Why Elmore Leonard Was the English Language's 'Most Cinematic Novelist'

"I never show off," the late author and screenwriter told The Atlantic in 2012.
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Elmord Leonard's writing career produced an incredible number of hit novels, short stories, and movies—Get ShortyOut of SightJackie Brown, and 3:10 to Yuma among them—​but not all of the films adapted from his work succeeded. Last year, The Atlantic's James Parker asked him whether he'd learned anything from flops like Be Cool or The Big Bounce.

"No—nothing," he replied. "The screenwriter is a writer, and if he’s really good, he’ll recognize what’s on the book page, and he’ll pick it up and use it."

The pages written by Leonard, who died today at age 87, offered plenty for screenwriters, just as they did for readers of all kinds. That's in part because he didn't try to say too much. As he put it in his 10 rules for writing, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." Or as he said in his interview with Parker, "I never show off."

The payoff? "Elmore Leonard is perhaps the most cinematic novelist writing in the English language," The Atlantic's Chris Orr wrote in a 2004 review of The Big Bounce. "This is partly due to his usual subject matter--strong men and beautiful women on the edge of the law--but still more to the fact that his books read very nearly in real-time. Unlike most crime writers, for whom no physical or emotional detail is too small, Leonard has an extraordinary gift for concision: In any given scene he tells you just enough for the scene to play, and nothing more. As a result, his novels tend to go by in a happy, imagistic blur that feels more like a pleasant moviegoing experience than most actual trips to the multiplex."

Read "Ice Man," his 2012 short story for The Atlantic, here.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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