Dear Ed Norton,
I have heard of your struggles concerning the screen play of Motherless Brooklyn. I was thrilled when you sent out a notice to all hopeful writers for some inspiration. Having been a long time fan of the novel, I was excitedly looking forward to the creation of this film. Perhaps, my insight will prove to be appealing to you. At least that’s my dearest hope.
I think that there is one aspect of the book that would tie everything together. If it were up to me, I would put the main focus on Lionel Essrog. After all, he is the main character and the reason why this novel is so special. No other detective is quite as complex and multilayered as him. That being said, what the book excels at is putting the readers through an empathetic experience. They feel what Lionel feels and this is precisely what the movie should accomplish.
Lionel has had a couple painstakingly awkward moments in this novel. Some were so weird that I found them hard to get through as a reader. Whether they were moments from his childhood or from his adult life, they were essential for understanding the extent of the alienation Lionel had experienced. However, we all go through these scenes in our own lives. That being said, the awkwardness was sometimes incredibly easy to relate to. One of these moments was in the flash back when Lionel first started developing OCD and Tourette’s syndrome. He began having the urge to kiss the other St.Vincent’s boys. This caused him a lot of embarrassment and contributed in making him the self-loathing man he’d later become: “I grew terrified of myself then, and burrowed deeper into the library, (…)” (45). In this instance, I believe that Lionel’s personality began to darken and that the feelings of self hatred began to grow permanent roots within him. It is clear that he slowly begins to distance himself from his brain’s compulsions creating an inner drift between different aspects of his own personality. He is thus thrust into an ever ending cycle of self deprecation leading to even more awkwardness. I believe if these points are exploited in the film it will be much more realistic and heart gripping. Many of the other gauche times in Motherless Brooklyn revolve around Lionel’s relationship with women. For example, when Lionel meets Julia to tell her about Frank’s death, the sexually charged scene is very weird. The detective seems very juvenile and inexperienced, acting like a teenage boy rather than a grown man when he says, “‘You’re–you’re not saying there could actually be something between us?”(105). A similar feeling can be observed with Kimmery: “The distance between us had narrowed, but the distance between me and me was enormous” (219). In essence, these inside thoughts place the reader in Lionel’s mind and what they discover is a general difficulty he has for connecting with others which make them feel deeply for the character. That is why I think this awkwardness is so important in displaying Lionel’s vulnerability.
Another interesting aspect of Lionel’s persona is his need for acceptance and how that translates into being more like Frank. This is once again a very relatable emotion that all humans experience at one point or another: the need to be needed. Nonetheless, in this case, the situation is still very unique. Lionel’s condition somewhat aggravates all of these seemingly normal feelings and his borderline obsession with Frank Minna, his only father figure, is very unusual. It is so for all the Minna men, but especially our main lead. This isn’t something concealed or a fact that seems to embarrass anyone since even Julia is very aware of this idealization:” ‘Lionel do you want to be Frank? Did I hurt your feelings? (…)” (102). This desperate wanting to be a perfect Minna man and the inability to do so because of the tics causes the main character to feel like he’s not good enough. Indeed, even after Frank has gone, the tic stricken man still follows the dead man’s orders when interrogated by the cop: “Don’t say Matricardi and Rockaforte(…)” (115). Additionally, any reference to Minna, intensifies Lionel’s tics and brings out all of his weaknesses: “(…)–Minna’s nickname–(…), had cut right through the layers of coping strategies and called out my giddy teenage voice” (155). Of course, during the progression on the novel, Lionel becomes more hardboiled. Therefore, he becomes more like Frank until he reaches a point where he accepts himself and partly throws that idea away. This is beautifully translated when he throws away Frank’s beeper: “three” (302). This whole journey coincides with the lead’s disenchantment with his dead boss and Brooklyn in general. I believe it is imperative to include the initial innocent pursuit of an unrealistic ideal to the bitter broken mirage with reality in the ending.
Moreover, Lionel often shoulders the responsibility for others. This is surely linked with his view of himself. Since he doesn’t hold himself to a very high standard, he easily accepts his role as everybody’s door mat. This makes him feel like everything is his fault almost like a child whose parents are going through a divorce. His life seems pitiful even to himself as he thinks in his inner monologue that “his life story to this point: The teacher (…) the social-services worker (…) the boy (…) the girl (…) the black homicide detective looked at me like I was crazy”(107). He only had the L&L to rely on, so he became incredibly reliant on all of its members whether they were kind to him or not. That made him feel guilty for Minna’s death and for a short period of time Tony’s death as well: “I’d imagined Frank and Tony were min to protect, (…)” (311). He even felt responsible for his biological parents telling himself that he’d “never accuse them of being related to a free human freak show” (69). Once again, this is a point in the movie were the readers could relate, to a lesser extent, to the character’s feelings of guilt, worry and to the unfounded sense of duty to make others happy. The eventual shedding of that burden is really freeing and it should be explored more deeply in the movie.
To conclude, it is my opinion that if the screen play shines a light on Lionel’s vulnerabilities, the movie could be successful while staying true to the original work. Whether it’s his desperate need to be loved, his awkwardness or his unwanted chivalry, Lionel is an illustration of the perfect outcast. A weirdo that we encounter in our everyday lives but choose to ignore. A person that reminds us of the parts of ourselves which are just as loner, outcast and underdog as they are. The best kind of actor for this role is one that is fairly unknown. This is a very specific role, one that requires the subject to completely transform into the main character. A well known actor might hinder some of the authenticity of the film making it just another blockbuster drama. Sir, if you pick me for this position, I will help you make this movie as unforgettable as the book.
Thank you for your consideration,
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.