Movies

All the Ways the Motherless Brooklyn Movie Departs From Jonathan Lethem’s Novel

Edward Norton’s adaptation changes more than it keeps.

The book cover of Motherless Brooklyn, and a scene from its movie.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Doubleday and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Motherless Brooklyn, the new movie written and directed by Edward Norton, tells the story of Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, as he investigates the murder of his mentor and surrogate father Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) in New York City. And that’s just about all the movie has in common with Motherless Brooklyn, the novel by Jonathan Lethem to which it owes its title. Norton’s film often feels less like an adaptation and more like a work of fan fiction 20 years in the making, with Norton borrowing Lethem’s protagonist and the broad strokes of his plot to create something almost entirely new.

The most obvious departure from the source material is the movie’s time period, which has been shifted to 1957, with all the fedoras that entails. Norton told the Hollywood Reporter that he thought Lethem’s hard-boiled detective style wouldn’t translate to the screen if the film retained the book’s 1999 setting: “I told him that I think that film is very literal and that if we try to make a film about the ’90s in Brooklyn with guys acting like ’50s gumshoes, it will feel ironic.”

But Norton’s alterations are hardly limited to the movie’s aesthetic. Lethem himself might have said it best: “It’s as if the book was a dream the movie once had and was trying to remember it, you know? It’s so oblique a connection.” Below, we’ve rounded up the most significant changes.

1999 vs. 1957

Lethem’s book is, if not outright ironic, then at least winkingly self-aware, with Lionel and other characters discussing gangster movies like Scarface and detective novels like The Big Sleep. When a previously unseen character dies before ever actually appearing, Lionel muses, “Have you ever felt, in the course of reading a detective novel, a guilty thrill of relief at having a character murdered before he can step onto the page and burden you with his actual existence?” Norton plays it comparatively straight by shifting the setting and axing many of the references. That means no more allusions to White Castle and Vibe magazine, and the elimination of perhaps the most ’90s sentence ever written: “I went to my boom box and put on the saddest song in my CD collection, Prince’s ‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.’ ”

Though the detective agency is still fronted by a car service called L&L—there still wasn’t any Uber to compete with in 1999—there were other technological considerations Norton had to take into account when moving the action to the mid–20th century. The first sequence in the movie is one of the few lifted directly from the book and involves Minna meeting with an unknown but sinister party while Lionel and another one of Minna’s lackeys, Gilbert Coney, wait outside in case there’s trouble. Minna is then kidnapped, leading to a traffic-clogged car chase. In the book, Lionel eavesdrops on Minna, who is wearing a wire, and the pair lose track of the kidnappers at a toll because the kidnappers have EZ Pass.

There’s no EZ Pass in the 1950s, so Norton creates some workarounds. Minna arrives to the meeting early, places a call from a rotary phone in the room, and stashes it out of sight in a drawer so that Lionel can listen in on the meeting from a pay phone. And the kidnappers later evade their pursuers by flashing a badge at a tollbooth—a primitive form of EZ Pass, but also a hint of foreshadowing of the culprits’ political connections.

Lionel

Despite its lengthy run time, the movie doesn’t spend much of it on Lionel’s childhood growing up at the orphanage St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, which is briefly described in Norton’s voice-over but not shown in detail. That’s a major departure from the book, a good chunk of which is dedicated to Lionel as a young man, how he and three other orphans became “Minna Men,” and the relationships between them. It also delves deeper into Lionel’s backstory, including his habit of calling other people in the phone book with the last name “Essrog” to feel less alone.

Tourette’s Syndrome

Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome is signaled (sporadically) in the movie by verbal outbursts and a tendency to tap people on the shoulder. As in the novel, he also often invokes the name “Bailey” in these outbursts, an invention of his “Tourette’s brain.” But Norton doesn’t communicate that same “Tourette’s brain” in Lionel’s voice-over, denying us a key part of the character’s interiority. Lethem’s novel, on the other hand, is delivered from Lionel’s point of view throughout, and his narration is peppered with word association, even when Lionel isn’t speaking aloud: “While I thought about these things, another track in my brain intoned brainyoctomy brainyalimoney bunnymonopoly baileyoctopus brainyanimal broccopotamus.”

Norton does invent one new tic for Lionel in the movie: He often shouts the word if!, something he covers up by pretending to sneeze.

The Mystery

In the book, Frank’s death is the result of a convoluted conspiracy involving his brother Gerard, a pair of elderly mobsters, a gaggle of Buddhist monks, and a shady Japanese corporation. None of this is so much as alluded to in the movie, which instead creates an entirely different conspiracy around Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a thinly veiled version of a real historical figure: the infamous, racist New York City planner Robert Moses, who in the movie has fathered a child after raping a black woman. Frank discovered the evidence and was killed after he tried to use it to extort more money.

To accommodate this new plot, several key characters in in the novel are eliminated entirely—Lionel’s love interest Kimmerly, for one—or have severely reduced roles, as with Frank’s widow, Julia. Others are invented to suit the new plot: Now Lionel’s love interest is Moses’ unsuspecting daughter, Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and he receives help from “the Trumpet Man,” a jazz musician.

Happy Ending

Though Lionel solves the case in Lethem’s novel, the ending is bittersweet at best: Many of the people he once cared about are dead or missing, Kimmerly goes back to her old boyfriend, and Lionel returns to the detective agency, now a legitimate car service. Norton gives his character a cheerier finale: Lionel leaks documents about the city’s corruption to a reporter, persuades Moses to leave Laura alone, and then retreats with her to a secret property, the deed to which Frank left him earlier in the movie. There, presumably, they live happily ever after.