Sides of Character…

By Karyna Statko

Dear Mr. Edward Norton,

I heard that you are thinking about adapting the novel Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem into a film. I read it and I have some ideas on what you can focus on during this adaptation. I want to show you what in my opinion are the main points to grab your attention and the viewers in this novel. I hope my ideas can help you in making this adaptation. On my opinion dialogue is the important part of this novel. Dialogue makes the readers see different sides of Lionel as well as it makes us feel the interaction between him and all other characters. I think that dialogue is a dramatic irony that makes us closer with Lionel.

Lionel shows us how intelligent he can be by manipulating the detective. When the detective tries to find information about Minna, Lionel just gave the detective all the information that the detective wanted to hear. Lionel actually manipulated the detective in situations like the following by using the detective un-education about Tourette.  This can be seen during their dialogue:

“Tourette Is the Shitman!”

“He’s shitman, huh?” the detective apparently thought we were exchanging up-to-the minute street jargon. “Can you take me to him?”

“No, no, there’s no Tourette,” I said, catching my breath. I felt mad for food, desperate to shake the detective, and choked with imminent tics.

“Don’t worry,” said the detective, talking down to me. “I won’t tell him who gave out his name”

“He thought he was grooming a stool pigeon. I could only try not to laugh or shout. Let Tourette be the suspect and maybe I’d get off the hook.” (110).

This dialogue is so interesting for the readers because it shows how Lionel try to explain what is his condition but the detective really doesn’t understand what is going on, this I found funny. This also shows how Lionel is giving the detective information but because the detective is uneducated he is only hearing what he wants. During this dialogue, we can see that Lionel showing to us that he is smarter than anyone can think about him, in this case, the detective doesn’t show his education even if he thinks that he is smart. And in my opinion, this is the dramatic irony in this story because readers know the information about Lionel and about Tourette, but the detective completely doesn’t understand this. We can also see that Lionel is smart when he doesn’t want the detective to know where he lives this is seen in the following dialogue:

 “So where are we going now? Your house?” … “Looks like you’re headed back to work.”

I didn’t want to tell him how little difference there was between the two.

“Let’s go in here,” I said, jerking my neck sideways as we crossed Bergen Street, letting my physical tic lead me—navigation by Tourette’s—into the Casino” (112).

We can see how Lionel uses his brain to make the detective lose time, as Lionel knows that the detective has been in his house already. We see this when Lionel thinks: “…he’d been to the place I called home once already this evening, and that it wasn’t in my best interests to lead him there again” (109). During this situation and during these dialogues we can see that Lionel can be a different person with different people. He actually changes his character as in the situation with Julia and Kimmery.

Lionel shows another side of his character during his conversation with Julia. We see this when Lionel is in Julia’s apartment and they are talking. They have a nice conversation between them. Their dialogue was serious at the beginning that we couldn’t expect something more to come up. But we are seeing that Julia starts tempting him, toying with him when she was packing her clothes to leave and Lionel reacts to her temptation. This is seem when Julia shows him a dress and by this Lionel sexual character starts to showing up:

“God, look at this dresses,” she said as she pocked through the rack of hangers. Her voice was suddenly choked. “You see these?”

I nodded.

“They’re worth more than the car service put together.”


“This isn’t how I dress, really. This isn’t how I look. I don’t even like these dresses.”

“How do you look?”

“You could never imagine. I can barely remember, myself. Before Frank dressed me up.”

“Show me” (101-102).

Lionel feels something going on in his body and his head, that’s why his tics start to get out of his mouth without control and he say “Doublebreasts” (103). He says this when he saw Julia’s breasts, it was a tic. Probably this is what Lionel was thinking all the time when he was with Julia, but he was afraid of something. And this time happen, he is surprised that he saw them and, maybe, he will not see them anymore.

Later on, we can see that the similar situation happen again between Lionel and Kimmery, but we can see a contrast between this two situations. With Kimmery Lionel is having less tics and he feels more confident about himself. We can see this then Lionel says: “Ticcing with Kimmery was especially abhorrent to me, now that I’d declared her my cure” (254).  We can also see it when they have the following dialogue:

 “The words.”

“I don’t really need to when you’re touching my hand like that.”

“I like to.”

“Touch?” Touch shoulders, touch penguins, touch Kimmery – who didn’t like to touch? Why shouldn’t she? But this vaguest of questions was all I could manage. I wasn’t only strange to her, I was strange to myself at that moment: tugging, lulled, resistant. Conworried (219).

He tries to touch her because touching is an important feeling for him as it is talking. He is trying to feel her closer to him. Also, we can see that Lionel is talking to the readers by being with her and trying to kiss her. “I didn’t have to turn her face to mine to kiss her. It was already there when I turned. …. I’d never before kissed a woman without having had a few drinks. And I’d never kissed a woman who hadn’t a few herself. While I tasted her Kimmery drew circles on my leg with her finger, and I did the same back” (220). For Lionel the kiss was his first kiss when the woman wasn’t drunk or tipsy. And also she did this because she was also wanted to kiss him. With this scene Lionel sexual and lovely character is seem again. After these two situations, we can really see that dialogues between Lionel and Julia and Lionel and Kimmery helped him see that he can actually be a different person a person that he never expect to be.

During the entire story, we can see that Lionel uses a lot the names of “Ullman” and “Bailey” but we don’t know who they are and we never heard about them. This is a dialogue between him and himself. “Ullman? Never met the guy. Just like Bailey. They were just guys I never happened to meet” (311). We can see that even Lionel doesn’t know who they are and from where he knows them but they are stuck on his head. At the end of the story we can see that Lionel is talking to us: “Tell your story walking” (311). For the reader, it is hard to understand what he means by this. But then we realized that he is trying to share with us his knowledge and this knowledge he got from Frank Minna. Once Minna said to Lionel: “Tell your story, more walking” (85). He was trying to say that we needed to do few things at the same time and not spend time for something that is not important.

If you will decide to adapt this novel into a film it will be so important to concentrate on dialogue as the main point. The dialogue is so important, is not just a normal part of this novel. The dialogue gives the readers special feelings such as happiness, sexuality that comes out of pages and knowledge that you can take without realizing this and this is all seem in the dialogues between Lionel and all the other characters.

Thank you for your attention

Karyna Statko

Work cited : Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999.




One thought on “Sides of Character…

  1. This is an interesting essay. So far, you’re the only person to choose to discuss dialogue, and I applaud you for that. It’s certainly a notable aspect of the novel to discuss. Your reading of the dialogue, and how it points to dramatic irony, is quite astute. You’re pointing to one of the fundamental elements that makes this novel successful, I think. In doing so, you manage to make some nice statements about Lionel’s character. A well-thought-out and engaging essay. Nicely done.


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