Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mythology Structure in Silence of the Lambs

(Spoilers: Silence of the Lambs)

I’ve been talking about the mythology structure the last few posts so let’s look at how it works in a film that’s not an obvious “fairy tale” type story: Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally).

Our hero is Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee. The FBI Academy is her normal world. The special world she’s going to enter during her journey is the world of investigating a real life serial killer.

The inciting incident is Clarice getting assigned to interview Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is the mentor character in this movie – and what an unusual mentor he is! But despite his obvious evil, he is the one who trains her in the ways of serial killers, who teaches her how to survive the special world. So the Meeting the Mentor stage comes when Clarice goes to interview Lecter.

The Call to Action comes from Lecter himself when he gives Clarice the Miss Mofet clue that leads her to the severed head in the public storage facility, which is a link to the Buffalo Bill case. Clarice doesn’t resist this call but embraces it. (Actually, in some drafts of the script, she simply passes the clue on and goes back to school until Crawford reprimands her for not following up.)

She enters the special world when she is invited by Crawford to help with the Buffalo Bill case.

We aren’t given a lot of Allies and Enemies. We have Dr. Chilton (Lecter’s warden), Jack Crawford (Clarice’s boss at the FBI) and Clarice’s friend Ardelia.

We do have an Oracle scene – when Clarice goes to visit the entomologists to identify the moth they found in the victim’s throat. They are typical oracles – they have special information and Clarice makes a journey to acquire it.

The Innermost Cave is when Clarice agrees to a quid pro quo with Lecter. She agrees to open up about her past in order to get his help on the case, something we’ve been told it would be very dangerous to do. Now she’s in the heart of serial killer land.

The Supreme Ordeal is when she tells Lecter the story about the lambs, laying bare her soul to this dangerous man. The Elixir she eventually wins for that confession is the case file with his notes and the instruction that “everything she needs to solve it is inside.”

The metaphorical Death and Resurrection is when Clarice and Crawford are pulled off of the case. Clarice's investigation has seemingly died. But now Clarice acts on her own, against the rules, to visit Lecter and save the next victim. We see that Clarice is no longer the student; she’s now a true investigator.

The Return is when Clarice, after receiving the file and getting kicked out of the building where they’re holding Lecter, returns to the Academy. And there, with the help of Lecter's notes, she figures out Buffalo Bill's identity.

The Final Conflict comes when Clarice, sent on what everyone thought was a routine background interview, realizes she’s actually in Buffalo Bill’s house. She has to fight him alone, the power cut off, and rescue his intended next victim. She succeeds by killing Bill.

Which makes her Master of Both Worlds. She’s solved the crime, saved the victim, and in the end we see her celebrating graduation – she’s mastered the student part of her life as well. She even receives a "congratulatory" phone call from Lecter.

In terms of archetypes, I’ve already mentioned the hero (Clarice), mentor (Lecter), and oracle (entomologists). The shadow is Buffalo Bill. Where Clarice is analytical, organized and sure of herself, Bill is slovenly and deranged. Plus, she's a cop and he's a criminal.

The Shape Shifter is Dr. Chilton, someone who is technically on the side of the law but betrays Clarice for his own glory. You could make the case that Lecter is also a shape shifter – a highly unusual shape shifter/mentor combo. Though personally I tend to think of Chilton as the primary shape shifter and Lecter as mostly a mentor.

Chilton also seems to do double duty as the trickster. He’s a buffoon and the source of the little bit of humor in the movie. (This story is pretty tight with few characters so it isn’t surprising that some do double duty.)

Crawford serves as a Herald bringing Clarice news from the world of the investigation but not really mentoring or assisting her very much.

Among the Threshold Guardians, I see Lecter himself – testing Clarice repeatedly to see if she’s up to the challenges of the journey. One example is the Miss Mofet clue; another is his demand that she reveal personal information. Chilton also does additional duty as a Threshold Guardian that Clarice must get past to see Lecter. And then there’s the cops she must trick to visit Lecter later after she’s been kicked off the case.

Even though Silence of the Lambs is a gritty crime story, the mythology structure still fits. And I think it’s useful to look at the story as a journey of a young FBI trainee entering the special world of a real serial killer case. The mentor-mentee relationship is a particularly myth-rich aspect to the movie. All of which illustrates how the ideas of the mythology structure transcend genre.

1 comment:

Steven said...

You talk about "the mythology structure" as though there is only one. You are just regurgitating what you've read from Joseph Campbell and his silly statistical nonsense, the monomyth. Read James G. Frazer and Claude Livi Strauss. Forget Jung - most of the psychological profession already has. Then you'll start to see there are a number of myths with specific social functions and clear differences, and rather than just listing archetypal characters you'll begin to understand how the mechanism of myths actually work.