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.

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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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