Lehane just writes the books, leaves the movies to the pros


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Dennis Lehane may write some of the most cinema-ready novels around, but he doesn't kid himself that he knows the best way to bring them to the big screen.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/06/2010 (4749 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dennis Lehane may write some of the most cinema-ready novels around, but he doesn’t kid himself that he knows the best way to bring them to the big screen.

The author of such successful book-to-movie works as Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island is happy to leave the screenplays to the professionals.

“A really good adapter knows what to throw out. I don’t,” the Boston-based novelist says modestly. “I’d have 4,000-page scripts. I have no perspective on my own work.

“My great moment of clarity came with Mystic River, because it was so close in terms of me finishing the novel and Clint Eastwood getting involved. When he said, ‘Do you have any interest in adapting it?’ I remember thinking in that moment, ‘I just spent two-and-a-half years of my life getting this book to 401 pages. And it damn near killed me. And now I’m going to turn around and get it to 130? I don’t think I’m the guy for the job….”

That laissez-faire attitude has served him well, however. All three of his adaptations have been helmed by Oscar winners (Eastwood, Ben Affleck and Martin Scorsese) and have starred such luminaries as Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Morgan Freeman.

“It’s embarrassing,” Lehane says with a laugh. “I’ve had such first-class directors and casting directors and producers. I mean, c’mon. Look who’s been in my movies!”

His latest, Shutter Island, is no exception. A gothic psychological thriller with a twist, it’s directed by Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. marshal investigating the disappearance of a patient at a hospital for the criminally insane, and Ben Kingsley as the cagey doctor in charge. And though the big stars acquit themselves nicely, it’s the performances by such character actors as Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine and Patricia Clarkson that lend the movie its creepy atmosphere.

It’s a bit of a departure for Lehane, whose gritty mysteries are usually set in the present day. Shutter Island‘s 1950s time-frame and its subject matter allow for a dip into film noir conventions — a storm-lashed island! Sinister characters who may not be what they seem! — and dialogue that has all the hallmarks of snappy B-movie patter.

There was some initial consternation among fans at the casting of DiCaprio, whose less-than-commanding physique doesn’t quite jibe with the alpha male marshal described in the book, but just as he doesn’t sweat over the words, Lehane — who says, “I feel like a book’s an apple and a movie’s a giraffe; they’re two different entities” — also doesn’t stress over the visuals in adaptations of his novels.

“I don’t get attached to the physical attributes of my characters,” he says. “For the most part, I want my characters to be defined by what Aristotle said characters were defined by — by what they do. It’s far more important to me what a character does, thinks, etcetera, than how they look.”

And even faithful readers who devoured Lehane’s five-book series about P.I. duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (a sixth, Moonlight Mile, is due in November of this year) can make mistakes.

“People would come up to me and say that Angie is blond,” says Lehane of fans’ reaction to the casting of brunette actress Michelle Monaghan as Gennaro in Gone Baby Gone. “And I would be like, what are you, high? She’s described in every single book as having hair the colour of rain-swept tar and caramel skin. You know, she’s Italian. But people are like, ‘Oh, no, you’re nuts.’

“But I think I understand that, in that people get very protective over characters. When they read them, they own them. I don’t want to stand in the way of that.”

Shutter Island is out on Blu-ray and DVD next Tuesday.

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Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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