Written by Amanda Ging Sze Chan
Dear Mr. Norton,
I came across the fact that you have considered making the novel Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem into a screenplay. I heard from one of my editor that you had difficulties in the making process and that you needed my help to sort things out. I believe that the movie adaptation should focus on Lionel character’s growth and changes. I have chosen few key scenes in the entire novel that portrays the evolution of Lionel’s character. Those scenes are important because they provide us a better understanding of Lionel’s character and the way he perceives the world around him. Throughout the novel, we are able as a reader to see the subtle changes in Lionel. At first, he depended a lot on other people but he realized after Minna’s death that he has to find his own happiness by taking care of his own problems first instead of others.
First of all, Lionel lack of self-love is quite a dominant theme in the beginning of the novel. This is caused mainly by the fact that he is bothered by his Tourette syndrome. The main character believes that it plays an important role in who he is and describes it as an “itch [that] is his whole life” (Lethem 2). His lack of self-appreciation is also shown by the words he employs to describe himself and the other Minna men. For example, when he learns that Minna could not be saved due to the fact of losing way too much blood, he feels bad about himself and was reminded of how they looked. He depicted the Minna men as “oversize, undereducated, vibrant with hostility” (35). The use of those particular words show exactly how he is resentful towards himself. Once again, it can be seen that his insecurity is strongly related to his Tourette because it makes him feel useless and unimportant toward the society. This is the reason why Lionel was quickly attached to Minna. It was because he made him feel more valuable and useful by giving him all kind of tasks to accomplish. He describes Frank Minna as his savior of his past boring life when he says, “until rescued by Frank Minna I lived, as I said, in the library” (37). I found that it was quite odd and amusing that Lionel used the term “rescue” to identify Minna’s actions for recruiting him and the three other boys. He also adds on by saying, “…it was Minna who brought me the language, Minna and Court Street that let me speak” (37). Lionel shows us the importance of Minna in his life by glorifying everything that was related to his boss.
The scene where the four boys meet the clients at their mother parlor is quite interesting. Lionel is able to distinguish the different levels of power that each character holds by the dynamics of the dialogue, ranging from Matricardi and Rockaforte to Minna, Minna to Tony and the other three boys. It is also essential to highlight one of the strange comment made by Rockaforte when he said, “Nobody else will be permitted to take pleasure in that garbage,” (64) followed by: “We can give it to your orphans, or a fire can be created with a can of gasoline—it would be not different” (64). Those words said by Rockaforte perfectly illustrate how Lionel thinks the four boys are perceived by their own society.
After the death of his beloved boss, Lionel realizes that he must take care of himself on his own and thus by becoming more independent. It is seen that he is being more autonomous as the time go by. His subtle changes can be seen in the scene where the cop Loomis follows Lionel and asks him questions on Minna’s murder case. In this scene, we are able to notice a new side of Lionel that has not been shown so far in the novel. When Loomis suggests that they should work together in the case, Lionel self-reliance is shown by rejecting Loomis’s offer by telling him, “I’ll catch the killer [by myself]” (115). It is also interesting to note that it is the first time we see Lionel having a feeling of superiority towards someone. It is fully express by the way Essrog describes Loomis: “he was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict” (122) and adds on that, “he was to moronic to be properly self-loathing−so it was my duty to loathe him instead” (122). Before the incident happened, he has always felt inferior towards anyone in anyway. The protagonist believes that Loomis is a stupid cop and this is why he makes him wander around with him all day. He lies to Loomis several time without any suspicion from the naive detective cop. When Lionel ticked the following words: “Tourette Is the Shitman!” (110), Loomis’ ignorance made him believe that Lionel was telling him the name of the person responsible for Minna’s death. At that moment, the main character tells us that he tried his best to retain his laugh. The way that Lionel looks down on Loomis and his actions towards Loomis allow us to see a less innocent side of him. As can be seen, the interactions between the two characters ilustrates that Lionel has already started to change.
In the other hand, when Lionel meets Kimmery, he quickly feels attracted towards her. After that night, he loses all signs of his independent state and becomes reliant over Kimmery. This may be due to the fact that as an orphan, he lacked of parental love and thus it made him into someone who became easily moved by any sort of affection that is given to him. This scenario also shows that even if Lionel develop a certain independency with people, it won’t be long until he finds someone and become dependent of them. The protagonist forces himself to believe that he needs her by saying that she is his cure to his Tourette, thus he contradicts himself by saying that “ticcing with Kimmery was especially abhorrent to [him], now that [he] declared her [his] cure” (260). He said earlier that his tics were more present whenever he felt anxious. I believe that in the scene where he kept redialing Kimmery’s phone number was because he sensed that he might loose Kimmery and felt stressed out. The scene where he is in the highway has a huge contrast from the scene where he was in Kimmery apartment where he was in control of himself and was almost tic-less. As a result, his lack of love from his childhood time makes him vulnerable whenever someone gives him their attention and affection.
Overall, I hope that by reading this, it helps you to have a better view on what to focus on for the film adaptation. I hope that you will not only focus on Lionel’s character psychological evolution but also his interactions with the secondary characters.
Wishing you the best of success in all of your future projects.
Amanda Ging Sze Chan
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.