The Elmore Leonard Paradox

Why so many screen adaptations of the work of America’s most cinematic novelist are so bad—and what makes the exceptions, like TV’s Justified, so good
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When Elmore Leonard died in August at age 87, he left behind more than 40 novels, a number of short stories, and one ongoing television show, Justified, which begins its fifth season in January. By most appraisals, he had long since dethroned Raymond Chandler as the greatest of American crime writers. Many critics argued that, if anything, the reference to genre slighted his contributions. Martin Amis described him as “a literary genius,” and “the nearest America has to a national writer.”

Leonard started out writing Westerns in the 1950s and ’60s, but when the market for cowboy dramas began to collapse, he switched to the contemporary crime novel and rarely looked back. Over the years, he honed his spare, dialogue-driven prose to a lethal leanness, and earned a reputation as the “Dickens of Detroit” for frequently setting his tales of cops and robbers (and kidnappers, car bombers, and other desperadoes) in the city where he had lived since childhood.

Leonard’s influence was not limited to the printed page. To date, more than two dozen of his novels and stories have been adapted for film or television—a few of them more than once. The Hollywood Reporter ranked him No. 2 on their 2012 list of “Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors,” behind Stephen King (who once called Leonard “the great American writer”).

If the sheer number of Leonard adaptations is remarkable, what is more remarkable still is how few of them are any good. No one was more aware of, or blunt about, this disappointing onscreen record than Leonard himself. His first crime novel, The Big Bounce, was twice adapted for film, in 1969 and 2004. Leonard memorably described the earlier effort as the “second-worst movie ever made”; it was not until he saw the 2004 version, he later said, that he knew what movie was the worst.


 

These fraught journeys from page to screen are a particular surprise given that Leonard may have been the most cinematic novelist in the English language. A film buff from an early age, he once said, “I’ve always seen my books as movies.” Get Shorty, his most famous novel thanks to its successful big-screen adaptation in 1995, is largely an extended satire of Hollywood, drawing on Leonard’s own repeated frustrations there. (He wrote nine screenplays in the 1970s and ’80s, some of them adaptations of his own books.) Films and filmmaking play roles in a number of his other novels as well, including 52 Pick-Up, LaBrava, Stick, and Djibouti.

Leonard’s characters themselves cite movie scenes with the casual aplomb of would-be film critics. In Out of Sight, the mismatched lovers Karen Sisco and Jack Foley (played by Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film adaptation) fall for each other while locked in the trunk of a car, discussing Faye Dunaway movies. In a short story also featuring Sisco, a conversation touches on the question of whether someone is doing a Jack Nicholson impression or, à la Heathers, an impression of “Christian Slater doing Nicholson.” The cinematic references extend to internal monologues as well. Many a Leonard hard case—notable among them, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the protagonist of Justified—is self-consciously emulating the movies when he works through the pantomime of his tough-guy persona: the silent stare-down, the quick-draw shoot-out.

But more even than their content, it is the style of Leonard’s books that evokes the movies. In contrast with writers—and, in particular, crime writers—whose paragraphs bulge with physical detail, Leonard was, after Hemingway, perhaps America’s preeminent evangelist for literary concision. About half of the “10 Rules for Writing” that he offered to readers of the Detroit Free Press in 2010 are pleas for reduced verbiage, including: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Rich in dialogue; written in short, point-of-view chapters; and populated with recognizable yet idiosyncratic types—the ex-con trying to go straight, the wife or mistress who’s grown tired of her wealthy man—Leonard’s stories flow by in an easygoing cinematic wash. It is a testament to his efforts that his books are very nearly effortless to read.

Why did Hollywood have such difficulty capturing Leonard’s appeal for so long? The adaptations of his early Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T, Hombre) were largely successful, but after his switch to crime writing, the studios lost their knack for translating him to the screen. The failure was mostly tonal: Leonard’s work inhabits a unique point on the crime-fiction spectrum, neither as grimly hard-boiled as James Ellroy’s or Dennis Lehane’s on the one hand, nor as elaborately comic as Carl Hiaasen’s on the other. There is plenty of dry, ironic wit in Leonard’s work, but little in the way of jokiness.

Most of the early adaptations of Leonard’s crime work missed his light authorial touch, opting instead for somber noir. The 1969 version of The Big Bounce (starring a young but already wooden Ryan O’Neal) larded up a simple murder scheme with bleak subplots involving suicide and prostitution. Stick, a self-directed vanity project by Burt Reynolds, was all over the map tonally. (Leonard complained that “the plot was removed and machine guns substituted.”) And the director Abel Ferrara’s Cat Chaser—an initial, unreleased cut of which was three hours long and semipornographic—proved so traumatic an experience for the actress Kelly McGillis that she briefly quit acting altogether. Even relatively capable adaptations such as Mr. Majestyk (with Charles Bronson) and 52 Pick-Up (with Roy Scheider) emphasized the violence of Leonard’s books at the expense of character and dialogue.

It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino arrived on the scene in the 1990s that an obvious cinematic vernacular for adapting Leonard presented itself. Though the two artists were separated in age by nearly 40 years, the affinities between them were evident: same ear for dialogue, same comfort with writing nonwhite and female characters, same don’t-take-it-all-too-seriously tone. (It should be noted, of course, that Tarantino’s work is far more violent than Leonard’s ever was.) Tarantino has frequently cited Leonard as a substantial influence on his writing. He was an ardent enough fan in his youth that when he was caught shoplifting a paperback of Leonard’s Switch at age 15, he later returned to the store, unchastened, to steal it a second time. When Leonard first saw True Romance (which Tarantino wrote but did not direct), he immediately recognized the congruity of their visions: “This is what one of my books should be,” he recalled thinking. Tarantino, as it turned out, felt exactly the same way. He later told Charlie Rose that he considered True Romance (which is set, in part, in Detroit) “basically like an Elmore Leonard movie that he didn’t write.”

Tarantino’s direct involvement with the production of Get Shorty, the first genuinely successful Leonard crime adaptation, was limited to his helping persuade John Travolta to take the lead role as Chili Palmer. But with Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had already offered a model for how to adapt Leonard to the big screen. (Leonard expressed his gratitude with a sly reference to Reservoir Dogs in his 1995 novel, Riding the Rap.) It was a model neatly adopted by Get Shorty’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld, and screenwriter, Scott Frank. For Frank, the primary challenge in constructing the script was to compress and offer structure while maintaining as much of Leonard’s dialogue as possible—because, as Frank noted, “The dialogue is what really drives the whole thing.” For Sonnenfeld, the trick was to allow Leonard’s native humor to come out naturally, without explicitly framing it as comedy. As Leonard recalled his own advice: “I told Barry, before he started shooting, ‘When someone delivers a funny line, I hope you don’t cut to another actor to get a reaction, like a grin or a laugh or something, because these people are serious.’ ”

Elmore Leonard once said, “I’ve always seen my books as movies.”

After Get Shorty, this same delicate balancing act—between humor and drama, light and dark—was accomplished by Tarantino in Jackie Brown, his adaptation of Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and then by Soderbergh in Out of Sight (screenplay again by Frank). Jackie Brown was the most literal translation of Leonard to date: at two and a half hours, it almost exceeded the length of time required to read the book. Soderbergh’s Out of Sight was the strongest of all Leonard adaptations to date and one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s: sharp, funny, tense, sexy, and never more alive than when its characters are locked in conversation.

But as quickly as the formula for adapting Leonard appeared to have been found, it was lost again. Over the next decade, there were a few more attempts on the small screen—the quickly canceled TV series Maximum Bob and Karen Sisco—and a couple of small-release features (Killshot, Freaky Deaky). But the highest-profile efforts were duds, albeit in a new way: rather than miss the inherent humor in Leonard’s work, they slathered it on. First, in 2004, there was the disastrous comic remake of The Big Bounce—starring Owen Wilson, the most ill-cast Leonard protagonist of all time—and, a year later, the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, which got wrong almost everything its predecessor had gotten right. Gone was the hip, understated vibe of the earlier film, replaced by broad farce and knowing winks. And that was where things stood as the aughts came to a close: the eminently cinematic yet somehow unfilmable Elmore Leonard had, after his brief moment of being “got” by Hollywood, become unfilmable again.

From left: Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, is among the best onscreen adaptations off Elmore Leonard's work, following flops such as Stick, with Burt Reynolds, and rare triumphs such as Out of Sight, with Jennifer Lopez (Left: Fox Broadcasting Company; center and right: Everett Collection)

Enter the screenwriter Graham Yost, a veteran of Hollywood action scripts (Speed, Broken Arrow), a collaborator on three HBO miniseries (From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific), and the creator of the intriguing but short-lived NBC cop show Boomtown. Yost wrote the pilot episode for the FX series Justified based on a 2001 Leonard short story, “Fire in the Hole,” involving Raylan Givens, who had previously appeared in the mid-’90s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap. Raylan, formerly with the marshal’s office in Miami Beach, has been reassigned, against his fervent wishes, to Lexington, Kentucky, not far from Harlan County, the backwoods oblivion in which he grew up and where the bulk of the show takes place. Raylan is a cowboy in almost every sense of the word: physical, attitudinal, existential.

Begin with the hat, which was a rare instance of disagreement between Yost and Leonard, an unabashed fan of the series from the start who wound up serving as an active executive producer. In Leonard’s original telling, Raylan wears a cowboy hat, but “not the kind country-western stars wear, a small one,” a businessman’s Stetson. By contrast, the Raylan of Justified—played to perfection by Timothy Olyphant—is protected from the skies by a full-on ten-gallon. Despite his initial apprehension, Leonard was won over: “It’s perfect,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “He needs a hat to define who he is.” Hercule Poirot had his meticulously waxed moustache, Lieutenant Columbo his rumpled raincoat. Raylan Givens has his hat.

It’s more than a bit odd that one of the best adaptations of Leonard should feature a contemporary cowboy ambling through the hills and hollers of Kentucky. Leonard’s stories more typically unfold in his native Michigan, in Florida (where he also spent considerable time), or in a combination of the two. For a neo-Western like Justified, however, Kentucky is an exceptionally apt venue, lodged in the popular imagination as a rural, lawless land of clans and feuds and meth and mine shafts and easy gunfire. And though Leonard mostly abandoned the Western as a genre when he switched to crime, a strong echo remained in his work, especially in a handful of books he referred to as his “eastern Westerns.” These are stories of men who—even if lawmen—exist to some degree outside the law, throwbacks to a more primitive, personal sense of justice.

Raylan is exactly such a man, a federal officer who takes visible pride in his lethal aptitude with a firearm—provided that his killings, of which there are many over the course of the show, are “justified.” The opening scene of the show’s pilot episode, which was borrowed from the Leonard novel Pronto, is the urtext of Raylan. Still stationed in Miami (whence he will be banished for what is about to take place), he meets up at a rooftop restaurant with a gun thug whom he has given, in true Western fashion, 24 hours to leave town. As Raylan ticks the seconds down, the gun thug asks whether he would truly shoot an unarmed man. Raylan wouldn’t, and he knows he won’t have to. When the deadline strikes, the frazzled gun thug (who is not, of course, unarmed) draws his pistol. Raylan draws his own faster, and the global tide of gun thugs recedes by one. As he later explains to Internal Affairs, with annoyance, “Let’s just keep it simple: he pulled first, I shot him.”

“Let’s just keep it simple: he pulled first, I shot him.”

Such mortal quasi-entrapments are par for the course for Raylan, who frequently warns the criminally minded that if they force him to draw his weapon, he will shoot to kill. His defining hat, and the gunfighter persona it substantiates, acts as an advertisement, an invitation, and perhaps even a dare: Think you can draw down on me? Take your best shot.

In the classic manner of Leonard protagonists, Raylan is lean and laconic. Like his author, he says no more than he needs to, and though he is not a teller of jokes per se, he is not above the occasional wry observation. It’s a role tailor-made for Olyphant, who apprenticed his taciturnity as Sheriff Seth Bullock on the HBO series Deadwood. But unlike the straight-arrow Bullock, Raylan allows Olyphant far greater opportunity to indulge his ironic, lupine charm. In the principal supporting role of Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s occasional ally and frequent adversary, Walton Goggins (previously of The Shield) offers a complementary portrait in mercurial magnetism, veering from neo-Nazi to born-again preacher to meth magnate, but ever held in inescapable orbit around Olyphant’s stoic lawman.

The primary vision for Justified, however, and its canny understanding of Leonard’s rhythms and tone, belongs to the creator, Yost, who came to the project as a fan. “You get Peter Jackson to do Lord of the Rings because he loves Lord of the Rings,” he told the TV writer Alan Sepinwall. “You get someone to do Elmore Leonard because they love Elmore Leonard, not because they want to make a cop movie.” It begins, as always, with the dialogue. The show’s pilot is frequently a line-by-line adaptation of “Fire in the Hole,” and subsequent episodes borrow from the Raylan novel Riding the Rap. Leonard, who was closely involved with the show before his death, provided it with still more source material when its success inspired him to write a new novel, titled simply Raylan, which he encouraged Yost to “hang up and strip for parts.” Five seasons in, Yost and his writers have of course mostly had to write for themselves. But the spirit of Leonard is ever present, signified by the rubber wristbands Yost had made for the crew early on, bearing the motto “WWED”—what would Elmore do?

It’s a question, obviously, that Yost and his collaborators will have to answer for themselves from here on out. Justified may not be the best drama on television, but it is among the best, and the degree to which it has been overlooked during awards season seems primarily an indication of the angst-enthralled tenor of the times. Raylan clearly has his demons, but unlike Walter White and Don Draper and Carrie Mathison (or, reaching further back, Tony Soprano and Jimmy McNulty), he doesn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with them. Is he, as his ex-wife avows in the kicker of the show’s pilot, “the angriest man [she has] ever known”? Maybe. But he genuinely hasn’t given the subject much thought. He is the consummate Leonard hero: cool, and not entirely in a good way.

Like any show, Justified has had its ups and downs, but the fourth season culminated on a high note, with a razor-sharp encounter between Raylan and a Detroit mobster played by Mike O’Malley—a confrontation that elegantly bookended that very first scene, on the Miami rooftop with the gun thug. Only this time, contrary to established fashion, Raylan managed to engineer his desired outcome without drawing his gun.

Yost has suggested that after this season, the show has “maybe two seasons left.” Among its accomplishments, Justified has already given Leonard, in Raylan Givens, the signature character that he lacked throughout his writing career—ironically, in part thanks to his success selling the rights to his books (and by extension, the rights to his characters) to multiple studios over the years.

Beyond lodging Raylan firmly in the public imagination, however, Justified offered a more significant, late-in-life gift to Leonard, the consummate film buff, the lover of Westerns and crime stories who, as a child, recounted movie plots to his friends and was photographed holding a toy pistol in a pose imitating Bonnie Parker. It proved to him, after decades of frequent disappointment, that his authorial vision could be translated to the screen—not just once in a while, not by lucky fluke, but as he himself had committed it to the page: over and over again.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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