Author specializes in character assignation

Lehane continues movie streak with ‘Shutter Island’

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 14, 2010

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Dennis Lehane is living the dream, at least if the dream involves writing one bestseller after another and then seeing them made into big-budget movies by Hollywood A-listers.

In the past six-plus years, there have been screen versions of three of Lehane’s novels: “Mystic River’’ (2003), directed by Clint Eastwood; “Gone, Baby, Gone’’ (2007), directed by Ben Affleck; and now, “Shutter Island,’’ directed by Martin Scorsese, which opens Friday.

What does the 44-year-old Lehane, a Dorchester native, make of this bonanza? We asked him.

Q. So what do you think of the film version of “Shutter Island’’?

A. I think it’s great. It’s dark as hell, but it’s great.

Q. You’re no stranger to darkness yourself, right?

A. It’s just that when you write your own book you’re not aware of it at the same level. What Scorsese grasped from the first frame of the film to the end is that we are not in a world of naturalism here. We are in a different pitch. You see that right away in the first frame, when they’re on the boat. Everything is a little artificial, in the best sense. What he’s announcing in the first minutes is “You are watching a movie.’’ That’s what I felt in writing the book, that you are entering a gothic world, a world that is not a wink but a little bit of an arched eyebrow.

Q. You’re on quite a run at the moment when it comes to movie adaptations. When filmmakers like Eastwood, Affleck, or Scorsese come to you and say they want to adapt your work, what reasons do they give?

A. What is becoming the basic theory behind my work and the adaptations is that it gives actors really good roles. I’m not going to be falsely modest: I think I do character pretty decently. That’s where I come into a story. I spend a lot of time finding my characters and sending them out to find me a plot. If you look at my plots, with the exception of “Shutter Island,’’ I’ve never written an original plot. They’re the plots of a million “Law & Orders.’’ “Gone, Baby, Gone’’: How many times have you seen that on TV? “Mystic River’’ is just an updating of Warner Bros. films. It’s not the tale, it’s the characters when it comes to my work.

Q. Are there times when you stand back and are struck by the simple fact that products of your imagination are suddenly all over the screen, with actors like Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio playing characters you created?

A. Most times. Most times. I look at it as you can never get comfortable. If I don’t wake up and feel weirded out that Martin Scorsese is making a film of my book, then there’s something wrong. If I get too comfortable, then I’ve fallen off this line I’m trying to walk.

Q. Is it fair to say that one thing you and Scorsese have in common is a belief that violence is fundamental to human nature, that we can’t fully understand human beings unless we understand their capacity for violence?

A. Yeah, I’d say that. The other thing between me and Scorsese is the obsession with guilt. We were both raised deeply Catholic. It’s just ingrained into you at such an early age. It’s not just that you could do bad, but that you could think bad.

Q. Are there dimensions of “Shutter Island,’’ or any of your books, that can be conveyed on film in a way that they can’t be on the page?

A. People want to compare [books and movies] as if they’re apples and oranges, but they’re not. They’re apples and giraffes. What film can do, what acting can do, is they can take nine pages of dialogue and they can turn it into a glance. That’s amazing, especially when you’re the guy who wrote the nine pages.

Q. You’ve said that the writing of “Shutter Island,’’ the book, was inspired by B movies. Which ones and how?

A. The biggest one was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’’ because what it was really about went way over your head the first time you watched it. I want “Shutter Island’’ to exist on that plane. When I wrote it, I thought, I’m going B movie all the way. It really freed me up, which is what I needed after “Mystic River’’ [the novel]. With “Mystic River,’’ there was a kind of bourgeois patting-on-the-head on the part of the critics: “Oh, he’s actually a literary novelist!’’ I said: “Let’s just do something completely demented, and see how they react to this.’’ I’m this bastard child of high literary influence, low pulp, music, and film. I like to stir it all in. I have no desire to just stay in one camp.

Don Aucoin can be reached at