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.

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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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