EST

To this day, I keenly remember the exact moment and what I was doing when Thomas Harris f***ed over Clarice Starling. I was 14 years old and had become wildly enamored with the Hannibal Lecter books thanks to a surprisingly violent selection of titles available in my high school library and my parents' delightfully relaxed attitude to the pop culture my sister and I consumed. Having devoured Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, I desperately needed to get my hands on the third book, simply titled Hannibal. My school didn't have it, but the local library did, so I checked out this beautiful doorstop of a hardback with a rich red cover and jumped right in. For hours, I sat on the top bunk in the bedroom I shared with my sister, hunched over the book as if I was protecting it. And then it got to that scene, and things quickly fell apart.

Everyone has that moment in their lives when they realize that the stories or pop culture that they love is not perfect. The rose-tinted glasses of fannish frenzy shatter and you're left to reconcile yourself with the cold light of reality. Every person who's struggled to deal with their Harry Potter fandom following J.K. Rowling's transphobia understands this all too well. Still, in hindsight, it was very strange to be a teenage girl who loved this dark story, reading as it jumped the shark in real-time. This felt weirdly personal. Characters change, but Clarice Starling wasn't just a character to me. She was a hero.

Special agent Clarice M. Starling is one of the true icons of late 20th-century horror. The scrappy FBI student who became entangled in the investigation of a violent serial killer and the manipulations of the infamous Hannibal Lecter felt like a real breath of fresh air to the genre. Name a female detective of the past 30 years of fiction and the chances are they owe a sizeable debt to Starling, whether it's Stella Gibson in The Fall, Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, or Agent Kate Macer in Sicario, to name but three. Nowadays, crime fiction and horror-thrillers are chock full of tenacious female detectives who buck the system, a reflection of how the genres attract devoted female audiences, but Clarice remains both a pioneer and one of the best heroines in the business.

Clarice is introduced in The Silence of the Lambs, the sequel to Red Dragon, the book that followed Will Graham's hunt for the Tooth Fairy serial killer. His specter looms overhead in Clarice's world, with the fresh-faced FBI trainee informed that Graham, who was her boss Jack Crawford's favorite, is now an embittered alcoholic with a damaged face akin to a Picasso painting. This knowledge makes Clarice's journey all the more startling. She's a top student, to be sure, but still, a very young woman who is being thrown head-first into the lion's den by her male bosses because they are so bereft of other options.

Crawford sends her to interview the near-legendary Hannibal the Cannibal, a debonair former psychiatrist and social butterfly who prepared his victims for lavish feasts. It is clearly not a match of intellect, but Clarice is sharp-minded and tenacious enough to intrigue Lecter. Curious about her strength, and always eager for a new chew toy, Lecter agrees to help her with information in Buffalo Bill, an active serial killer who skins his victims.

Hannibal may provide key information to Clarice, but her detective skills and psychological analyses are all her own work. Driven by her own dark past (which Hannibal revels in dissecting) and a level of empathy her male colleagues seem to lack, Clarice goes above and beyond the call of duty. It helps that she seems willing to understand Hannibal beyond his self-made lore. She may still be terrified of him (because of course, she should be, the guy eats people!) but she sees him as more than a monster, which he respects. It's also Clarice, all on her own, who kills Buffalo Bill. Starling proves herself to be capable in ways that nobody expected of her, and that's further emphasized in Jonathan Demme's multi-Oscar-winning adaptation, which featured Jodie Foster in the lead role. Her diminutive size, clearly second-hand clothing (which Hannibal bitchily comments on), and her thick West Virginia accent see her quickly labeled as an outsider to the FBI. She is the battle-ready underdog in every sense of the term, and to watch someone so sorely underestimated by everyone take on the big bad guys on her own is still a thrilling sight.

And then there was Hannibal.

Released in 1999, the book had been in the works for several years (Harris notoriously finds the writing process to be akin to physical agony). The infamous producer Dino De Laurentiis owned the rights to the Lecter characters but had no involvement in The Silence of the Lambs, a decision he greatly regretted when that movie became a major success. So, he knew he had to be behind the next sequel, so when Harris called up De Laurentiis to tell him that he'd finished writing the book, De Laurentiis purchased the rights for a record $10 million.

Hannibal is a much more florid and existential novel than The Silence of the Lambs, which is a pretty traditional horror-crime procedural. By contrast, its sequel is almost like a soap opera, its drama and ensemble of grotesques is the stuff of baroque paintings. Lecter is now free and living the high life in Florence, but on top of the FBI's continuing hunt for him, he faces a new threat in the form of the maniacally evil Mason Verger. How evil is he? He's a serial pedophile who literally drinks the tears of children and trains boars to eat people so that he can exact revenge on Hannibal for getting him high on poppers and encouraging him to eat his own face. It's that kind of book.

The Clarice of Hannibal is a seasoned FBI agent who has become disenfranchised with her work thanks to her wildly misogynistic bosses and a culture of corruption. The only man who seems supportive of her plight is, shock horror, Hannibal Lecter, and she feels the need to save him from the clutches of Verger, although she still wishes to see him behind bars. A lot of Hannibal is actually pretty fascinating, if utterly bonkers. Clarice's turmoil over her work and her strange companionship to a literal cannibal proves intriguing, and all of the scenes in Florence are beautifully written, evoking a city of wonder and darkness. It's when Hannibal saves Clarice from the killer pigs that things fall off the rails.

Now in his care, Hannibal does the logical thing with Clarice: He pumps her full of mind-altering drugs, tries to brainwash her then "help" her with her unresolved father issues through a gentle veneer of gaslighting, then tries to force her into becoming his long-dead younger sister Mischa. Thankfully, that doesn't work, but instead, Clarice opens her dress and offers her breasts to Lecter, then they become lovers and run away to Buenos Aires together. To say that reading this narrative as a teenager was a kick in the teeth would be an understatement. It felt genuinely insulting to see someone as strong and driven as Clarice Starling deciding to run away and become Mrs. Lecter, complete with cannibalistic dinners and the occasional breastfeeding session. It didn't make sense that, even at her most disillusioned with the FBI, Clarice would stop caring about justice or the wronged victims of people like Lecter. She'd gone from a hero fighting the system for a righteous cause to a trophy wife for a guy who eats people.

The novel was a huge hit, but the reviews were sharply divisive, and Jonathan Demme was so disappointed with the material that he chose not to direct the movie. Enter Ridley Scott, fresh from the Oscar-winning success of Gladiator. The film adaptation of Hannibal mercifully does away with the novel's most egregious elements. Clarice doesn't end up the semi-brainwashed lover of Hannibal, there are no extended scenes relating to her daddy issues, nor is she left deprived of what makes her so unique. She is still one of a mere handful of women working in the FBI and is faced with a barrage of sexism, both subtle and arrogantly loud, at every opportunity.

Yet the movie still can't help but try to add a romantic tension between the two. When Hannibal saves her from the Verger farm, he carries her in a manner not dissimilar to the moment where the Phantom of the Opera carries an unconscious Christine onto his bed. It's framed so blatantly as an act of sexual passion, even though Moore and Hopkins have no chemistry in that way. Hopkins didn't have that chemistry with Foster either, and that was the point. In The Silence of the Lambs, it seems clear that Lecter's respect for Starling is one of professional and intellectual interest. It would seem rude of him to try a hackneyed seduction. While the idea of romanticizing the pair makes sense (and it remains a popular ship in fandom for that reason), it never worked on the page or on-screen. All it did was neuter Clarice, destroy the already fascinating and layered relationship she had with Hannibal, and make her a play toy-slash-science experiment rather than a protagonist.

CBS is set to make a show dedicated to Starling with the title Clarice, starring Rebecca Breeds from Pretty Little Liars and The Originals in the title role. The show will take place a year after The Silence of the Lambs. For fans of the material, it will always be disappointing that, due to rights issues, we never got to see Clarice in NBC's Hannibal, created by Bryan Fuller and starring Mads Mikkelsen in the lead. Fuller said he would have loved to cast Ellen Page in the role and that's an alternate universe we all sorely crave. But can justice be done to Clarice on CBS? It's not impossible, but the show's staid procedural formula doesn't feel like a great fit for her. We're also 30+ years on from the introduction of Clarice to the world and the entire genre she helped to create. TV is chock full of Clarice's daughters now, so can she be as vibrant and relevant as she once was in such a crowded field? The temptation will be to just shove her into that mold rather than try to understand how she broke it in the first place. It would be a real shame, after everything that Clarice Starling has been through, to see her reduced to just another woman with a gun.

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