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Jozlynn Mills

Chris Thomas
ENG-W170
8 December 2014
Allegiance to a Psychopath: Reassessment of Morality and Evil in Silence of the Lambs
Its common and intentional in film and literature for the viewer or reader to find
a character interesting, relatable, and sympathetic. These texts build characters
specifically for viewers and readers to relate to and favor. Why, though, is it common in
film and literature, for villains to be the good guy? The villain should be fighting
justice and wreaking havoc on the protagonists plans. However, its become very
common for the villain to be the favorite character. So common, in fact, that there has
been a list compiled of favorite villains (CBS, 2003).
Silence of the Lambs is a film based on the novel by Thomas Harris that features
the number one favorite villain on the list, and is a shining example of why villainy is
making this transformation. The film follows FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling
(played by Jodie Foster) as she attempts to profile Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony
Hopkins). Lecter is a former psychiatrist who kills his victims then feeds on them,
nicknamed Hannibal the Cannibal by some. In the process of profiling, Lecter and
Starling form a peculiar relationship in which he assists her in the profiling and
investigation of another serial killer named Jame Gumb, nicknamed Buffalo Bill. As
the former psychiatrist of Gumb, Lecter is familiar with his past and behaviors, so his
advice is crucial in the eventual closing of this case. Lecter is the villain of the film, and
theres no mistaking that. Through an altered moral code and an adapted idea of good
and evil, viewers form an allegiance with this character in spite of the many disturbing

crimes he commits.
Murray Smith refers to the connection or preference to a morally corrupt villain as
a perverse allegiance (Smith, 227). Perverse allegiance refers to the way in which,
and the degree to which, a film elicits responses of sympathy and antipathy toward its
characters, responses triggered - if not wholly determined - by the moral structure of the
film (Smith, 220). Silence of The Lambs is structured in such a way that viewers connect
to and prefer Hannibal Lecter to other characters not only in this film, but other villains in
film and literature (CBS, 2013). In the article A Cannibals Sermon: Hannibal Lecter,
Sympathetic Villainy and Moral Revaluation, Aaron Taylor forwards Murray Smiths
definition and suggests that a perverse allegiance with a villain is a matter that calls for
what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as moral revaluation (Taylor, 2014). This is
essentially the reworking of the traditional moral framework by someone who surpasses
the limitations that they set. As seen in Hannibal Rising1, the prequel film to Silence,
Hannibal Lecters ideas of traditional values were challenged as a child2 and continued to
shape his behaviors as he grew (Hannibal Rising, 2007). Hannibal Rising shows the build
up to Lecters arrest and some of the motivation behind his killings and his behavior. An
event of this extreme caliber causes much reconsideration and alteration of the moral
framework.
Its clear that he holds himself at a different level of moral responsibility and
honor in the way he addresses his victims and Agent Starling. The allegiance that is

Hannibal Rising will not be relevant to my whole paper, therefore it will be


centered around Silence of the Lambs rather than the whole franchise concerning
Hannibal Lecter
2 http://movieclips.com/fN3J-hannibal-rising-movie-we-eat-or-die/
1

formed with a villain of Hannibal Lecters caliber calls for the scrutinization of the
viewers set of ethics as well. By revaluating the regulated ideas of good and evil, it is
much easier to consider the actions of a villain and accept them on their own terms.
Lecters different views are not an excuse for his behavior, but an explanation that leaves
viewers to reconsider their own views. The altered moral view of this film begins not
very far into Silence, when Frederick Chilton makes a move at Clarice Starling, who
immediately turns him down. This angers Chilton, and his baseless frustration is cause
for viewers to be in favor of Starling from the start. Though his comments are not illegal,
but they set a basis for the judgment of offences in the film. Her goal of advancement in
the FBI despite discrimination is a reason for alignment, and viewers favor the support
she receives from Hannibal Lecter.
When Clarice Starling speaks with Hannibal Lecter for the first time, his
intelligence and shocking skill of dissecting personalities is introduced. He refuses to
cooperate with Starling once he realizes that her only goal is to profile him, and in turn
begins reading her every move rather than answering her questions. He detects her
yearning for advancement, her aspirations to be more than her southern roots and
troubled past. She is clearly shaken by his ability to dissect her words and mannerisms,
along with his blatant refusal to cooperate. Another prisoner, Multiple Miggs, as he is
called, makes obscene comments to Clarice as she arrives and in her attempt to leave,
throws ejaculate in her face. Lecter sees this and rushes back to the glass of his cell,
frantic, deciding immediately that he will cooperate. Clearly bothered by the act, he
agrees to assist Clarice in profiling Buffalo Bill, something that will give her a chance to
advance very quickly in her department. It is revealed later in the film that the prisoner

who assaulted Clarice commits suicide by swallowing his own tongue after Lecter is
heard whispering into his cell through the night. Not only is it made clear that Lecter has
a way with words, but his altered set of values is introduced in this scene. This man who
kills and consume victims without a second thought is terribly bothered by the idea of a
man degrading a woman.
This introduction is the first step in eliciting a sympathetic response from the
viewers. Clarice has already been presented positively, receiving degrading comments
that make viewers averse those who act against her. By presenting Hannibal Lecter as
the decent character among the misogyny, the film sets a foundation for the respect that
viewers gain for him. His aversion to misogyny in just this scene shows viewers that he
would also disagree with the other instances of discrimination toward Clarice, whom
viewers have already formed an alignment with. Once this is set and Lecter is in favor,
his actions against wrongdoers seem nearly justified as the film advances. Because of the
order of introductions in the film, Lecters villainy is revaluated so that he serves as a
kind of alternative aspect of a greater good, and his way of thinking appears to be a
dark, twisted form of poetic justice (Taylor, 2014). He has a set of values, despite the fact
that theyre not typical. However, their existence is what is relevant. The film serves to
compare evils, and the presentation of differing sets of morality is what leads viewers to
choose the lesser of these evils. While Lecter is assisting Clarice in catching Gumb, he
is the lesser evil. Hes doing something that is typical of good behavior, and it seems
absolutely unreasonable that a real villain would ever help someone without gaining any
underlying benefits from it. As a villain, Hannibal Lecter is destructive, murderous, and
terrifying. However, as a man he is intelligent, poised, and charismatic when need be.

Jamey Heits analysis of a perverse allegiance in No Laughing Matter: The Joker


as a Nitzschean Critique of Morality is similar to that of Aaron Taylors analysis of
Hannibal Lecter, but instead describes a man who finds himself void of any moral values
(Heit, 2011). The Dark Knights Joker (Heath Ledger) is a favorite among fans as well,
but his attitude differs from Lecters. While Lecter has realigned his values, Heit presents
the Jokers claim that the whole paradigm [of good and evil] is flawed, meaning that he
sees no reason to follow any system of values, doing what he wishes, because he does
not acknowledge that his actions and the consequences that follow have any moral
worth (Heit, 2011). Though both men employ this critique of moral standards, Hannibal
Lecter differs because despite his actions, it is very clear that his morals remain in tact.
His values are indeed altered, but Lecter realizes that his actions have consequences and
purpose.
Villainy is a very curious subject, with many facets. Hannibal Lecter and the
complexity his character is only one example of many in the spectrum between good and
evil. With an open mind and the ability to question the most basic of constructions,
characters of nearly any moral standing can be conveyed as favorable. When these basic
Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil are reconstructed by the production of a film
or the character setup of a novel, its easy to view the crimes of a villain as poetic justice,
or the lesser of many evils. Hannibal Lecters role in Silence of the Lambs shows a man
who simply views the world and crimes differently than most, and aims to rid the world
of evils that everyone is capable of and commit often.

Annotated Bibliography
Taylor, Aaron. A Cannibals Sermon: Hannibal Lecter, Sympathetic Villainy and Moral
Revaluation. www.academia.edu. 2014. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the
Moving Image 4. 14 November 2014
Taylor explores the idea of perverse allegiance and the revaluation of our ideas
of evil and morality in reference to villains. This is the idea that viewers form
allegiances with villains who are morally inept, and commit heinous crimes as a
result of this. He discusses the acceptance of a villain, what that consists of, and
how we reconstruct the ideas of good and evil and how we judge them based on
this character. His take on the Nietzschean critique of morality and evil is highly
relevant in the revaluation of views. He questions the idea of more or less
choosing the lesser of two evils in the sense that we often compare two villains
and ally with one over the other because their evils differ in some sense.
I will use this text to explore the allegiance viewers form with Hannibal Lecter
and how that is possible. Though he is a morally corrupt character, he is preferred
by many viewers and there are many reasons why this could be. Ill focus on the
impact of sexism toward Clarice Sterling leads to Hannibal making himself a
mentor/helper of sorts to Clarice Sterling.
Heit, Jamey. "No Laughing Matter: The Joker as a Nietzschean Critique of
Morality." Vader, Voldemort and Other Villains: Essays on Evil in Popular
Media. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011.
Similarly to Taylors essay, this essay defines the idea of a Nietzschean view of
good and evil and its relation to villainy in literature. The Judeo-Christian
constraints of good and evil have a clear effect on how villains are viewed. They
create guidelines of what defines good and evil that some villains simply do not
adhere to. When this set of beliefs is broken down and the ideas are presented
differently, readers no longer struggle to categorize them because there is nothing
left to attempt to define them by.
Hannibal Lecter seems to know the difference between right and wrong. He is a
clearly intelligent man with clear views of the world. However, if he had these
views of right and wrong that the majority of the world adheres to, how could he
kill people and eat them with no remorse? Id like to use this essay to explore that
idea. Hannibal disregards the typical ideas of something simply put as good and
bad. He has very specific intentions and if what he is doing will lead to his
ultimate goal and follows his ideas of right and wrong, he will go through with
it, and he has the skill to do so.

Bibliography

AFIs 100 Years 100 Heroes & Villains . http://www.afi.com/100years/handv.aspx.


2003. CBS. 18 November 2014.
Murray Smith, Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances, in
Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M.
Smith (1882; Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 220-227.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage,
1974), 232.
Hannibal Rising. Dir. Peter Webber. MGM, 2007. Film.

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