The original ending for 'Silence of the Lambs' was even darker
As part of Deadline's coverage of The Silence of the Lambs' 25th anniversary, the site has published an extended interview with director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Ted Tally and Robert Bookman, the agent who brokered the deal that brought Thomas Harris's bestselling novel to the big screen. In a previous piece, screenwriter Ted Tally revealed/reminded us that Gene Hackman had originally intended to write, direct and potentially play the role of Hannibal Lecter; this time around, the tidbit that caught my attention was the fact that the film's ending -- which in the finished film sees Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) stalking Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) through an island in the Bahamas -- was considerably darker in the original script.
From the Deadline story:
"The Silence of the Lambs ends when Hannibal Lecter, from a payphone in the tropics, congratulates FBI Academy graduate Clarice Starling and gently warns her not to hunt him, ending the call by saying he had to go because he was having a friend for dinner, as he watched his hospital tormenter, Dr. Chilton, disembark from a plane. While that nervous laugh allowed movie goers to summon the courage to leave the theater and run to their cars, the original ending scripted by Tally gave no such quarter. When Lecter speaks to Starling, he compliments her outfit, which makes her realize he had watched from a distance. In the original ending, Lecter is cutting orange segments with a small paring knife, while he speaks to Clarice. As he hangs up the phone, the camera shot widens. We discover that he’s at a desk in a book lined office. There is the body of a bodyguard on the floor, and then we see Lecter is not alone. Chilton is trussed up in a chair across from him, the same method of restraints the doctor used on Lecter earlier in the movie. Lecter rises, slowly, a dreamy gleam in his eye, as he approaches his terrified victim, paring knife in hand. “Shall we begin?”
TALLY: In the book, Hannibal says goodbye in a letter. That’s not cinematic. You had to see the faces. It has to be live. So I came up with this idea that Hannibal was stalking Chilton, who lived in Baltimore. I put him in a vacation house with security guards in Chesapeake Bay. I had Lecter overcome them and tie him up, and it ends just the way you described it. Jonathan, who hadn’t asked for a lot of changes, said, ‘You know, that’s kind of icky. Chilton is despicable, and we don’t like him, and he’s a crumb-bum, but he’s still a human being, and to have him trussed up for slaughter just is too squirmy. Ted, shouldn’t we give him some kind of fighting chance?’"
DEMME: It was too horrifying a way to close the proceedings. Whatever we had done to get to that moment, that ending would’ve turned the movie into something else. One of those shockers that kicks you in the gut in the last minute, and then the screen goes black, and the credits roll. I thought this story deserved more to it than the crude trussed up Dr. Chilton about to be carved up by Dr. Lecter. And I didn’t think it was very cinematic. I thought, really? We’re going to end the movie in some room like that? That’s the image we take home with us?
While admitting he was a little "miffed" by Demme's suggestion, Tally ultimately changed the ending to the one we know today, which ends with the iconic line: "I'm having an old friend for dinner." Perfection.