Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“And the shackles came open in his hands…”

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"The process was fairly straightforward..."

Note: This post is the nineteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 20. You can read the previous installments here.

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most expertly crafted adaptations of a novel ever made, with a fine script by Ted Tally, but there’s one plot point that few, if any, viewers could be expected to follow the first time around. It involves the handcuff key that Hannibal Lecter uses to escape from prison in Memphis. In the novel, this detail is hammered home, with an interior monologue from Lecter that all but winks at the reader (“Handcuffs and leg irons open with a handcuff key. Like mine.”) and an entire page about how he constructed it from a stolen ballpoint pen. The movie condenses it to four quick moments, easy to miss if you blink:

  1. When Chilton visits Lecter in his cell in Baltimore, he’s holding the pen. When he leaves it behind, the camera pushes in on it, followed by a cut to Lecter’s expressionless face.
  2. Much later, at the handoff at the airport in Memphis, Chilton can’t find his pen to sign the paperwork, and we push in again on Lecter’s eyes.
  3. In his Memphis holding cell, Lecter removes a short metal tube from inside his mouth. If we’re exceptionally observant, we’ll recognize it as a piece of the pen.
  4. Finally, we see him hide the tube between his fingers just before he’s handcuffed by Boyle and Pembry.

And that’s it. Another movie might have clarified the sequence by having the key discovered and identified in Lecter’s cell after he escapes—which, in fact, is what happens in the novel. Or it might have avoided any confusion by having Lecter free himself in some other way. The whole point of the sequence, after all, is that the guards aren’t as cautious as the staff at the asylum, and it would have been easy to show them doing something especially careless. Really, though, it works best as it is. Boyle and Pembry aren’t stupid; they just don’t fully appreciate the danger. By having the scene turn on Lecter’s considerable ingenuity, even if the details are hard to follow, the movie builds him up as an even more formidable figure than before. Lecter doesn’t benefit from being lucky: he’s just incredibly patient, ready to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself after years in prison, and capable of manipulating the situation to his own advantage. There’s even a sense in which forcing us to put the pieces together after the fact makes the scene even more effective. In the moment, we may not be entirely sure how Lecter got out of his cuffs, but reconstructing the logic puts us briefly in his place, and we’re left with the distinct impression that nobody else alive could have pulled this off.

"And the shackles came open in his hands..."

I wound up confronting a similar set of problems in Ilya Severin’s story, and they also turned, curiously, on an escape from shackles. Early in City of Exiles, we’re introduced to a minor character named Roman Brodsky, a fixer and former entry man from whom Ilya extracts some useful information. He also liberates a set of lock picks from Brodsky’s apartment. We don’t see these picks again until the very last page of the novel, when we realize that Ilya has smuggled them into prison in the binding of one of his books. As with Lecter’s key, the details of how they got there are somewhat opaque: a reader who bothers to flip backward in the novel will find a few hints along the way, but they’re so oblique as to be practically nonexistent. And when I introduced them again at the end, I didn’t have any particular purpose in mind. I only knew that I wanted the novel to close on a note of potential action for Ilya, while pointing toward his escape in the next book. I didn’t know what form it would take, but I assumed that a set of lock picks would be useful no matter what. (I know I’ve used this example before, but I always think of the moment at the end of Wrath of Khan when Spock lays his hand against McCoy’s unconscious face and says: “Remember.” At the time, the producers didn’t know what it meant, but they figured it would come in handy in the sequel.)

As it turns out, I was half right. Eternal Empire includes an elaborate prison break, starting in Chapter 20, as Ilya and Vasylenko are loaded into a van for a hearing in London. As soon as Ilya is shackled in his private cubicle, out of sight of the guards, he removes the picks from where they’ve been taped between his shoulders and gets to work on his leg irons. The funny thing is that when you look at his actions in the context of the overall scene, they aren’t strictly necessary. Like any good escape plan in fiction, there are a lot of components, including some help from the outside: within a handful of pages, the van is going to be hijacked by Vasylenko’s men. I make a point of noting that the guards don’t carry keys for the shackles—the prisoners are supposed to be freed by a different security team at the courthouse—but there’s no reason why one of their accomplices couldn’t have brought his own lockpicking kit along. Having Ilya carry the picks himself only introduces an extra set of risks. Yet it made narrative sense to do it this way, even if it wasn’t entirely logical. It allowed me to pay off the reveal at the end of the previous novel, which was already in print and couldn’t be ignored. And it allowed Ilya to play a more active role in his escape, rather than just sitting tight until someone came to release him. Like Lecter, Ilya can’t just be lucky; he also has to be smart. And if he’s going to escape from his chains, he has to free himself with his own hands…

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2015 at 8:54 am

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