Dear Mr. Norton,
After having read Motherless Brooklyn, I can’t help but question why such a compelling and different novel hasn’t been successfully made into a movie yet. You lack focus, don’t you? Well here’s my advice to you. You could focus on so many aspects of the novel, but the language used and more importantly, Lionel’s narration and his verbal tics, will be essential in making this movie a success.
Lionel Essrog is a character like no other. Suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, his tics might not be spoken aloud, yet through his narration the reader gets a glimpse of his inner mind and thoughts and we get a more valued interpretation from Lionel himself. From the very opening pages of the novel, Lionel explains that his tics are nothing he can control. Lionel states that, “I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though most I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone.” (1). The use of visual imagery paints a picture in the reader’s head, and it is your job, Mr. Norton, to recreate this picture into a reality. There must be some sort of emotional attachment between the viewer and the main character, and struggle can help achieve that. The struggles Lionel faced when he was younger and attending St. Vincent’s School are illustrated when he states, “So I kept my tongue wound in my teeth, ignored the pulsing in my cheek, the throbbing in my gullet, persistently swallowed language back like vomit. It burned as hotly.” (48), which demonstrates the physical pain he experiences to keep his tics from being heard. The viewer will feel bad for Lionel and eventually become emotionally attached to him.
Like anything else that may surprise us the first time around, after experiencing it several times, it simply doesn’t have the same effect on us anymore. Lionel states that, “[His] outbursts, utterances and tapping’s were white noise or static, irritating but tolerated, and finally boring unless they happened to provoke a response from some unsavvy adult, a new or substitute teacher.” (83). With time, we learn to accept things and move on and it is important for you to demonstrate how the secondary characters become unbothered by Lionel’s Tourette’s.
The big boss is key. Frank Minna’s relationship with Lionel is what helps him evolve into the man he is today. Lionel states that, “Minna encouraged me to have a take on everything, and to spit it out, as though he thought my verbal disgorging’s were only commentary not yet anchored to subject matter. And he adored my echolalia. He thought I was doing impressions. Needless to say it wasn’t comments and impressions, but my verbal Tourette’s flowering at last.” (57). Lionel personifies his Tourette’s and this demonstrates the evolution of Lionel’s verbal tics. Minna wouldn’t look down upon Lionel or make him feel bad which is important for his self esteem.
Focusing on these things will add humor to this movie, and who doesn’t enjoy a funny movie. Lionel describes himself as being “[Minna’s] special effect, a running joke embodied.” (57). Lionel was like Minna’s humorous sidekick and was also similar to a student writing down your every move in hopes of one day falling into your footsteps. He begins to adapt Minna’s “Minna-ism’s” (233) and we see that when he states, “That’s the day I heard Minna use the term that would become lodged thereafter in my uppermost tic-echelon: dickweed.” (76) This is the first to Lionel hears it, and it will definitely not be the last that we will hear it. Frank Minna has no idea what he has just started but this will grow into being something that Lionel will turn to when feeling urges to tic.
Minna interprets Lionel as being many things. The word “Tugboater” is used persistently throughout the novel. Lionel gives the reader a brief definition when he explains that “To tugboat is to try Minna’s patience. Any time you pushed your luck, said too much, overstayed a welcome, or overestimated the usefulness of a given method or approach, you were guilty of having tugged the boat.” (52). He then goes on to state that, “Years before the word Tourette’s was familiar to any of us, Minna had me diagnosed: Terminal Tugboater.” (52). The use of this term is unique and it demonstrates how Minna’s creativity towards describing Lionel’s Tourette’s can be entertaining throughout the movie.
In addition to being a “Tugboater”, Lionel is described, by Minna himself, as being “A free human freak show.” (58), yet Minna still accepts him. A scene that can relate to this was a conversation between Seminole, Lionel and Tony, and this scene should have much emphasis put on it for the movie. We can see the importance in the following conversation:
“Detectahole!”, says Lionel
“Alibi, you are not making me happy.”
“Don’t kill him, Superfly,” said Tony, grinning broadly. “I know it’s pitiful, but he can’t help himself. Think of it as a free human freak show.” (p. 188).
This is the perfect example of Lionel’s verbal tics taking over in a stressful situation and Tony is the one taking over Frank’s footsteps after his death, as he calls Lionel what Frank had first labeled him as.
We soon see Lionel come to terms with this, as at the very end of the novel, he goes out to the water and begins to scream out things such as “Freakshow”, “Bailey”, “Eat me! Dickweed!”, “Essrog”, “I claim this big water for Essrog” and finally classifies himself as being a “freak of nature” (265). This scene would probably be deemed very important. Ironically, as Lionel shouts out into the nature some of his verbal tics, he comes to term with the fact that what others describe him as being is what he truly is.
Consequently, you need to put a great emphasis on the scenes that involve conversations between Lionel and secondary characters, where the language is extremely noteworthy, Mr. Norton. An example of one of these conversations would be the one between Lionel and Tony, where Lionel finally confronts him about sleeping with Frank Minna’s wife, Julia:
“Did you sleep with Julia, Tony?”
“Why’d you want to go and say that?”
“Who you trying to protect, Daffodil? Minna’s dead.”
“I want to know”
“I’ll tell you in person when you get in here already.”
“Dickety Daffodil! Dissident Crocophile! Laughable Chocodopolus!”
“Ah, I heard it all before”
“Likable lunchphone, veritable spongefist, teenage mutant Zendo lungfish, penis Milhaus Nixon tuning fork.”
“You fucking Tugboat.”
“Good-bye, Tonybailey.” (156).
The language used adds light and humor to the novel which needs to be mirrored when producing this movie.
Lastly, we see Lionel’s emotions portrayed through his verbal tics. When speaking to Loomis, he feels the need to add things into their conversations such as “gofuckacop” (124), and the reason this verbal tic of his is being heard is because he truly does hates Loomis. Another example would be when Lionel is speaking to the doorman asking for clues, Lionel asks him to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Towards the end of the conversation, Lionel states “I’d appreciate hearing from you- Doorjerk! Doorjam! Jerkdom!” (134) and this is where the reader has a clear understanding that his emotions are difficult to hide, and they attempt to disguise themselves in his verbal tics, but aren’t effective in doing so. His emotions are also shown when speaking to Kimmery, as she breaks the news to him that she has decided to get back with her ex-boyfriend, Lionel says, “WantmeBailey!” (297). Even if he doesn’t straight up state how he feels about someone, his verbal tics give us a pretty good idea. When these tics are transformed into the reality, they must be aggressive and compelling, so we as viewers get to feel Lionel’s emotions through his tics.
Well Mr. Norton, really hope this gave you some ideas for your film. The language throughout the novel and Lionel’s Tourette’s will bring you great success. It’ll be worth it in the end!
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999