Book to Big Screen: Prof. Jonathan Lethem Talks About "Motherless Brooklyn," Opening Nov. 1

Motherless Brooklyn Norton Lethem

Author Stephen King has compared books and movies to apples and oranges. Both are fruit but taste completely different. We didn’t ask Pomona College Professor Jonathan Lethem what type of fruit his critically acclaimed bestselling novel “Motherless Brooklyn” is. But we did ask him to compare and contrast the book experience to his experience watching the film by actor/director/screenwriter Edward Norton, which is already a festival favorite.

The film opens in theatres on Nov. 1, but The Humanities Studio at Pomona College will present a special, pre-release screening at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Laemmle Claremont 5 Theatre (450 W. Second St., Claremont), followed by a Q&A with Lethem, the Roy Edward Disney '51 Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English. The free screening is sold out.

The pre-release screening will only be Lethem’s second taste of the film, so in advance of that we chatted with him about this very different fruit.

Twenty years, right, since “Motherless Brooklyn” was published?

Yeah. I mean, I began writing when I moved back to Brooklyn, probably in 1997 or early '98.

What's most near and dear to you about that book 20 years to 22 years later?

Well, near and dear is a great way to put it. It's my easiest book to love. And it took me a long time to accept that that was just the case. The character Lionel Essrog, the character at the center of it, is more lovable than I am. And that's OK. I backed my way into inventing this figure that people take to heart; it’s different, really, from any of my other novels in that particular way. I mean, I’ve written characters of varying degrees of embraceability, but there's something about him that creates a Holden Caulfield effect, or a character you’d meet in a children's book—a misunderstood, sensitive character who you want to protect from the world.

So, yes, on one level it's a detective story, and it's very much a book about New York City and it has a Tourette's element – these are all specific and prominent descriptors. But I've come to look at the book almost as being really just about the character and his quality of being sweet and misunderstood. People tend to enshrine that kind of character in their hearts.

The book is also really a valentine to Brooklyn. I wrote that book when I first returned to New York City after being away from it. Through all my 20s I was living in the Bay Area and I sort of fell back in love with Brooklyn; that emotion also really defines that book. A kind of unabashed, non-ambivalent pleasure in the animation and flavor of the city streets, and my recollection of growing up there. Of course, the very next thing I did was to write much more inflected and ambivalent, and some ways quite tormented, books about New York City.

It was optioned in '99. Is that correct?

It was optioned by New Line Cinema, which was later swallowed up by Warner Brothers, specifically for Edward Norton, before the book had even come out.

Oh, really?

Yeah. It got snapped up. Edward was involved in that decision and the company’s excitement about his playing the role drove the project right from the start. So, it's never been in anyone else's hands. It was always his pet film project.

And what did that feel like to have it optioned before it even came out?

Well, it was gratifying, and it was part of an atmosphere around that book that was different. It was my fifth novel; I'd had film options on some of the others, but only after they'd been out for a while. So, the pre-publication time for that book was an auspicious one in several ways. I became part of that experience of, "Oh, people are really already digging this book. It seems to have a booster rocket attached to it, even in galleys." He was one of the most exciting actors in the world at that moment; it's not like I had any reservations. He seemed intelligent and versatile and charismatic, and I thought, "Wow. If this gets made, what a piece of luck."

As I understand it, Norton didn't absolutely know that he was going to write the script alone and direct it himself at that time, though I believe he was flirting with those thoughts. What he was sure of, and what I think the studio was thrilled about, was that he wanted to play the character. And wanted to be strongly involved with the development of it, and probably the writing of it, maybe with a writing partner. And so, it became his project. And then this idea formed, I think increasingly that he felt he could write it the way he wanted to on his own and that he wanted to direct it himself. All fine with me.

What kind of relationship do you have with Edward Norton?

We’ve met five or six, seven times at this point over a long period of time. So, it's not like it's a very prominent relationship. At the start, I told him what was already by then a standing position:I'm not a filmmaker, I'm not a screenwriter, I'm not going to try to get in the way. And I don't particularly believe that the road to making a good movie comes from being dutiful about reproducing what's in the novel.

Speaking as a filmgoer, usually, when I see very dutiful adaptations, they're boring. It makes for uncinematic film, kind of static and deliberate. Those things don't quite have a life of their own. I've always thought it would be much better to just have filmmakers take them and just use what's useful and make a totally different artifact. And then you have the book and that's great and you have the movie and they're related, and that relationship might be intriguing. But it's not like there's an obligatory one-to-one relationship, where you concern yourself with "Oh, wait, I don't see all these characters or all these situations or these scenes.” You know: "Where's this? Where's that?"

I didn't want to stand in the way of them taking what they liked and making a film. I said this clearly to Edward at the start, when he’d already conceived of a very defining change: he wanted to shift the time setting. I understood his reasons. They seemed reasonable, and I just ratified it right away. In a sense, it was a relief because it meant that they were going to transpose the material rather than try to be pointlessly loyal to the book. And so, it was very freeing.

Did it work?

I've only seen the movie once! I was delighted and confused. My own capacity to assess it was strangely disabled. Even though it's very different, it felt as if it were playing in my brain instead of on the screen. I'm usually pretty opinionated about film, ordinarily. I come to a lot of assessments that I stand behind. Yet I actually suspect that even when I see this a second and a third time, which I'm looking forward to, I'll be more likely to turn to you, or someone else, and say, "So, how is it?" I'll be reliant on other people's assessments. The way it's mingled up in my own inklings and sense-impressions creates a uniquely disorienting situation. I was fascinated by it. I can at least make simple assessments: The acting and the photography is great. The music is really incredible. It’s a good night at the movies.

But at some level, I was confused by it. I was like, "Is this even a movie? Would anyone else even understand this story?" I have no idea whether it makes sense. So, it was a funny situation.

This is your book, but it's not. You're seeing it set in a different time period and you're seeing actors and actresses fill these roles that you've conceived ...

Some of which I conceived. There are also characters in it that aren't in my book. And so, it's like my book is like a dream that this movie had once and then it tried to write down the dream and it got it all wrong. You know how someone tells you their dream and you say, "Wait, all of that was in your dream?" And they say, "Well, no, maybe I'm making that up now, but I can't remember."

It's kind of a surreal experience. Do you read the film reviews?

At the moment there aren’t really reviews, per se, but buzz pieces, the kind of festival reviews where people are sort of positioning how they think a movie is going to be received. It's different from when there's a release and there's actual day-of-release reviews. I'll probably find it impossible not to be curious about some of them, but I imagine that as with my own books, I'll also get really tired of reading them. A few go a long way.

You read one great rave for a thing and you think, "Well, it can't really be as good as that." You read someone demolish it and you think, "Well, wait a minute, it's better than that." And then, you start to see that most reviews are pretty repetitive and imitative and a lot of them are reviews, not exactly of the object itself but of the expectations, or of the buzz, or of other reviews.

Of course, certain film writers interest me. I'm that kind of moviegoer. I like to read articulate takes on films. If certain people write about it, I'll be very driven to see what they say.

Who are those people?

Well, I always read A.O. Scott in The New York Times – and The Times review of such a film is awfully important for its fate. That would make me curious, but also because I know Tony (A.O. Scott) slightly. If he reviews it, of course. He might give it to one of the other people at the Times. Of course, if he gives it to Manohla Dargis, I'll still want to read the Times review. But that would be impossible not to be curious. Richard Brody in The New Yorker doesn't write about every film that comes out. He's a purist, and if I could guess, I suspect he might hate this movie. But I find him really remarkable to read and I'll just be interested.

Phillip Lopate often writes for Film Comment and if he writes about it, I'll be very keen to see what he says. That would be irresistible. He knows Brooklyn well. And I'll be sensitive to what people in New York City think of it in particular.

Are you nervous about how it's going to be received by the public or does it feel like a different child?

It doesn't occupy that same space. I'm not protective of it. It's a big studio release; it's not my artwork. It's a film; I'm not a filmmaker. It's really Edward's thing. So I get to be curious about its fate. You know, it's being hyped, so it's likely to get some attempted assassinations. The confidence implicit in Edward’s having directed and written it and starred in it means some people will probably come for his head. That's pretty well guaranteed.

But I don't feel the stake in it that I would reading a review of one of my own novels. I mean, in a way if I want to be cynical about these things, I'm in a kind of a win-win situation. If people want to beat up a movie, one of the likeliest things they'll do is say, "Well, you should read the book instead."

Which is great. Have your book sales gone up?

Oh, gosh, I don't know. I don't track them that way. It's just not the path of sanity or peace for me to keep my finger on its pulse month by month, let alone day by day. I suppose there must be a way that you could know about these things, but ...

You'd rather not.

No. I’d never choose to have that report issued to my inbox if such a thing were possible.

But it's generally true that people pick up a book when it's been turned into a movie. So I bet some readers will find it, which is nice, which is great, whether they're doing it because they hated the movie or loved the movie. I still believe in the book. I know it seems to still be alive in readers' minds and people still tell me they're discovering it. If more people discover it all of a sudden because of this weird occurrence of the film, great. Believing in the work, for me, means considering anything that leads people into an encounter with it as luck.

Are you a Radiohead fan? What do you think of the movie’s theme song?

I like the song. It's a terrific song. It functions in a very unexpected way in the film when it arises. Yet it also works as an example of how the film artifact has moved beyond my own imagination, because if I thought, "Oh, I am a filmmaker and I'm going to make a movie out of my own book and I know what “Motherless Brooklyn” should be like as a movie” I don't think I would have reached for a song from Radiohead as the soundtrack to that in a million years! It just never would have occurred to me. For me, the soundtrack of that book might be Prince, who was very vital to me when I was writing the book and he was very contemporary to the setting of the book in the late '90s.

But it just goes to show it really has detached from me and become its own separate object now.

Are you going to the film festivals?

I went to one. I went to Telluride where it had its official debut. That was thrilling to be part of. I got to sit on a couple of panels with the actors and with Edward, which is just kind of neat, and weird to have Willem Dafoe grinning at you very strangely. He's one of most charismatic people in the universe, but also he's really crazy looking up close.

But, you know, ultimately, it isn't my work. And I have stuff to do, teaching here. I'm writing a novel, which has absolutely nothing to do with Brooklyn or Tourette's syndrome or detectives right now. So, it was great to taste that atmosphere for a moment, but I don't need to keep doing it.

What are you doing opening night?

I haven't exactly got plans for opening night. I mean, the second time I'll get to see the film will be two days earlier, because of the campus screening.

Which leaves open the question that you just asked, which I haven't really contemplated. It will open on Friday, November 1. Maybe I'll buy a ticket, maybe I'll get to experience it actually in a anonymous atmosphere. That might be the thing to do. If I want to go a third time. Maybe after seeing the second time, I'll be like, "Nah." Maybe something else is opening that night that I want to see. But if I want to see it a third time, maybe the thing to do would be to like drive to San Dimas or something to see it in the theater, as an anonymous customer. I’ll just sit in the back row somewhere.

Are you a popcorn-at-the-movies person?

Popcorn and Raisinets. Mixed together.