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 the proposal I have put together can synthesis all elements of the story to form a sensational movie. Incorporating theme is vital to the success of the film because it is all-encompassing, and essentially acts as the big red bow that ties together all 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. Across the board, internal struggles, such as preoccupations with how we are viewed by others, are ongoing. Each of us is forged first by genetics, and then by our environment. Lionel Essrog, the protagonist in the novel, demonstrates a perfect fusion of the two, by giving us not just the perspective of a classic sleuth, but of a sleuth with Tourette’s syndrome. Although his condition is unique, most people, including myself, can identify with his internal conflicts related to inferiority, awkwardness, and self-esteem. Lionel’s battle against himself and the world as he tries to find his identity and purpose is undoubtedly amplified by his Tourette’s.
Lionel’s character was also influenced by his unique upbringing; growing up in an orphanage. 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 had a network of people in his life that he could consider family, nor did he have a true home: “until rescued by Frank Minna [he] lived in the library” (37). Minna quickly became a non-traditional paternal figure, socializing Lionel and teaching him how to integrate with the world. It seems plausible to imagine that without guidance, Lionel would have plunged deeper into isolation as he tackled adolescence, settling deeper in the depths of literary fiction to find solace. When one considers his neuropsychiatric disorder and his unusually dismal upbringing, it becomes clearer how feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and despondency have developed.
A great example of Lionel feeling like an outcast is at the start of the novel when he and the Minna men bring Frank into 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 acknowledges that others see him as an anomaly which shows that Lionel views himself in a harsh, yet truthful, light.
A similar situation pans out in the scene where Lionel in on the bus, bestowing the chance for him to view his illness from the flip side. An old man on the bus releases violent, howling tics, which elicit the reactions of the other passengers. Like in the hospital scene, within seconds, they make a conscious attempt at ignoring the source of annoyance, quickly settling back into their bubble and 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 objective 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 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. Neither side of society will accept him, a struggle which I believe is the source of his internal conflicts. The movie should emphasize this struggle because it is one of his defining characteristics.
When Lionel travels to Maine toward the end of the novel, 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 of 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 a boss to dictate 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). The big water is symbolic of his own boundless identity, over which he now has free reign. Once he accepts that his identity is free to forge, he can finally assert his role in the 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 forces at play and ceaseless preoccupations with understanding how to reconcile asserting our identities while being judged by others. Lionel shares a private thought on page 130:
(in Tourette dreams you shed your tics)
(or your tics shed you)
(and you go with them, astonished to leave yourself behind)
This passage illustrates how interconnected his identity is with his illness. He wishes he could “shed” the tics, which could put the struggles behind him and finally give him a chance at pursuing normalcy. Every individual can relate to this struggle of wanting to fit in, suggesting that we are all in the same boat. The movie should emphasize this since the most effective films are those that delve deeper than the surface and fashion emotional bonds over universal human truths.
by Vanessa Correia
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.