To the esteemed 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. 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. This is why the movie should be centered on Lionel’s inner dialogue, because without it he isn’t the underestimated, self-aware, smart and poetic character that brings Motherless Brooklyn to life, but rather a crazy man lost in the storm of his words.
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. 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. The world’s tendency to overlook Lionel may actually be his greatest strength, “”(Frank Minna) said the reason you were useful to him was because you were so crazy everyone thought you were stupid” (300). This is how Lionel was able to solve the mystery of Frank Minna’s death; by getting information out of people who would lower their guard in his presence, who would slip up and not think anything of it because they were talking to a ‘crazy’ man. We, as the audience, would probably think the same, but because of the inner dialogue in the novel, we know that underestimating Lionel would be a big mistake.
Being self-aware is a huge part of the Lionel Essrog’s character, because it dictates how the viewer will deal with his Tourette’s. He knows his place in the world; knows how the world looks at him, “Tourette’s teaches you what people will ignore and forget, teaches you to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive – teaches you this because you’re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way” (43). Lionel knows that even the people he knows do not look at him the same as they would another, “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). But his Tourette’s is a part of him that Lionel has come to terms with; he does not wallow in self-pity, “ That’s who I was supposed to be, that black outline of a man in a coat, ready suspicious eyes above his collar, shoulders hunched, moving toward conflict. Here’s who I was instead: that same coloring-book outline of a man, but crayoned by the hand of a mad or carefree or retarded child, wild slashes of idiot color, a blizzard of marks violating the boundaries that made man distinct from street, from world” (226). He knows who he is and does not let that stop him from doing his job, “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). In the novel, we can read Lionel’s every thought and emotion, so we understand that he is not meant to be pitied, but rather looked at with admiration because of the way he has accepted his life. He does not say anything out loud that would hint to the fact that he is so self-aware, which makes his inner thoughts very important to his character.
Although you would not expect it from the way the that he acts, Lionel Essrog is a really smart character, his Tourette’s just makes people think he isn’t, “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). This great intelligence of his, matched with the world’s tendency to underestimate him result in role-reversals, “The four in the car had begun to chafe as seeing their faint authority slip away, devolve to the modern technology, the bit of plastic and wire in my palm. I had to find a way to calm them down. I nodded and widened my eyes to show my cooperation, and mouthed a just wait signal to them, hoping they’d recall the protocol from crime movies: pretend they weren’t listening, and thus gather information on the sly. I couldn’t help it that they weren’t actually listening (149). The same happens when Lionel is interrogated by a cop, “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), where Lionel is the one that ends up getting new information. We know how smart Lionel is based on his thoughts, but the characters around him have no idea.
Lionel Essrog is an extremely well versed and poetic character, in his head. His thoughts are beautifully expressed,
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).
As he introduces his Tourette’s to the reader, the contrast could not be more clear between what comes out of his mouth and what is meant to be said. You would not expect such a difference between one’s thoughts and one’s spoken word. Yet he does not only speak well and coherently in thought, but also poetically as well,
Then I took the V train. I did it with a cell phone and a number in Jersey, I did it standing by a lighthouse in Maine. I did it with a handful of names and other words, strung together into something more effective than a tic. That was me, Lionel, hurtling through those subterranean tunnels, visiting the labyrinth that runs under the world, which everyone pretends is not there. You can go back to pretending if you like. I know I will, though the Minna brothers are a part of me, deep in my grain, deeper than mere behaviour, deeper even than regret, Frank because he gave me my life and Gerard because, though I hardly knew him, I took his away. I’ll pretend I never rode that train, but I did (310).
What a beautiful way to take about vengeance, a way of speaking that is lost to those who cannot read in Lionel’s mind the way the reader can.
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. He is an underestimated poet, aware of his place in the world and extremely smart. 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.