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Silence of The Lambs: Ethical Consideration of Moral Values Presented in The Film

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Silence of The Lambs: Ethical Consideration of Moral Values Presented in The Film essay
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Allegiance to a Psychopath: Reassessment of Morality and Evil

It’s 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 protagonist’s plans. However, it’s 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 there’s 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 Cannibal’s Sermon: Hannibal Lecter, Sympathetic Villainy and Moral Revaluation, Aaron Taylor forwards Murray Smith’s 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 Rising[1], the prequel film to Silence, Hannibal Lecter’s ideas of traditional values were challenged as a child[2] and continued to shape his behaviors as he grew (Hannibal Rising, 2007). Hannibal Rising shows the build up to Lecter’s 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.

It’s 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 formed with a villain of Hannibal Lecter’s caliber calls for the scrutinization of the viewer’s 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. Lecter’s 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, Lecter’s 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 they’re 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. He’s 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 Heit’s analysis of a perverse allegiance in “No Laughing Matter: The Joker as a Nitzschean Critique of Morality” is similar to that of Aaron Taylor’s analysis of Hannibal Lecter, but instead describes a man who finds himself void of any moral values (Heit, 2011). The Dark Knight’s Joker (Heath Ledger) is a favorite among fans as well, but his attitude differs from Lecter’s. While Lecter has realigned his values, Heit presents the Joker’s 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, it’s easy to view the crimes of a villain as poetic justice, or the lesser of many evils. Hannibal Lecter’s 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.

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Silence of the Lambs: Ethical Consideration of Moral Values Presented in the Film. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from
“Silence of the Lambs: Ethical Consideration of Moral Values Presented in the Film.” GradesFixer, 11 Dec. 2018,
Silence of the Lambs: Ethical Consideration of Moral Values Presented in the Film. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 Dec. 2021].
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