The Obsession in Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane talks about the dream that led to the book, seeing Taxi Driver at 10, and why he’s done writing about violence against children.

Paramount Pictures

For novelist Dennis Lehane, his noir psycho-thriller Shutter Island ended a years-long obsession that he once considered “central” to his storytelling. It was an obsession at the root of his most popular novels including Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, and one that inspired wrenching character pieces that when adapted for the movie screen earned Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. The preoccupation? Violence to children.

And Lehane wants the world to know that he’s over it.

“After Shutter Island, I said, ‘I never want to revisit this again,’” said the 44-year-old author, who, incidentally, just became a father for the first time. “There’s such a fine line between calling attention to an issue and exploiting the same issue. The moment you feel like you may be near the line is when you should stop.”

Lehane said, “Scorsese was an enormous influence on everything I’ve done.”

Martin Scorsese certainly enjoyed strutting up and down that line in his film adaptation of Lehane’s 2003 novel; rendering the nightmarish tale with moments of horror so intimate they are almost beautiful. (Laeta Kalogridis wrote the screenplay.) Shutter Island, set in 1954, follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) visit the impenetrable Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the impossible disappearance of a patient (Emily Mortimer) who drowned her three children.

Lehane says he literally dreamed up the plot one evening, not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, when he fell asleep after trying unsuccessfully to track down his mother. He’d just learned via his answering machine that she had been hospitalized but he didn’t know where or why. “I fell asleep on a chair on a really stressful night and woke up and pretty much had the whole plot,” he says, speaking from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It was very ‘Kubla Khan,’ except [unlike that poem’s author] I hadn’t been smoking opium. Also, I was very pissed off about the Patriot Act and the trampling of civil rights going on in the country at that point. It struck me as a new McCarthyism.”

So the book became Lehane’s nod to noir cinema and Gothic literature and yes, the paranoia of the Bush-Cheney years. The story features a sinister psychiatrist (played in the film by Ben Kingsley). Flashbacks from WWII concentration camps. An ex-Nazi (Max von Sydow). Whispers of conspiracy. A woman living in a cave (Patricia Clarkson). A hurricane. The ghost of Daniels’ dead wife (Michelle Williams). Every set piece of the genre, it seems, except Vincent Price’s echoing cackle.

From Lehane’s view, there was no director better suited to this material than Scorsese. “I remember when I was 10 years old,” recalls Lehane. “I dragged all my friends to see Taxi Driver. Everybody hated my guts for it. But I knew that was going to be my journey. Into the arts world. Scorsese was an enormous influence on everything I’ve done.”

Lehane has written 11 books since 1993 (with a 12th on the way), mining his own history as the child of working-class Irish immigrants, living on Boston’s gritty South Side during the 1970s, dodging unctuous priests at his Catholic school, and running the streets before his mother’s dinner call. His post-college stint spent counseling traumatized children surely fed some pages, too. And if Lehane ever lacked inspiration, there were plenty of heinous crimes making headlines.

All of it dogged him with “the larger question of: Why do we do violence? What is it about human nature where we feel the need to harm other people? What’s the worst example of that?” So he crafted the tales of the murdered teenage daughter and the boy kidnapped by pedophiles in 2001’s Mystic River, the gang of child killers who kidnap a 4-year-old girl in 2002’s Gone, Baby, Gone, and the trio of murdered children in Shutter Island. After that, he spent three seasons as a scribe on HBO’s visceral crime drama The Wire.

It was all pathos-rich material. And in film, that often translates as ripe Oscar bait. Though Lehane dismisses much of his work as derivative, he readily acknowledges, “I seem to write characters that actors want to play.” Indeed, two actors (turned directors) were responsible for Lehane’s swift entrenchment in Hollywood. Clint Eastwood owned the rights to Mystic River by the time it hit shelves. Ben Affleck used Gone, Baby, Gone to redefine his career. “Though they were financed by studios, they were made outside the studio system,” says Lehane. “It was the auteur theory at its best.”

Soon, Lehane will dip into filmmaking himself. Fox 2000 has hired him to pen an adaptation of his short story Animal Rescue, about a killing that results from a lost pit bull. No dead children there. Though Lehane can’t seem to resist the book-as-violated child analogy when he talks about adapting his work for the screen. Three years ago, he said plainly that he had “no desire to operate on my own child.” Animal Rescue is different though. “This is not a child,” he says now. “This is more like an embryo. I just have to expand it. A novel is a child. You have to cut the hell of it.” And in the dark recesses of Lehane’s creative mind, there’s already been quite enough of that.

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at