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Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island' a departure into darkness

When Shutter Island opens in theaters Friday, it will be the third of Dennis Lehane's eight novels to come to the big screen.

The powerful psychological thriller boasts Martin Scorsese as its director, and its cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams.

You may have heard of the other two films based on Lehane's books: Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.

"I've had great luck so far," Lehane says. "No doubt the comic gods will catch up with me."

Not with this movie. A harrowing, paranoia-fueled mystery set in an institution for the criminally insane on a remote island, Shutter Island is a breathtaking dark ride with haunting visuals and complex performances.

Lehane, 44, is a Boston native who divides his time between that city, where most of his fiction is set, and St. Petersburg, where he lives with his wife and daughter and serves as co-director of the Writers in Paradise program at Eckerd College. He is a graduate of Eckerd's creative writing program.

Shutter Island is his seventh novel. Published in 2003, it took a circuitous route to the screen. "For six years, Sony had it," he says. "When the rights came back to me, I had no desire to sell it unless I could get the best deal, not just in terms of the money but creatively."

Part of that deal was serving as one of the film's executive producers and focusing first on the screenplay, written by Laeta Kalogridis. "Once we hired the screenwriter, my job was to stay the hell out of the way.

"We brought Laeta in and told her what we wanted: Make it faithful. She just let it rip. She and I had conversations, Marty and I had conversations; it went pretty fast." Marty, of course, would be the legendary director Scorsese.

Lehane says that he visited the movie set, although he doesn't understand why some novelists want to be involved in the process. "It was all quite wonderful, but I have zero purpose on a film set. What am I going to say? 'Hey, Marty, I think you ought to move the camera over another 6 inches'? Once the camera is rolling, my job is utterly over, both as a novelist and a producer."

Lehane calls Shutter Island's cast "an embarrassment of riches. Even people in these reasonably small parts, like Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, they knock it out of the park."

Many of the film's actors have played killers and other criminals in the past (Levine was memorable as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs), but that's coincidental, Lehane says.

"Marty was going for the best actors. You want actors who can suggest the tone of the film. Ben Kingsley brings a lot of associations. Yeah, he's played Gandhi, but he's also played Don Logan in Sexy Beast, the guy in Death and the Maiden. Before he even comes on screen, you're wondering, who is this guy?"

American gothic

When Lehane wrote Shutter Island, it was a departure for him. His first six novels — five about Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, followed by Mystic River — were written in the crime genre.

"I had never had the level of reaction I had to Mystic River, both critically and commercially," he says. "I began to believe I'd end up pigeonholed. I'd be writing Mystic River 5 for the rest of my life. I'm contrary by nature, so I decided to write the last thing anybody ever expected."

Mystic River was published in 2001, and Lehane says Shutter Island was shaped by several factors. "Part of it was the toilet I felt we were heading into in Ashcroft's America. This was the time of the Patriot Act, just that steady drumbeat that happens when nations get scared.

"It was a very paranoid time, 2002, 2003 America. So I started thinking, I bet this is how people in the 1950s felt. I started with the height of McCarthyism as a backdrop," setting Shutter Island in 1954 and making its main character, Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal on the island to investigate the disappearance of a delusional prisoner who murdered her children.

Lehane says, "Another interesting thing to me was that the FDA approved lithium in 1954" as a treatment for bipolar disorder, depression and psychosis.

"I had a very ambivalent feeling about where psychiatry went in the last 50 years. So I wanted to write about two things that fascinated me. One was much more popular on the political left, and that was psychiatry, especially pharma-psychiatry. Then, on the most horrible pole of the right, the trampling of civil rights.

"I thought, how can I talk about these things without getting up on a pulpit and beating you over the head with it?"

The other element shaping Shutter Island was his "really strong desire to write a gothic novel. It's a form I love very much. Those things all came together for me in a few weeks to a month to form the idea for this book."

Asked which gothic novelists he has been inspired by, Lehane says, "Oh, the girls. The Brontes, Mary Shelley," citing the authors of Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) and Frankenstein. Among contemporary gothic writers, he likes Patrick McGrath (Trauma).

Lehane has done some promotion for the movie, about which he says he is "ecstatic."

"We'll go up to New York for the premiere, and we'll do a benefit for Eckerd at BayWalk (in downtown St. Petersburg) later in the month," he says.

But he is also busy with his next two books. First will be a return to Kenzie and Gennaro 11 years after his last book about them. The novel, which picks up the plot of Gone Baby Gone a decade later, doesn't have a title or release date yet, but Lehane says he's almost finished with it. "I'm close. Maybe next week."

He's also well started on another historical novel, like his 2008 bestseller The Given Day.

"It's not really a straight sequel to that," he says. "It's a minor character from The Given Day stepping up with his own story. I'm having fun. This book is in a hurry to come out."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Shutter Island

By Dennis Lehane, HarperCollins, 400 pages, $7.99 (paperback)

Movie review

Read Times film critic Steve Persall's review of the movie version of Shutter Island in Thursday's Weekend section.

Dennis Lehane's 'Shutter Island' a departure into darkness 02/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 3:30am]

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