Home Movie How Gene Hackman’s Silence of the Lambs Would Have Changed the Movie

How Gene Hackman’s Silence of the Lambs Would Have Changed the Movie


Thesilenceofthelambs is an undisputed masterpiece, becoming one of the few films to win all five major Oscars in its year of release. That he did it for what amounts to a horror movie is doubly impressive, as is the legacy he created for everyone involved. It is difficult to conceive of the film in any other way than the one that the public knows. Changing a frame of it – let alone throwing in a different actor in any part – would be doing it a terrible disservice.

And yet, its production story is far from straightforward, demonstrating just how different a film’s original concept can be from the version that eventually hits the screen. The film rights to the original novel first belonged to actor Gene Hackman, who intended to not only star in the film, but also direct it. It’s a fascinating example of a project that could have been.

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Gene Hackman was a big fan of the novel The Silence of the Lambs

According to a 2021 article in Empire magazine, Hackman was a huge fan of Thomas Harris’ novel, which caused a stir when it was released in May 1988, and immediately sparked talk of a film adaptation. Michael Mann had previously adapted Harris’ earlier work, Red Dragon, in the thriller man hunter – itself a well-regarded cult classic – and a film version of The silence was almost obvious. Hackman ended up with the rights to the novel and intended to do great things with it.

It was the first property the actor had ever owned, and as Empire notes, he wanted it to be his directorial debut. He even had a solid cast in mind: John Hurt would play Hannibal Lecter and Michelle Pfeiffer would play Clarice Starling. In addition to directing and producing the film, Hackman himself would play Starling’s mentor, Jack Crawford. It seemed like a must. And then, in March 1989, he withdrew from the project.

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Fellow Oscar nominee Gene convinced Hackman to move on

Burning Mississippi Gene Hackman Brad Dourif

It took another Oscar-nominated film to convince him to move on. Burning Mississippi, the 1988 film by Alan Parker, was a fictionalized account of the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi. Hackman and Willem Dafoe starred as FBI agents investigating the murders, and while the film was rightly criticized for its lack of black portrayal, its technical skills and solid storytelling were nominated for multiple Oscars. Hackman himself was in the running for Best Actor (he lost to Dustin Hoffman in rain man), and apparently viewing clips of the film at the Academy Awards itself convinced him that Thesilenceofthelambs wasn’t the right follow-up. Burning Mississippi is a very dark movie, for obvious reasons, and appearing in something so dark immediately after it felt like a mistake. The film rights eventually landed in the hands of Orion Pictures and ultimately resulted in Thesilenceofthelambs that everyone knows.

And yet, Hackman’s efforts seem creatively sound and could have done the material justice in a strong way. Hurt possessed the right on-screen energy for a figure like Lecter, while Pfeiffer has the combination of delicacy and determination that would work well for Clarice Starling. Thesilenceofthelambs is an actor-centric — performance-driven — film that would put Hackman in his comfort zone for a first directorial job. It could have worked. It might even have been great. But the actor’s timing and instincts changed his direction.

Ironically, HBO’s next sleuth, Jodie Foster, won the Best Actress Oscar for The accused the same year, Hackman lost to Burning Mississippi. She played a rape victim in this movie and was drawn to the same darkness in Harris’s novel that ultimately hijacked Hackman. This led to her actively lobbying for the role and – when Pfeiffer eventually died for the same reasons Hackman did – playing Starling in the movie that became. Hackman’s version is a telling sign of just how much such greatness can depend on how serendipitous and what a cinematic classic might have looked like had fate taken a slightly different path.