Dear Ed Norton,
The process of turning a novel especially one as eccentric as Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem can be a daunting task. There are many aspects of a story a screenwriter may focus on. There is the main character, the world and the setting, themes, and key scenes. From experience, highlighting important key scenes from a book can grab the viewers’ attention and heighten their cinematic experience. The scenes discussed in this letter truly showcase Lionel’s character by linking his thoughts, his actions as well as his tics.
The first key scene that should be showcased is the death of Frank Minna. Although he is not the main character of this novel, the plot focuses on his death, the events that lead up to it and after it. This event sets the tone of the book but also gives us a glimpse into the relationship Frank Minna had built with Lionel Essrog and Gilbert Coney at this moment in time. When the two men had brought Frank Minna to the hospital, they believed that he was going to come out fine. Nonetheless, the story took a different turn than the one the two Minna men were expecting. Upon receiving the news of the passing of their mentor, Lionel and Gilbert were in complete shock and began grieving: “[Gilbert] stood there in deflated silence now, absorbing the pain. (…) “Problyreallyoughttogo,’ I said semicompulsively, panic rising through my sorrow.” (34) The fact that the two men were expecting Minna to come out of the hospital alive enhanced their feelings of sorrow. Although those are normal feelings after the death of a loved one, Lionel mentions feeling panicked. When Lionel talks about panic, he is experiencing the fear of facing the world without his mentor that stood by him since his childhood. No longer having Frank Minna as a point of reference forces Lionel to find his own identity without Frank. There is also the aspect of Lionel’s impulses that is compelling in this scene. While the doctor is giving the two men the horrific news, Lionel is seen ticking throughout the whole scene by stating, “I’mafrayed” (33) and “I’mafrayedknot.” (33). He continues ticking by tapping the doctor’s shoulder in a symmetrical pattern. (34). What can be taken away is that at the height of the stress, Lionel’s tics are accentuated. Additionally, as soon Frank’s death is announced, his tics become “semi-compulsive”. This to me resonates that he referred to ticking as a place of comfort in a time of distress.
The following scene that should be concentrated on is the departure of Frank and Gerard Minna. This scene is filled with more question than answers, which could spark the viewers’ intrigue. The scene would also give viewers a sense of Frank Minna’s emotions towards Lionel and the other L&L boys. In the following we observe the interaction between Frank and Gerard: “They stood at the fence, Frank bouncing nervously on his toes, Gerard hanging on to the mesh, fingers dangling through, doing nothing to conceal his impatience with his brother, an impatience turning to disgust.” (80). In this scene, the two brothers seem distressed about a situation that involves them needing to run away. However, even though Frank faces grave danger, he felt it was important to say goodbye to the boys he nurtured a relationship with. Gerard is displaying disgust because of his brother’s concern for orphan boys. Moreover, Frank Minna shows he cares for Lionel in the following scene: “He pulled a book out of his pocket, a small paperback. (…) “Take a look,” he said. “Turns out you’re not the only freak in the show.” (81) Lionel has not experienced such emotion from an authority figure. As far as the readers know, Lionel was a shut-in who spent his time in the library reading by himself. Minna’s display of kindness will influence Lionel and explain much of his blind devotion to Frank Minna and L&L.
The next scene that should be focused on is the very first scene with Julia when she portrays herself as a Femme Fatale. In this scene, she sparks Lionel’s sexual thoughts, which we haven’t seen before with a woman:
“She moved [my hands] to her breasts. (…) Sexual excitement excites stills my Tourette‘s brain, not by numbing me (…) but instead setting up a deeper attentiveness in me, a finer vibration, which gathers and encompasses my urgent chaos, enlists it in a greater cause (…). (103)
What we learn from this scene is that Lionel is a man just like any other. Lionel’s urges overpower the situation at hand. Previously, it was pointed out how Lionel’s tics can be interpreted as a place of comfort. To contrast, this scene shows how lust can somehow make these tics disappear. Further on in the scene, Lionel discusses that this is not his first encounter but it is implied that the reaction is the same. This conclusion underlines the point on how strong emotions drive Lionel’s tics, whether it highlights them or diminishes them. In addition, the scene affects how Lionel goes on throughout the story. Seeing how Julia was Frank’s wife, her giving attention to Lionel was the boost of confidence he was searching for to follow in Frank’s footsteps.
The following highlight of the book should be Lionel’s revelation of Gerard Minna’s identity. This point in the book demonstrates Lionel’s meta-reflection on his surrounding and his experiences:
“Roshi looked like Minna.
Your brother misses you, Irving.
Irving equals Lama, Roshi equals Gerard.
Roshi was Gerard Minna.
Gerard Minna was the voice on the wire. I couldn’t say which got me there first, his profile in front of me or the joke’s subliminal nagging. (200)
The joke referred to is a clue that Minna gave on his deathbed. On top of that, Lionel talks about a feeling of déjà-vu in regards to Jerry Roshi. He wishes how he could trace his face with his fingers to hopefully remember something. (200) A takeaway from this scene is Lionel’s mental capacity. Earlier on, it was mentioned how Frank and Gerard left when Lionel and the other boys were still in the orphanage. The fact that he remembers a less symbolic person’s facial structure is surprising.
The final scene that should make it into the movie is the showdown between Lionel and Julia. This event is the climax of the story. Lionel finally has all the puzzles to the case. He then engages in a moment of catharsis by letting go of his possessions. As he throws away meaningful items, he lets go of all the emotions built up throughout the story. That is when he comes to a resolution to Frank’s death: “I suppose losing Frank Minna, hard as it was, was easier for those of us who’d actually had him, actually felt his love.” (303) Throughout the book, Lionel is driven by vengeance and justice for Frank. In return, he does not get the chance to mourn the loss of his father figure. However, recognizing the magnitude of Julia’s loneliness in her role, Lionel learns to appreciate Frank Minna on a deeper level.
In conclusion, these scenes are essential for the reader to gain an in-depth understanding of what makes Lionel tic. Not only do these scenes highlight key moments in the book, they demonstrate the complexity of the character. Viewers get to experience the emotions as Lionel goes through them and truly immerse themselves in his mind.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.