There have been rumors circulating in the film community that the screenplay of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn has been halted due to difficulties in film adaptation. I believe that my ideas can synthesis all elements of the story together to form a sensational, coherent movie. I have put together a proposal, which focuses mainly on the importance of theme. Incorporating theme is vital to the success of the film because it is all-encompassing, involving the setting, the plot, the characters, the tone, the dialogue. Theme is essentially the big red bow that ties together all of those elements of fiction. The end result should be a memorable gift for literature-enthusiasts and movie goers alike.
Individual versus society is the reigning theme in the novel. Every individual is actively involved in trying to understand their contribution and unique standing in the world, among billions of other people. All of our struggles are solitary, however, they unite us. Every person from every walk of life can testify that at any given point in their life, an internal struggle is occurring. This can range preoccupations with how others see us to preoccupations with discovering self-identity. Each of us is forged first by genetics, and then by our environment. Lionel Essrog, the protagonist in the novel, gives us a perfect fusion of the two. Lionel gives us the perspective not just of a classic sleuth, but of a sleuth with Tourette’s syndrome. His perception of the events in the novel, and of himself, are inevitably coloured by his illness. Although his condition is unique (less than 1% of the population suffers from Tourette’s and it’s co-occuring mental illnesses, such as Obsessive-compulsive disorder) , most people, including myself, can identify with his internal conflicts related to embarrassment, inferiority, awkwardness, and self-esteem. Lionel’s experience with these struggles are amplified by his Tourette’s.
Lionel is also in a unique position because he is an orphan. The orphanage itself was merely a smudge in the Brooklyn landscape, “an ancient, battered borough [that] was officially Nowhere, a place strenuously ignored in passing through to Somewhere Else” (37). In a sense, the building itself was like the orphans inside of it, isolated, overlooked, and lonely. From a young age, Lionel never really had a network of people in his life to act as a supportive family, nor did he have a home, that is, “until rescued by Frank Minna [he] lived in the library” (37). Minna was Lionel’s saving grace at socializing him and teaching him how to integrate with the world. He acted as a non-traditional paternal figure. It seems plausible to imagine that without Minna, Lionel would have plunged deeper into isolation and weakness as he tackled adolescence. When his verbal and physical Tourettic tics combine with his unusually dismal upbringing, it becomes clearer how his feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and despondency have developed.
One great example of Lionel feeling like an outcast is at the start of the novel, when he and the Minna men bring Frank in to the hospital. Lionel is instructed by the emergency surgeon to stay in the waiting room, and Lionel, in accordance with his illness, is compelled to disturb the silence with motor and vocal tics. His outbursts inevitably garner the attention of the other patients, who seem to lose interest after every passing tic. Lionel is wholly aware of the reactions he receives from the public, and mentions, “I wasn’t damaged or ailing enough to be interesting here, only distracting, and slightly reprehensible in a way that made [the other patients] feel better about their own disorders…” (31). He knows that others view him as an anomaly and that he takes the edge off of other people’s issues.
A similar scene pans out in the bus scene on page 43 and 44, except Lionel has the chance to view his illness from the flip side. An old man on the bus releasing violent, howling tics, which elicit the reactions of other passengers. Like in the hospital scene, within seconds, they make a conscious attempt at ignoring the source of annoyance, and eventually settle back into their own bubble, forgetting the events as they step off the bus. Lionel mentions that “Consensual reality is both fragile and elastic, and it heals like the skin of a bubble. The belching man ruptured it so quickly and completely that I could watch the wound instantly heal” (44). Like the man, Lionel lives out his reality in a state of constant rupture, as his Tourette’s rarely lets him rejoice in tranquility. This scene is interesting because Lionel gets an outside perspective on himself. He identifies with the emotion, and makes a poignant remark that “a Touretter can also be The Invisible Man” (44). It is ironic that a loud outbursts can lead other people to turn a deaf ear. Lionel simultaneously feels like he gathers public interest and public disdain. This goes back to the theme of individual struggles versus the world, as Lionel does not want to resign himself to the clique of freaks, but knows he simply cannot fit in, leaving him in a position of social purgatory. I think this is worse that out-rightly not fitting in. Neither side of society will accept him. I believe Lionel that this is the source of his internal conflicts, and that the movie must highlight this because it is one of his defining characteristics.
Asserting one’s place in the world is perhaps the most important facet of the theme. Lionel’s circumstances shaped his life purpose. With Frank gone and the Minna Men being unreliable, Lionel is thrust into the responsibility of uncovering the mystery. He never had an active role in deciding what he would do in his life. Would he have chosen to remain in Brooklyn? Would he have chosen a detective-related career?
When Lionel travels to Maine, he is immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean, with its lack of grammar and etiquette and rules. He screams out at the expanse of navy blue, all of his words disappearing into the deafening thunder of waves. This scene permits Lionel a moment introspection. Lionel narrates, “I thought of Murray Essrog and his wife. They were Brooklyn Essrogs, like me. Had they ever come to this edge to meet the sky? Or was I the first Essrog to put a footprint on the crust of Maine?” (265). He finally acknowledges his own unique timeline in the world and understands that there is a life outside of L&L and Brooklyn. Without Frank Minna to rule his life, Lionel is finally forced to assume some control, instead of simply going through the motions. “I claim this big water for Essrog!’” he shouts; “I was a freak of nature.” (265). Lionel finally has free reign over his own identity, and wants to assert his role in this world.
There is a constant struggle with the world. Much like with Tourette’s, our lives are never in a resting state. As Lionel puts it in the opening of the novel: ” Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw” (2). There are always counteracting driving forces, always something to do, always somewhere to go, always something to see. From the moment we are put on this earth, until the moment we leave it, we are constantly occupied with understanding what our function is and coming to terms with how we ourselves and others perceive our actions and identity. This theme suggests that we are all in the same boat, giving a chance for viewers to bond with the protagonist. The most effective films are those delve deeper that the surface and fashion emotional bonds over universal human truths.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.