On Thursday night, CBS will debut the dark and stylish crime drama “Clarice,” which, on one level, is the latest in a long line of procedurals from the alphabet-happy network that gave us “JAG,” “S.W.A.T.,” “FBI” and numerous “CSI” and “NCIS” series.
This one, however, comes with a decidedly more illustrious and literary pedigree.
Created by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, the series brings back Clarice Starling, the fictional F.B.I. cadet first introduced in the 1988 Thomas Harris novel “The Silence of the Lambs” and immortalized by Jodie Foster in the Oscar-winning 1991 adaptation. Clarice’s blend of humanity and intellect made her into a beloved fiction and film protagonist, but sequels and spinoffs have since ceded the spotlight to the charismatic cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in two more films, and by Mads Mikkelsen in the NBC series “Hannibal.”
But as Hannibal once told Clarice, “All good things to those who wait”: Twenty years later, the new CBS drama is a kind of reclamation of her character, as played by Rebecca Breeds — a sequel series set one year after the action of “Silence.” While the trauma of her time with Dr. Lecter and the serial killer Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, certainly influences her behavior in the field, the show seeks to make this universe about its heroine again.
What was Clarice’s journey from a hit book in the ’80s to a TV show in the 2020s? And why should viewers still care about this young woman who is still haunted by the “awful screaming of the lambs”? Here’s a brief look at her history and influence.
Where it started
“The Silence of the Lambs,” a sequel novel to Harris’s “Red Dragon” from 1981, was published in 1988. Unlike the hero of “Red Dragon,” the weathered F.B.I. profiler Will Graham, Starling is a trainee at the F.B.I. academy, new to the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Her superior sends her to interview the infamous “Hannibal the Cannibal” for a project profiling incarcerated serial killers, but he is more interested in talking about Buffalo Bill, a sociopath who has been kidnapping young women and skinning their bodies.
In exchange for helping her to understand and capture Bill, Lecter convinces Starling to open up about her past, during which time she reveals that her father was shot while on duty as a town marshal. Her father’s murder started Clarice on a path that led to exile on a cousin’s Montana ranch, then to an orphanage, then eventually to a career in law enforcement.
Clarice’s character traits, as defined in “Silence,” have persisted through a second book (“Hannibal,” from 1999), two film adaptations and the new series that bears her name. She is an underdog, often dismissed by her superiors and treated as someone who lacks the intellectual abilities of her male colleagues or Lecter. And yet it is her curiosity that makes her a success, someone who sees clues beneath the surface that her colleagues often miss. While they work through the facts of a case, Starling considers more than just the physical evidence, using her intuition and ingenuity as advantages.
The movie that exploded a subgenre
In 1991, Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation of “The Silence of the Lambs” was released to box office success and near-universal acclaim — it won five Oscars, including best picture and director — leading studios to green light more literary thrillers about serial killers throughout the ’90s, like “Kiss the Girls” and “The Bone Collector.” (David Fincher’s “Seven,” particularly in its grisliness, owes a debt to Demme’s film.)
Foster imbued Starling with a balance of fortitude and vulnerability, finding just the right degree of toughness for a young trainee in a male-dominated field but tempering it with a sensitivity and humanity that helps her break through to the manipulative Lecter. As Foster’s Clarice opens up to him, she gets what she needs to save another young woman’s life.
Foster’s blend of tenacity, compassion and courage won her the Oscar for best actress and made Clarice more than a typical crime solver. In 2011, the American Film Institute named her the greatest heroine in film history.
The movie that almost ended it all
Harris presented Starling as an equal adversary to Lecter in “Silence” but then frustrated fans in “Hannibal” by having them come together romantically. At the close of an elaborate novel that has Starling hunting Lecter to Florence, the doctor tries to brainwash her into believing she is his dead sister, Mischa, which fails, but the two end up living together happily ever after anyway.
It was such a controversial book that Demme declined the option to direct it, and Jodie Foster also passed on the film. But Ridley Scott and Julianne Moore stepped into the roles of director and star, with Hopkins returning as Lecter. Scott’s film was divisive, but he did change the ending with Harris’s permission. Most disappointing, Starling feels like more of a passenger on this journey than Foster did in the first film, removing some of the balance in the storytelling. In hindsight, it’s a stronger film than many people remember it, thanks to Scott’s craftsmanship. But it doesn’t compare to “Silence,” not least of all in its vision of Clarice.
What she’s been up to (or not) since
Hopkins played Lecter again in “Red Dragon” (2002) and Gaspard Ulliel took the part for the 2007 prequel “Hannibal Rising,” leaving Clarice on the pop culture sidelines (the off-Broadway production of “Silence! The Musical” notwithstanding). In 2012, Lifetime announced that it was developing a drama about Clarice, but it never materialized.
Bryan Fuller, the creator of “Hannibal,” has said he wanted to incorporate Clarice, but problems arose over rights to the character, which couldn’t be worked out before NBC canceled the show. Her legacy continued, however. Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully of “The X-Files,” with her blend of blinding intellect and dark family secrets, is hard to imagine without Harris’s character as a model, particularly Foster’s rendition.
As Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer navigates a testosterone-heavy world in “Sicario,” it’s hard not to think of the disapproving male stares faced by Foster’s Clarice in “Silence.” Even NBC’s “Hannibal” had Starling surrogates, like Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) and Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl).
In the new series, Lumet and Kurtzman blend the structure of a CBS mystery series like “C.S.I.” with a character who helped bring psychological depth — and a female gaze — to hunting serial killers. The creators build heavily on the foundation set by that book and film, even though, in a funny reversal, they can’t use the name Hannibal Lecter because of rights issues. Familiar motifs, like the death’s-head moth, arise in flashbacks to the kidnapping of Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter). Even the phrase “quid pro quo” gets another turn.
Other characters from the “Silence” universe are returning as well, including a new job for Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz), the deputy assistant attorney general who was played by Ray Liotta in the Scott film; Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), the mother of Buffalo Bill’s final captive; and an expanded role for Ardelia Mapp (Devyn A. Tyler), Starling’s former roommate at Quantico and her most loyal ally.
The creators hope fans are still loyal to Clarice as well. “Clarice does everything I hope I’d have the guts to do,” Lumet said in an email last month. “You can count on her.”