Dear Ed Norton,
After thoroughly reading Motherless Brooklyn, a novel by Jonathan Lethem, it is clear to me that the main aspect of the novel to focus on while adapting it to film is the main conflict of the novel; Lionel’s inner conflict. He starts off with strong feelings of self-doubt and self-resentment, but as he comes closer to solving Frank Minna’s murder he comes closer to achieving self-acceptance. The strangeness and insecurity of Lionel’s character that is exhibited through the many obstacles he faces on his journey to self-acceptance creates a connection between himself and the audience. As the connection with Lionel develops into favoritism, regarding characters, throughout the film, the audience will be drawn deeper into the plot of the story.
The most important aspect of the novel to portray throughout the film is the complexity of Lionel’s feelings towards himself and how that has an effect on the way that he has lived his life until solving Frank’s murder. I’d say that the core conflict of the story is how the death of Frank Minna has such an immense impact on Lionel’s life. At the start of the novel Lionel is constantly putting himself down and going on about how he is a freak show as well as an annoyance to those around him, but he focuses less on his insecurities after Frank dies and his investigation progresses. That could be the reason why he never questioned being randomly scouted by a Brooklyn gangster once he hit adolescence; it was the first time that he felt like someone really wanted him. This was the first time in his life that he felt he belonged. It didn’t take much for Frank to win Lionel’s devotion; “Distributing eighty dollars and those four business cards was all Minna had to do to instate the four of us (them) forever-or anyway, for as long as he liked.”(Page 52) Even before being recruited by Frank, Lionel had always been taught to follow orders and was never given the opportunity to gain some independence. Following Frank’s orders gave structure to his otherwise unconventional life. Perhaps it was years of Frank subconsciously instilling confidence in Lionel, or just prolonged adrenaline that pushed Lionel to solving Frank’s murder. Whichever of the two, it is important to demonstrate the bond that the two of them shared in order for the audience to see how Lionel seeking vengeance upon Frank’s killer translates to the protagonist doing right by his role model. Although Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of a tourettic detective jumping through hoops to solve the murder of his mentor, in many more ways it tells the story of how a very lost soul came to find self-acceptance and stop feeling like such a burden upon himself after losing the one person in his life who he felt truly understood him.
If not for Frank forcing himself into the lives of the young boys at St-Vincent’s, Lionel would very likely have never had that feeling of belonging that he felt from being a part of L & L. Despite the illegal nature of Frank’s operations, he cared deeply for Lionel and demonstrated it in his own weird way when,
“He pulled a book out of his pocket, a small paperback. I don’t think I’d ever seen a book in his hands before. “Here,” he said to me. He dropped it on the pavement and nudged it under the fence with the toe of his she. “Take a look,” he said. “Turns out you’re not the only freak in the show.” I picked it up. Understanding Tourette’s Syndrome was the title, first time I’d seen the word. “Meaning to get that to you,” he said. “But I’ve been sort of busy.” (Page 81)
This moment is symbolic of the relationship that the two of them had with one another. Frank must have known on some level that he was a role model for Lionel, but made this huge gesture showing Lionel that he is looking out for him, without even acknowledging it. This moment had a huge impact on Lionel’s character and development. It is at the moment that his devotion to Frank blossoms. When Frank dies it is as if all of the confidence that he encouraged within Lionel chooses this opportunity to present itself and guide Lionel through his mission for vengeance as well as self-acceptance. Once Gerard is dead and Lionel puts the mystery of Frank’s murder behind him, he also puts aside all the resentment he had once felt towards himself for being ‘cursed’ with Tourette’s syndrome.
By focusing primarily on the development of Lionel’s character and the obstacles he faces throughout the story, it becomes apparent that many aspects of his personality can be related to by most people. This allows for an important connection to be established between Lionel and the audience. Of course, Lionel is very unique and bizarre; he is eccentric and every movement and phrase coming from him seems exaggerated, but I’m sure that anyone can find some of those qualities he hates so much within himself within ourselves. At one time or another I’ve blurted out opinions and questions without processing them into thoughtful sentences then “feel my face curdled with shame, regretting the question instantly-wishing, for once, that I’d ticced instead, something obnoxious to obliterate the conversation’s meaning, to smother the word I’d let myself say.” (Page 105) We want our audience to connect with Lionel and feel sympathy for everything he’s gone through in his life. If we can get our audience to connect with him on an emotional level there is a good chance that they will remember our film for longer, as well as give us better ratings. Beyond that, we want our audience to envision themselves as Lionel. We want them to cringe when he enters the Zendo alone after leaving Kimmery’s apartment, scared of the possibilities of what awaits him as he “climbed, until at the top he [I] could only grope my [his] way toward a thin margin of light squeezed out underneath a sealed door […] impatient with my [his] own fear.” (Page 228) We want them to be on the edge of their seats while Lionel struggles to stop calling Kimmery, wishing desperately for him to stop. And we want them to feel the hurt that Lionel feels when Kimmery says, “I’m moving back in with Stephen, so that thing that happened with us, it was just, you know-a thing.” (Page 309) This scene in particular may be the easiest to relate to; ‘brokenheartedness’ is a feeling known universally. Even as I read the novel, I was rooting for Lionel to finally have an amorous connection with a woman, and was disappointed when it didn’t pan out.
With no more mysteries left unsolved in this rather unusual unraveling of events, we now see Lionel at peace with himself and his shrunken group of colleagues; Gilbert, Danny, and Loomis. Throughout his solving of Frank’s murder he achieved self-acceptance, and from Kimmery’s rejection he learnt that it was not love from another person that he was missing, but love from himself. Along with all the action in the film, viewers will have a plot on a much deeper emotional level to enjoy as well.
Thanks for the read. Please be in touch if you are interested in collaborating to write the screenplay for this film adaptation.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Vintage Books, 1999