Genius, Explained: Hollywood Endings

With the release of Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane reveals how his novels keep getting made into great movies.

Genius Explained Hollywood Images

Photograph by Andrew Cooper/Paramount Pictures

After months of production around the hub and a release date postponed from last October, Paramount Pictures will finally debut Shutter Island on 2/19. It’s the third high-profile adaptation of a novel written by Dorchester’s Dennis Lehane, following Clint Eastwood’s somber take on Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s faithfully gritty Gone Baby Gone. Shutter Island boasts Martin Scorsese at the helm and Leonardo DiCaprio as the star, and judging from the trailer—packed with images of a hurricane at an insane asylum—the cinematic version should be as intense as the original thriller. Lehane himself caught a sneak preview of the film last summer, and is buzzed about how well his acclaimed words have once again fared onscreen.

Despite deft twists, Lehane’s tales are always comfortably familiar: flawed heroes, sympathetic bad guys, tragic crimes, and downbeat finales where justice is ambiguous. “If you tell a strong story, you don’t care if you’re not reinventing the wheel.”

THE CHARACTERS: Lehane crafts his characters’ complex psyches and backstories, then raises the emotional stakes by ratcheting up the action. “If I’m doing my job, that’s when I ask, ‘What’s the authentic emotional end to this scene?'”

THE TRANSLATORS: With no interest in adapting his own work, Lehane values the pedigreed screenwriters and independent-minded directors (like Scorsese, above) who have maintained story integrity. Shutter Island in particular is “exceptionally faithful to the book.”

THE SETTING: He’s proud that all the films were shot here, and is gentle when asked to pick a best Boston film. With Gone Baby Gone, “Ben [Affleck] wanted to make as authentic a Boston movie as you can make. So while Mystic River may feel touristic, Gone is in the blood.”

THE SPOILS: Complex characters, auteur directors, and master thespians all must work in sync. “In each case, everybody had a locked vision and nobody messed with [it].” Results: four Oscar nods for acting. “There’s a public perception that I write Oscar-bait roles.”