1) Welcome to Shutter Island

Perhaps the first question I should address is: why are we deconstructing this particular story?

I offer you several compelling reasons.

First, Shutter Island comes from the brilliant mind of perhaps the most critically acclaimed of today’s thriller writers, Dennis Lehane.  If we’re going to sit at someone’s feet and take notes, might as well be a proven genius.

Secondly, the story exists as both a movie and a novel, allowing us access in two realms and the opportunity to contrast them in ways that illuminate the author’s intention and technique.

Theory is great.  A killer example of exemplary execution is even better.

Thirdly, the story is extraordinarily complex, nuanced and uncompromisingly brilliant.  This isn’t an entry-level deconstruction, it’s like learning to fly by taking lessons in an F-18.

That said, I have every confidence we can handle it.

And finally, it’s a great model of story structure, not to mention characterization, theme and narrative manipulation.

Prepare for Deconstruction

You know how I feel about starting to write a story without completely understanding how it’s going to end, among a list of other critical things you need to wrap your head around prior to Page 1.

It’s no different when it comes to analyzing a story. 

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, it would be impossible to write a story like Shutter Island by pantsing your way through it.  Unless you have, say, twenty years to spend on about twenty-nine rewrites, and you also bring an evolved and enlightened understanding of story architecture to the process on the level of… well, Dennis Lehane.

Every single scene in this story is in context to how the story ends.

Imagine you’re a magician and you’re trying to figure out how another magician does a certain trick.   How the trick is done from a technical standpoint.  You can’t possibly conduct such an analysis, much less make sense of it, unless you know how the trick turns out.  What the trick is

Same with a story. 

Imagine trying to deconstruct The Sixth Sense without knowing that Bruce Willis is actually dead the whole time, without knowing that he doesn’t know that he’s a ghost.  It wouldn’t work – you’d have to see it again, and perhaps again after that, to get any benefit from a deconstruction.

That very trick made the film — which Robert Mckee sites as one of the worst screenplays in modern cinema — about $600 million.

This is just as true, if not more so, when it comes to Shutter Island.  Which, by the way, is one of the better screenplays in modern cinema, at least in the thriller/period genre.

Because much like The Sixth Sense, what you experience on a first viewing turns out to be something completely different than you thought as you sat there and munched your popcorn in wide-eyed wonder. 

Not that you couldn’t guess what’s going on.  But even then, you couldn’t completely connect all the dots. 

Oh, you’ll have guessed some of it by the end of Part 3.  But by then it’s too late. because you’ll have missed practically all of the brilliant foreshadowing and double-nuanced sublety that, upon a second viewer, practically screams the truth.

Connecting the dots is precisely what a deconstruction is all about.

Once you do know how a story ends, then upon seeing it or reading it again, you can see how the author made it happen.  How the author fooled you into buying into one particular reality, when another reality was the case all along.

Only when you know the ultimate trick can you productively deconstruct a masterpiece of dramatic deception, character arc and narrative tension.

You’ll need to experience the story twice.  Or more.

Or, you can read the novel and then see the flick.  Vice versa if you prefer.  In either case, it’s that second round that will give you, the analytical writer, the learning experience you seek.

If you haven’t yet seen Shutter Island or read the book, then by all means try to do so by next Monday (or before you read this deconstruction if you’ve arrived  here after-the-fact), when the first analytical post will appear.  See it for the experience, the entertainment value, feel free to get swept away. 

If you can’t do that, keep reading, I have a solution for you.  In a moment.

Don’t try to analyze it yet… because you can’t.  Not until the second pass.

The second pass is like having the author sitting next to you explaining what you didn’t notice or understand the first time.

If you’re a novelist, I highly recommend seeing the movie first, then reading the book to see how the author made it all happen.

If you’re a screenwriter, read the book first and then see the movie to see how the screenwriter adapted the story.

Either way, you’ll have experienced the story twice, and that’s imperative to getting the most out of this exercise.  More so than in pretty much any other story out there.

That’s how rich and complex this story is.

The Optional Spoiler Alert — Learn the Secret Meaning of it all Here

Some of you won’t have the opportunity to see the movie by next Monday, since it’s near the end of its run.  If you live in a rural area or a small town, chances are the film has come and gone.  And it’s not yet out on DVD.

The book, however, should be available anywhere, unless you live where the postman needs an airplane to deliver your Amazon.com order.

For those of you who can’t get it done by Monday, and who still want to benefit from this deconstruction, I’m going to tell you the movie’s secret.  Right here, right now. 

CLICK HERE to get that information.  It’s not like actually seeing the film or reading it, but it will tell you the movie’s outcome, its trick, its ultimate secret.

Know it, and you can then benefit from this analysis in a much more enlightened way.

Nothing about Shutter Island is what it seems to be.  At least the first time through.

If you don’t want to know, if you’re going to see the film or read the book before Monday, stop reading here. 

Otherwise, CLICK HERE for the spoiler.

The deconstruction begins here on Monday, April 26.  If it’s remotely possible, try to see the film or read the book before then.

If you have thoughts about this story pre-deconstruction, I’d love to hear from you.  Did it fool you?  Did you guess any of it?  In either case, upon reaching the end, can you look back and see how Lehane was completely messing with our heads the whole time?

And most importantly, did you spot the major story milestones and sense the shifting context over the four sequential parts?

All that will be exposed and explored, beginning Monday.


Filed under Book reviews for writers

16 Responses to 1) Welcome to Shutter Island

  1. Great – I managed to watch the movie a couple of days ago – I won’t get the book on time, but will watch the film again.

    Can’t wait for Monday now!

  2. Fantastic!! I cannot wait! 🙂 I’ll watch the film between now and then and make sure that my book is ready at hand 🙂

    My review of Shutter Island is here, if you’re curious:

    I’m eager to hear what you have to say. Plus I wouldn’t mind learning how to do a deconstruction of a novel myself 🙂

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    I’ve been meaning to see or read this, as well as wanting to sink my teeth into more thriller as I’m in the middle of changing my story idea to be a genre crossover including Thriller as one of the two, due to the ideas I’m playing with. Looking at more exceptional cases is always good (already read Whisper so got that covered ;)).

    May have to make a run to Borders or B&N this weekend and devour the book at least the first time then, hrm.

  4. These type of “trick” plots are great. Kind of like the “rinse and repeat” tactic on shampoo bottles that make people use the product more, thus buy more. This plot method demands multiple viewings.
    Very smart.

  5. ps. But Lehane is doing something else here too. Although, he’s requiring us to watch the movie more than once, he’s also giving us two different movies for the price of one.
    All around win-win for everyone.

  6. Thank you Larry for the “stop here” point. I was nervously reading the post, hoping I wouldn’t come upon a spoiler as I’m awaiting the arrival of the book, which I ordered Monday. I haven’t seen the movie yet, due to too many excuses to mention. I already wanted to see it, but from the moment you started posting about it, I wanted to see it more and more. I hope I’ll get a chance to go see it this weekend, then devour the book straight afterwards. If life inevitably puts either on hold, I’ll wait until I’m finished to come back and read the deconstruction posts.
    You have me very excited about this story. I so hope I receive the book by tomorrow!

  7. Mae

    Hi Larry, I read the book and watched the movie. My daughter read the book and we discussed the ending. I feel the movie gave a different ending than the book. Since my daughter didn’t see the movie, she didn’t get the same idea of the ending because she didn’t see the movie. The last line of the movie was the revealing moment for me. She claimed the last line was not in the book. What do you think. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie.

  8. @Mae and Martha — both of you asked about the last line. It was in the movie, but not in the book. A great moment for the screenwriters, as it’s a killer line.

    That said, the ending is exactly the same. Even a half second clip in the film showing the “instrument” of Teddy’s fate (one way or the other, if you don’t know the ending), is present in the book’s final moments, as well.

  9. Fi

    I read the book last month in one sitting. Then, at 3am, I read it again with even more astonishment. It was like seeing the sistine chapel for the first time.

  10. Pingback: 8) “Shutter Island” – The Part 3 Scenes

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  14. Kevin McCoy

    I am not sure if you have seen the ending as clearly as you thought, pay close attention and you will notice at the very end with the live as a monster die as a good man quote, i realized that he HASN’T relapsed like you are meant to think. its the opposite. he IS aware of reality, but he fears he may relapse again and he wants to “die a good man”. so he pretends to Dr. Shehan that he has relapsed by calling him Chuck again ON PURPOSE so that he will get the lobotomy and “die” mentally. he wants to die while he is in reality, while he knows the truth, while he understands his actions were real, because he knows inside it is only a matter of time before he falls back into his fantasy, so he intentionally dies as a hero, instead of living as a monster. You can tell because he WILLINGLY approaches the orderlies when he begins to walk away from Dr. Shehan. and this last action is made and shown clearly for a reason, he knows he has made his final move, and walks to his end without any attempt to run. watch it again and tell me if you dont see what i see, im curious to hear your feedback, thanks for your time!

  15. @Kevin — beg to differ… I see it exactly as you describe, which is exactly opposite. I’ve copied my comments on the ending here… notice I say he “chooses” to accept this fate. Not sure why you think I didn’t get this — what follows is pretty clear:

    “The therapy hasn’t worked as planned. The patient has chosen to reassume his Teddy identity rather than exist in the truth of the Laeddis reality. # Just before he rises to his feet to walk toward what we know will be a full frontal lobotomy, he asks this thematic question to Chuck (who is actually the missing in action Dr. Sheehan, who has been Laeddis’ therapist for the past two years, and has been playing the role of prodding sidekick throughout the whole charade): ‘Is it better to live as a monster or die a good man?’ # Teddy chooses the later.”

    He hasn’t relapsed. He chooses to accept this fate. As I state above.
    Looks like we both “get it” after all. Thanks for writing. L.

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