Dear Ed Norton,
I have received word of your struggles concerning the screen play of Motherless Brooklyn. I was thrilled when you sent out a notice to all hopeful writers for some inspiration. Having been a long time fan of the novel, I was excitedly looking forward to the creation of this film. Perhaps, my insight will prove to be appealing to you. I’m convinced that there is one aspect of the book that would tie the whole story together: Lionel Essrog’s vulnerability. After all, no other detective is quite as complex and multilayered as him. That being said, what the book excels at is putting the readers through an empathetic experience. That is what the movie should accomplish by focusing on three main points: awkwardness, the need for acceptance and the sense of responsibility for others.
Lionel has had a couple painstakingly awkward moments in this novel. Some were so strange that I found them hard to get through as a reader. Whether they were instances from his childhood or times from his adult life, they were essential for understanding the extent of the alienation Lionel had experienced. That being said, the awkwardness was also incredibly easy to relate to. One moment that stood out to me was in the flash back when Lionel first started developing OCD and Tourette’s syndrome. The young orphan began having the urge to kiss the other St. Vincent’s boys. This caused him a lot of embarrassment and contributed in making him the self-loathing man he’d later become: “I grew terrified of myself then, and burrowed deeper into the library, (…)” (45).
The word burrowed is somewhat of a zoomorphism comparing Lionel to an underground dwelling animal hidden from sight. This passage demonstrates the way Lionel’s personality began to shift and how the feelings of self-hatred began to grow permanent roots within him. It seems as though he gradually distanced himself from his brain’s compulsions, thus creating an inner drift between different aspects of his own personality. He was thrust into an ever ending cycle of self-deprecation leading to even more awkwardness. Despite this making for occasionally heavy reading, it gives rise to a much more realistic and heart gripping story. Many of the other gauche times in Motherless Brooklyn revolve around Lionel’s relationship with women. For example, when Lionel meets Julia to tell her about Frank’s death, the sexually charged scene is very weird. The detective seems very juvenile and inexperienced, acting like a teenage boy rather than a grown man when he says, “‘you’re–you’re not saying there could actually be something between us?”(105). A similar feeling can be observed with Kimmery: “The distance between us had narrowed, but the distance between me and me was enormous” (219). This shows the disconnect that Lionel experiences within himself. In essence, he doesn’t feel comfortable or confident inside which hinders his ability to convey his emotions to others. He also has trouble picking up on social cues. When he keeps calling Kimmery, even though she is clearly uncomfortable, he doesn’t realize he is being creepy. Ultimately, this destroyed whatever chance he had with her. This general difficulty he has for connecting with others evokes sympathy in the readers and makes them feel deeply for the character. However, his awkwardness is also linked to the way he compares himself to others and wishes he were different.
That brings us to another interesting aspect of Lionel’s persona which is his need for acceptance as Minna’s successor. This is once more a very relatable emotion that all humans experience at one point or another: the need to be valued in society. Nonetheless, in this case, the situation is very unique. Lionel’s condition somewhat aggravates all of these seemingly normal feelings. His borderline obsession with Frank Minna, his only father figure, is very unusual. It is almost as though Lionel believes his worthiness depends on his likeness to his deceased idol. This isn’t something the main character tries to conceal or a fact that seems to embarrass him. Everyone is very aware of it. When Julia is packing up to leave Brooklyn she makes some remarks about this idealization:” ‘Lionel do you want to be Frank? Did I hurt your feelings? (…)” (102).This desperate need to be a perfect Minna man and the inability to do so because of his tics causes the main character to feel like he’s not good enough. Indeed, even after Frank had gone, the tic stricken man still followed the dead man’s orders when interrogated by the cop: “Don’t say Matricardi and Rockaforte(…)” (115). Additionally, any reference to Minna intensifies Lionel’s tics and brings out all of his weaknesses: “(…)–Minna’s nickname–(…), had cut right through the layers of coping strategies and called out my giddy teenage voice” (155). This is a very striking image because it perfectly represents how deep down Lionel is still very boyish and how his cold, nonchalant exterior is a way to cover up his true feelings. The word cut is very harsh and sharp; it conveys the stinging hurt Lionel experiences. Still, during the progression of the novel, he does become more hardboiled. Therefore, he gradually becomes more like Frank until he reaches a tipping point where he finally discovers the hidden truth about the man he thought he knew. This is nicely translated when he throws away the beeper during the standoff with Julia in the end: “It was a tool of The Clients, evidence of their hold on Frank, and it deserved to be interred with the guns” (302). In other words, he has a moment of clarity realizing that Frank, just like the beeper, wasn’t who he thought he was. This whole journey coincides with the lead’s disenchantment with his dead boss and Brooklyn in general. I believe it is imperative to include the initial innocent pursuit of an unrealistic ideal that ends in a bitter broken mirage. Constant sources of self-doubt for Lionel also lead him to treat others differently.
In view of this, Lionel often shoulders the responsibility for others. This is surely linked to his views about himself. Since he doesn’t hold himself to a very high standard, he easily accepts his role as everybody’s door mat. This makes him constantly feel at fault. This behavior is strangely reminiscent of that of a child whose parents are divorcing, who therefore believes he is to blame for everything. His life truly is painted pitifully in the book. He notices this fact himself when he says in his inner monologue that “his life story to this point: The teacher (…) the social-services worker (…) the boy (…) the girl (…) the black homicide detective looked at me like I was crazy” (107). He only had the L&L to rely on, so he became incredibly reliant on all of its members whether they were kind to him or not. This made him feel guilty about Minna’s death as well as Tony’s death for a while: “I’d imagined Frank and Tony were mine to protect, (…)” (311). He even felt responsible for his biological parents: “I would never (…) show up at their homes, never accuse them of being related to a free human freak show” (69). Once again, this is a point in the movie were the readers could relate, to a lesser extent, to the character’s feelings of guilt, worry and to the unfounded sense of duty to make others happy. This is an important source of vulnerability because it makes it incredibly easy for the other characters to take advantage of Lionel.
To conclude, it is my opinion that if the screen play shines a light on Lionel’s vulnerabilities, the movie could be successful while staying true to the original work. Whether it’s his desperate need to be loved, his awkwardness or his unwarranted chivalry, Lionel is an illustration of the perfect outcast. The best kind of actor for this role is one that is fairly unknown. This is a very specific role, one that requires the subject to completely transform into the main character. A well known actor might hinder the development of authenticity in the film thus making it just another blockbuster drama. That’s the last thing I would want since the book is one of a kind. Sir, if you pick me for this position, I will help you make this movie as unforgettable as the novel.
Thank you for your consideration,