Posted on Friday, December 4th, 2009 by Russ Fischer
In addition to their many literary charms, the novels of Jonathan Lethem have an unusual superpower: they resist cinematic adaptations with great vigor. Ironic, given the heavy cinematic awareness and influences on his novels. Lethem’s latest, Chronic City, even opens with a scene in the offices of the Criterion Collection, and has some entertaining discussion of cinematic masterworks both real and imagined.
For ages, Ed Norton was promising to direct and star in a version of Motherless Brooklyn, as the tourettes-afflicted protagonist Lionel Essrog. There hasn’t been any publicly-announced movement on that one in ages, and I’m hoping it isn’t dead. And Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston is reportedly adapting Fortress of Solitude, but that one has been quiet for a while, too.
Now Gabe and Alan Polsky, the producers behind Werner Herzog’s recent Bad Lieutenant, have optioned Lethem’s first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music.
THR reports on the option, and notes that this isn’t the first time producers have tried to get an adaptation of the novel off the ground. Alan J. Pakula gave it a shot, as did Blade Runner‘s Hampton Fancher. Why are Lethem’s novels so tricky, and why has this one in particular repelled more than one filmmaker in the past? They’re odd beasts, these books, and filled with inventions and details that work perfectly well on the page, but would be tricky to get right on screen.
Take this description of Gun, With Occasional Music, which shows off both the noirish and Philip K Dick influences:
Chandleresque, hard-boiled detective narrative set in a near-future Oakland, Calif. Conrad Metcalf is a private dick, but in his era that profession is even more ignominious than in the past. Due to some extreme governmental measures aimed at maintaining public docility, asking questions is taboo, leaving memory as Metcalf’s sole resource. Government-distributed “Make,” a cocaine-like blend of synthetic, mind-altering drugs, is now de rigeur . So is the magnetic card each citizen carries to keep track of his or her karma points. These points are awarded or docked by “the Office” for good or bad behavior and if the balance hits zero, a cryogenic prison term may ensue. Most of the menial work is done by genetically engineered English-speaking, bipedal “evolved” animals–sheep, apes, rabbits and kangaroos–and one of the latter is gunning for Metcalf.
I’d love to see this one happen if it’s done well (and am still hoping for the Ed Norton Motherless Brooklyn; that could be perfect for him) but I have my doubts that this will actually make it to the screen.