Dearest Edward Norton,
It has come to my attention that you intend to bring Motherless Brooklyn to the big screen and that, lacking focus, you are actively searching for someone to help you. As a fan of Jonathan Lethem’s novel myself, I understand how challenging it is to incorporate every aspect of the novel into a screenplay that would honour the original. I know firsthand how book to movie adaptations can either turn out great; the story remains the same and the various aspects that made you love the story are reflected on screen, or not so great; the movie seems to have no real depth or meaning. To achieve the status of great book to movie adaptation, the characters must appear as deep and human as possible; three dimensional if you will, as they do on paper. Paper has the advantage of inner dialogue, where the viewer can read a character’s every thought and feeling. In movies though characters often appear as stereotypical versions of themselves; the hero is heroic, the villain is mean… But characters, like people, are not so simple. I believe that the movie should focus on making Lionel Essrog as deep and complicated as he is in the novel. If you were to remove Lionel’s inner dialogue throughout the novel, his character would be stripped of everything; Lionel would simply be a crazy man caught in the storm of his words, and not the smart and poetic character we know from the novel. You want people to remember your characters, to be able to relate to them on some level and without Lionel’s thoughts from the novel, “A Touretter can also be The Invisible Man” (44).
Lionel Essrog is an underestimated character, one that is often brushed off and set aside, as if he weren’t even in the room at times. But we readers know that Lionel is actually a lot smarter than what he is given credit for. Following Frank Minna’s death, the men quickly fall under Tony’s leadership:
“Gilbert, we gotta get you out of here. You’re the name they’ve got. So we’ll get you out doing some hoofwork. You look for this Ullman guy.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Gilbert wasn’t exactly a specialist in digging up leads.
“Why don’t you let me help him?” I said.
“I need you for something else,” said Tony. (96)
It is clear to us from Lionel’s thoughts that he knows a lot more on this than Gilbert, but finding Ullman is a job deemed too important for Lionel, as if he were not good or smart enough to complete such a task. He is left instead with the chore of telling Julia about her husband’s demise. During this entire scene, the bulk of the information comes from Lionel and yet the characters around him cannot seem to notice. Maybe we wouldn’t have noticed either had we not had Lionel’s thoughts written for us, which is why his inner dialogue is so important.
Lionel is also very aware of the way he appears to the outside world, “I felt a thrill at being taken so seriously. This making the rounds without Gilbert could get to be a habit. For once I was playing lead detective instead of comic-or tourettic-relief” (143). He knows that to others he is nothing but a joke, “As far as (Loomis) was concerned, my Tourette’s was just an odd joke, one going mostly over his head, stretched out over the course of fifteen years” (123), or a sad orphan Minna took pity on. Lionel has come to terms with his syndrome, has accepted it as part of his life and has learned to deal with it, which makes the reader pity him less and respect him more. This however cannot be deciphered from the way he acts with people or what he says out loud. We know this because of the way he thinks and feels when he is with other characters, how he knows what they think of him, but is not affected by it. This is a crucial part of his character, that must be reflected in the movie.
The scene in the novel that proves the importance of inner dialogue the most is the interrogation between Lionel and the homicide cop. The role reversal in this scene, that the cop is unaware of, is a great demonstration of Lionel’s intelligence, “I didn’t want to point out to good cop that bad cop hadn’t learned anything from me, just got tired of asking” (116), matched with the world’s tendency to underestimate him, “Don’t worry,” said the detective, talking down to me. “I won’t tell him who gave out his name.” He thought he was grooming a stool pigeon. I could only try not to laugh or shout. Let Tourette be the suspect and maybe I’d get off the hook (110). As the cop lets slip information, Lionel is connecting the dots in his head; drawing conclusions. A little later in this scene, Lionel brings the cop to Zeod’s because he craves a sandwich. But that’s not the only reason behind his decision to go there, “He eased off me. I barked twice. He made another face, but it was clear it all would get chalked up to harmless insanity now. I was smarter than I knew leading the cop into Zeod’s and letting him hear the Arab call me Crazyman” (115,116). Lionel knew what he was doing, had figured out the perfect strategy; use his Tourette’s to his advantage. This proves once again how important Lionel’s thoughts are to the book and therefore screenplay.
I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly 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. In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging (1).
Lionel is an extremely well versed and poetic character, in his head. His thoughts are expressed beautifully, as proved in the previous passage. This introduction to his Tourette’s shines light on the great contrast there is between what Lionel is thinking and what he is saying. Without Lionel’s inner descriptions the novel would lose the beauty, the poetry that his character adds to the overall story.
Bringing characters to life on screen is no small task, and Lionel is no exception to this. Because of his Tourette’s, a screen version of Lionel runs the risk of seeming like a simple character; the viewers should pity the poor sad orphan with a mental illness, a grown man that has no one to care for, or care for him. If there is one thing we know as readers, its that Lionel does not want pity, he has come to terms with his illness and does not need to be portrayed as a lost puppy. This is why the inner dialogue of the novel is so important, without it the story loses everything that holds it together; the poet is lost to the storm.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.