The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most influential films of the past thirty years. Watch any crime TV show or gritty detective movie and you’ll see the movie’s impact in spades. Much of the film’s success has been credited to Jonathan Demme’s skillful direction and the cast’s legendary performances, but neither would be possible without The Silence of the Lambs’ immaculate script, which set the gold standard for serial killer thrillers. Download your own copt of The Silence of the Lambs script as we break down the themes, characters, and dialogue.
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WHO WROTE the silence of the lambs SCRIPT?
Written by Ted Tally
Ted Tally is a playwright and screenwriter whose work includes films such as All the Pretty Horses, 12 Strong, and the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon. His script for Silence of the Lambs earned him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (the story is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris).
STRUCTURE OF The Silence of the Lambs SCREENPLAY
Here is the story structure for The Silence of the Lambs screenplay:
We follow Clarice as she runs through an FBI obstacle course — she’s a hard worker who takes her job seriously. We’re introduced to Jack Crawford, who instructs her to visit Dr. Hannibal Lecter and interview him.
Clarice meets Hannibal in the bowels of an asylum. He’s intimidating and beguiling, and seemingly uninterested in helping with the Buffalo Bill case.
Plot Point One
Clarice deciphers a code Hannibal gave her, and finds a decapitated head in a dark storage facility. It’s scary, but it also solidifies Clarice and Hannibal’s relationship — he will in fact help her.
The manhunt grows more urgent after Buffalo Bill kidnaps another victim. Clarice gets more involved with the case and with Lecter.
Hannibal negotiates a transfer with Dr. Chilton. Though he’s still technically in captivity, he’s one step closer to freedom.
Plot Point Two
Using the now-escaped Lecter’s clues, the FBI discovers the identity of Buffalo Bill. Crawford relays this to Clarice, who is disappointed she won’t be able to make the arrest because she’s doing groundwork 400 miles away.
The army of FBI agents preparing to storm Bill’s house is intercut with an unassuming Clarice approaching the house of someone she needs to interview.
In a twist, Buffalo Bill opens the door to Clarice. Clarice is forced to take on the serial killer alone in a nail-biting standoff. In the end, she bests Bill and shoots him.
Clarice officially graduates into the FBI and receives Crawford’s approval. She then receives a call from none other than Hannibal Lecter, who is free and stalking Dr. Chilton.
The Silence of the Lambs Script Analysis #1
Famous Silence of the Lambs quotes
A huge reason behind Silence of the Lambs’ staying power is the numerous iconic lines that remain in our cultural lexicon to this day. What is it about Ted Tally’s dialogue that engendered so many memorable quotes?
For a quote to stand out, it needs to have dramatic weight. Tally creates this weight through a mixture of tension and power dynamics. Let’s look at the exchange leading up to one of Hannibal’s most iconic lines: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
Follow the image link to read the entire Silence of the Lambs prison scene, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software, in order to see how the tension grows.
Hannibal Lecter quotes • Read the entire scene
The build up to Hannibal’s chianti line lends insight into why it has so much of an impact. For most of the scene, Lecter holds power over Clarice. This is for two reasons: he has something Clarice needs (knowledge), and he’s terrifying. Tally knows this, Hannibal knows this, and the audience knows this, since the previous scene with Crawford told us Clarice is low on the totem pole and eager to please.
Because Hannibal has this power, he toys with Clarice, trying to simultaneously figure and freak her out. And for most of the scene, Clarice is on her heels, focused primarily on hiding her fear.
Enter the “sooo ambitious” monologue. This is what Hannibal intends to be his final blow, a wowing flaunt of his psychiatric capabilities. But he overplays his hand — he underestimates Clarice. Let's watch the scene.
Silence of the Lambs monologue
Tally’s screen direction after the monologue is key: “His every word has struck her like a tiny, precise dart. But she squares her jaw and won’t give ground.” While Hannibal’s spiel does affect her, she’s more resolute than he anticipates.
Clarice’s next line is the first time in the scene where she wrests control from Lecter, putting him, ever so slightly, on the defensive. Lecter realizes this, and is no longer having fun. He wants this talk to end, but not before he regains the upper hand. This is the motivation of the chianti line: Clarice asks once more for the questionnaire, and Lecter responds with the most blood-chilling anecdote he’s relayed yet. It’s a final jab.
This is why the chianti line is so memorable: it is the button on a scene that masterfully understands and depicts a shifting power dynamic. It’s the “gloves off” moment– Lecter was playing nice, and this is the line that shows the true monster behind the demure mask.
Of course, it also helps a script when it’s being interpreted by two performers at the peak of their powers. Hopkins knows the intent behind the line, and punctuates it with a jarring hiss (which isn’t indicated in the script).
Here are the two actors discussing their work, some 30 years later.
Foster and Hopkins • A 30-Year Reunion
This scene is just one example of Tally’s keen attention to power dynamics. Looking at other iconic Silence of the Lambs quotes, we can see a similar theme– they’re said during a shift in power:
“Well, Clarice — have the lambs stopped screaming?”
“I do wish we could chat longer, but… I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.”
“You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.”
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS SCRIPT ANALYSIS #2
The Silence of the Lambs characters
Like its most famous quotes, the characters of Silence of the Lambs linger in the audience’s mind long after the credits roll. Tally manages to create a fully realized cast of characters by giving them palpable wants and themes that drives them through each scene. This can be seen most clearly with Clarice.
From the opening training montage, it is clear that Clarice will stop at nothing to become an effective FBI agent, no matter what obstacles lie in her path.
Silence of the Lambs characters. Spot the difference.
And the main obstacle is that she’s a woman in a man’s world. Sally infuses this into almost every interaction Clarice has with a man, from the “subtle, muted tug of sexuality” between her and Crawford to her interaction with the flirtatious entomologists.
Let’s look at another example of this theme; the first scene between Clarice and Dr. Chilton:
The Silence of the Lambs screenplay PDF
Notice the similarity in scene direction here that we saw in the scene between Clarice and Hannibal. There, Clarice attempted to hide her fear. Here, she attempts “to hide her distaste.” In almost every interaction Clarice has, whether it be with a colleague or serial killer, she is forced to put up a hard exterior in the face of a male gaze.
Watch how the above scene plays out on screen — Jodie Foster and Anthony Heald capture the dynamic outlined in the script perfectly.
Dr. Chilton: almost as deranged as Hannibal?
The careful attention to the subtext in the scene direction results in an excruciating depiction of casual sexism.
The interplay between the theme of women entering the workplace and Clarice’s main drive (becoming a successful FBI agent) results in a nuanced character because Clarice doesn’t always win.
Sometimes her tough mask crumbles. This complexity makes Clarice a character informed but not defined by her gender. It also makes scenes like this, where she feels she’s able to stand up for herself, so powerful:
The Silence of the Lambs plot
When Clarice says something as simple as “it matters,” it lands as a gut punch, because we see her in so many other situations reserving judgement for the betterment of the case or her career.
The Silence of the Lambs Script Takeaway #3
The Silence of the Lambs ending
The ending of The Silence of the Lambs is impressive for multiple reasons. Its climax is a masterful use of cross cutting: the FBI agents storming the wrong house while Clarice walks right into the pits of hell without knowing it. And once she’s in the home of Buffalo Bill, the tension is incredibly high. This type of tension can be hard to convey on the page, but Tally does it expertly.
Let’s take a look at the key moment between Clarice and the serial killer she’s been chasing:
Famous lines from Silence of the Lambs
Notice the formatting of this page. Tally has spaced out each movement. He’s essentially writing in slow motion, hitting each beat (his eyes, her eyes) with emphasis. As a director reading this, you’re already getting an idea of how to shoot the scene, even though the writer isn’t explicitly telling you. Focus on the eyes, focus on the reactions.
“And they know each other” is arguably the key line here. Usually, it’s best to avoid writing the interiority of characters into your script, since it’s not really possible to show on screen (i.e. “he’s thinking,” “she knows,” etc.). But here, it’s an important note for the actors. Both of them know what the other is thinking.
Again, you need great actors to pull this off. Luckily, Demme and Tally have Foster and Ted Levine.
Silence of the Lambs plot pays off
Of course, it should be noted that this scene, while iconic, isn’t the end of the film. This highlights another reason why The Silence of the Lambs is such a skillful screenplay: it’s weaving three narratives at once.
First, of course, we’re following Clarice as she solves the case. Second, we have Hannibal on his journey to freedom. Lastly, we follow Buffalo Bill as he captures and tortures his newest victim.
The aforementioned climax puts a bow on two of these three plotlines: Clarice has achieved her goal; Buffalo Bill has been defeated. But Hannibal’s thread is still loose.
So then we have the scene of Clarice’s FBI graduation ceremony. This acts as a final resolution to Clarice’s character arc, but also, as we find out, to Hannibal’s. He calls Clarice from an island (harkening to the broken promise she offered him) and asks her if the lambs have stopped screaming (harkening to one of Clarice’s drives — to save lives).
Tally pulls off this double-climax because he’s fully fleshed out each of the three storylines. As an audience, we’re as invested in Buffalo Bill as we are in Hannibal, and both storylines end through the lens of Clarice, our protagonist.
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The Silence of the Lambs didn’t become one of the most enduring horror movies by accident; it’s a film built on a pitch-perfect screenplay. If you want to continue reading screenplays, we have similar titles like Halloween, Alien, and Gone Girl in our screenplay database. Browse and download PDFs for all of our scripts as you read, write and practice your craft to become the next great screenwriter.