What Do Authors Really Think of Film Adaptations? A Conversation With Jonathan Lethem.

Edward Norton's adaptation of Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" hits theaters this weekend after 20 years of development

November 1, 2019 10:27 am
Jonathan Lethem talks about the "Motherless Brooklyn" adaptation (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)
Jonathan Lethem talks about the "Motherless Brooklyn" adaptation (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images)
Getty Images

It’s said that one percent of books are optioned for film or television, and only one percent of those titles ever make it to production. Plus the whole process takes forever. Jonathan Lethem was first approached by Edward Norton back in 1999 about adapting Motherless Brooklyn, his fifth book and the eventual winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Norton was just off Fight Club and American History X; one might assume a speedy production. 

Fast-forward 20 years and Norton’s version is finally arriving in theaters after a well-received premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. It stars Norton— who also directed and wrote the screenplay — plus Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis.

The adaptation retains its inimitable protagonist Lionel Essrog, a small-time gumshoe afflicted by Tourette’s syndrome. The late-’90s setting of the book has been moved four decades earlier, where a Robert Moses figure holds unchecked power. Lethem has been happily hands-off and welcomes the new setting. As a rule, he prefers looser film adaptations: “The best thing is if the book is a dream the movie once had.” His readers know this is a two-way street; movies have always informed his work. (One could imagine a parlor game pairing his eleven novels with various filmmakers: Karyn Kusama, perhaps, for 2018’s The Feral Detective, a California whodunit set between Trump’s election and inauguration.)

Lethem’s own life is quite cinematic, though he might disagree. Born and raised in pre-gentrification Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, he briefly attended Bennington College with Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. (The slavish adaptation of Tartt’s The Goldfinch might serve as a warning for being too true to the book.) From there, Lethem decamped to Berkeley, scraping by as a bookseller and building his own audience as an author. In time he would relocate to New York, spend time in Berlin, and then settle in Los Angeles for a position at Pomona College.

I proposed a wide-ranging conversation with the writer on his favorite film adaptations, previous run-ins with Hollywood and the ubiquitous superhero genre. He happily agreed. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our call.

InsideHook: How did the Motherless Brooklyn adaptation come about?

Jonathan Lethem: The book came out in 1999. It was my fifth novel. I’d already had some experiences with film interest in my work. Gun, with Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table were all under option at that point. I was trying to be a full-time writer back then, and the options checks were an incredible windfall. Often the option was as big as my advance had been.

So I wasn’t completely shocked that something happened with Motherless Brooklyn. It was optioned by New Line for Edward Norton before it was even published — it was in galleys. I could feel that book was on a special fast track, from the kinds of pre-publication reviews it was getting. And indeed, it was a kind of breakout for me. I had been a happy little cult author, I didn’t have any complaints. But Motherless Brooklyn landed with a bit more noise and fizz and energy than I’d experienced before.  

Edward Norton had his own ideas about the book. He was really clear. I’d already learned that the people who option your book are expecting you to be very protective of it. Preemptively I said, I’m not one of those writers. Do whatever you want. 

For example, the thing that people see as the biggest change is that it moved into the 1950s. He talked about that change the very first time we talked. He said, “This is what I want to do.” And I thought the reasons made sense. It was an instant, defining difference. 

As a filmgoer, those obedient, diligent adaptations of novels that try to “do justice to the source material” usually seemed pretty flat, uncinematic, and dead to me. I don’t see any argument for trying to protect the material in that way.

And it wasn’t like my book was a Pulitzer-winning tome or a #1 bestseller. I hadn’t written a novel people had to feel sacred about. I’m hoping instead for a loving disrespect: take a few elements and just run with them and make a movie. 

It’s clearer and perhaps more effective across countries. I’m thinking of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, his adaptation of a Sarah Waters novel. He moved the story from Victorian England to early 20th-century, Japanese-occupied Korea. 

Or look at the French New Wave films. You have all these Truffaut and Godard films based on largely-forgotten American crime fiction.

Shoot the Piano Player.

Pierrot Le Fou, Band of Outsiders, Mississippi Mermaid. Those are based on American crime novels that barely anyone thinks about anymore. 

Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is based on a scrappy little science fiction novel by Walter Tevis. The same guy who wrote the source material for The Hustler, the Paul Newman billiards movie. What a great thing to be Walter Tevis and have such two bizarrely different kinds of movies based on your novels. And I doubt many people even think of Walter Tevis in connection to those movies. 

Great results often happen with a total cultural dislocation. Coup de Torchon is the best movie made from a Jim Thompson novel. Bertrand Tavernier made it from Thompson’s Pop. 1280, and relocated it to a French colonial setting in Senegal. Hitchcock does this too. Think of Psycho‘s relationship to its source material, the novel by Robert Bloch. He even got Bloch to work on the movie, I think.

From Godard’s “Band of Outsiders”

I love that story of the studio buying up all the copies of the book so audiences wouldn’t know the twist.

I came pretty close to having David Cronenberg direct As She Climbed Across the Table at one point.


What a thing that would have been!

Noah Baumbach would be great for that book, too.

It would be a totally different version of it. But why not? 

There was a moment — one sweet, funny, awkward moment — when the elusive French director Leos Carax was interested in Girl in Landscape. I had a meeting with him. It was like I’d imagine meeting Michel Houellebecq would have been. I met him in a hotel for breakfast, the Soho Grand. He seemed hungover. I could barely understand him. “I don’t know, I want to make this movie from your book but set it in the Palestinian territories.” I was like, Oh please do this!

That book is already a transposition. My attempt to write a John Ford western, but set on Ray Bradbury’s Mars. Carax wants to re-transpose it and make the settlers the Israelis and the Native Americans the Palestinians. What a fascinating possibility. Like Coup de Torchon, it would take the essence of the piece and make something wildly different out of it. 

I think the best thing is if the book is a dream the movie once had, and it’s trying to remember it. And it can’t completely remember it.

What about those faithful adaptations that work out? 

Sure, that can happy. The Hustler is fairly faithful to the novel. It’s an exception. John Huston has a few examples.

I just read NYRB Classic’s reissue of Lillian Ross’s Picture, about Huston’s adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage. It was excellent on the old Hollywood machine. And a little heartbreaking.

Huston has an eye for books which should be adapted faithfully. The stock story is he got The Maltese Falcon right by just shooting the book. There are adaptations of Dashiell Hammett that precede The Maltese Falcon — nobody remembers them. Huston was like, the book works, let’s just shoot it. He does more or less the same thing with the great boxing novel Fat City. He was good at finding novels that are actually proportionate to films: the right number of characters, the right number of scenes, dialogue that will actually “play” coming out of an actor’s mouth. Then again, Huston wastes our time with something like Under the Volcano.

John Huston’s adaptation of “The Maltese Falcon”

I was told to stay away from that one.

It’s lame. Even though Albert Finney’s perfect casting. The book is about a torrential inner consciousness. Consummately unfilmable.

Thinking about more recent cinema, I revisited your piece in The Ecstasy of Influence on seeing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Just recently there was the minor dust-up over Martin Scorsese’s comments about the Marvel movies. It articulated my disappointment with the MCU — and I was a Marvel reader, primarily X-Men. What’s your feeling on the latest phase of comic-book adaptations? As you note in the essay, the adaptations will always misfire a bit, since they fill in the gaps between panels, and those gaps are so integral to the comic book experience.

I’m a real crank on this subject. People are always wanting me to avow the meaningful continuity between comic books and these comic-book movies. Or at least to have a few of those movies that I really believe in. I’m afraid I’m on Scorsese’s side of that divide. And I say that as a lover of film genres. I care about the western, screwball comedy, horror, noir, science fiction. If comic-book movies are a genre, it’s the most stillborn genre Hollywood has ever coughed up. We’re all just going to endure it until it goes away.

My big theory, for what it’s worth: comic-book movies trigger the opposite of what goes on in the brain of somebody reading a comic book. The whole thing about comics is that the fantastical and dynamic occurrences are rendered as a series of static panels, drawn on a silent page: they are animated by the mind of the reader. 

Everyone thinks comic books are easy to read. They condescend. It’s kids’ stuff. I think it’s the opposite. Comic books are extremely difficult to read. Only a child can do it because children are so adept with learning new languages. Children immersed in comic books crack the code, and they learn this very exotic reading protocol. It consists of an enormous amount of active decision making and an enormous amount of switching between different cognitive tasks. You pick up a comic book and you have to decide where your eye is going to go from one drawing to the next. 

That’s why the gutter — the white space between panels — is so important. It represents an area of anxiety and decision-making. You also have to switch between visual material and written information. Those are different parts of the brain. You have to decide whether to read the captions or the word balloons first … or at all. And you have to decide whether to look at the pictures sustainedly, to go back and forth … There’s a baroqueness in this reading effort that children do effortlessly, so we think of it as simple.

I’m in my 50s, and I’ll hear a lot of literary people stay stodgily, “Oh, I couldn’t read that stuff.” I think they’re being more honest than they realize. They can’t read that stuff. Their brains do not know how to do it.

Now we go to my other crank theory. The superhero films are the opposite of the comic books. What does film do? It overwhelms you. It fills in all the gaps. It’s sensurround. You lay back and you experience it like a dream. I love that about film.

The superhero image, when you CGI-render it, and Spider-Man’s leaping from building to building, the sound’s coming at you, the effects are coming at you: it totally colonizes your senses. You don’t have to do any work to interpret or figure out the work at all. To me, that experience is extremely dull. None of the things going on in the comic-book page make the leap from one form to the other. It might as well be a different species of animal. Sure, it’s a picture of Thor, or whoever, but I’m not interested anymore because I’m not having to engage with the intricate, ambiguous conjuration in my brain.

The critic Sean Fennessy talks about the most exciting time in a genre is when it’s sunsetting. The first decline of the western produced The Searchers, the second decline produced Unforgiven. His theory is the next 5-10 years will bring the best superhero movies.

I’d loved to be convinced. There might be some interesting work around the edges of the superhero movie. But then, my appetite even as a comic-book reader was for the stories about the unraveling of the superhero. Omega the Unknown. The antiheroes. The comics Steve Gerber was writing in the 1970s. The weird Brechtian, broken grandeur of the late Kirby comics. 

The Jimmy Carter “malaise”-era comics.

Yeah. I’m not really in the market for a triumphalist superhero, even as a comic book reader. 

In an interview with LARB a few years ago, you talked about how your reading habits changed once you had kids. Was it the same with film watching? I ask because I’m looking for validation. In my early 20s I could watch all of Kieslowski’s The Decalogue in a day. Not anymore.

There was a great era for me, a garden from which I’m now exiled. I used to live down the street from the Pacific Film Archive. I’d go see a triple feature at the drop of a hat. I was soaking it up. Just building up the vocabulary. I’m not a big believer in canons. Well, I’m a big believer in private canons: everyone should have their own. I’m not going to fall for the gambit of being “comprehensive.” 

But you want to immerse enough so that you can persuade yourself — even if it’s a little of a horseshit thing — that you know what you’re talking about when you say, for instance, that this or that is underrated or overrated. You know, to build up a field of reference. It’s really thrilling. You start with this bottomless appetite, this craving.

And the truth is I still like filling in the gaps. I like that one day I’m going to see the last film noir made in the 1940s or 1950s. Because I’ve seen an awful lot of them. Also, I forget them. 

I got this great invitation, once, to go to the Eastman Archives in Rochester, NY, and pull films out of the vault. I did see things I’d never seen before. But when it came to the film noir, there were these titles that sounded incredible: Pull that one! Let’s watch it! We’d be halfway through the screening, and I’d go, Oh yeah, I’ve seen this. (Laughter.) You reach diminishing returns, I hate to admit it. 

I watched the Decalogue in Toronto. It screened at a theater over two weeks. I’d watch pairs of them at a time. I sat in two nights through the entirety of Jacques Rivette’s thirteen-hour Out 1. Those are great experiences. Maybe I’ll do one or two more heroic cinematic things like that. But’s okay if I don’t. I fall asleep during longer movies now. I’m tired, I’m raising kids. But I built the vocabulary. I can’t do it anymore, and that’s okay. It’s some other 20-year-old’s turn.

If I were a younger reader, reading this interview, I’d say, “Shut up, dude. Complaining about your back hurting.” There’s no reason to inform young people that they will never feel as much vitality as they do now. They’ll find out too. It’s okay. (Laughter.)

When you mentioned Out 1, I thought of seeing all of Olivier Assayas’s Carlos at Lincoln Center. You can do that when you’re young. I don’t have six hours free for an Assayas film these days.

You’ve got more things to think about now. I was soaking up literature, discovering a new favorite band every week, seeing triple features, taking a lot of drugs. All because I was seeking experience. My life wasn’t overwhelmingly intricate and sad yet. I didn’t have all these things to think about. Just being is a movie right now. It demands a lot of me, you know? 

I have a career. It’s gone well. It’s gone badly. I can never tell how it’s going. I have these kids, they love me, they hate me. I have exes, friends of mine are dying of natural causes … What a fucking overwhelming situation, you know? I can’t afford to be living vicariously, the way I did in my twenties. (Laughter.) Now I’m stuck with having a self. 

Carrying it around wherever you go. 

It’s like I have a bog of self, I’m saturated in it, I’m up to my neck in it.

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