From "Justified" to "Get Shorty," what Hollywood got right and wrong about the pulp novelist
Nobody wrote tough guys like Elmore Leonard. They were funny, they were menacing, they were frequently dangerous and they were always unforgettable.
The "Rum Punch" and "Hombre" novelist died Tuesday at the age of 87 and in a career that spanned five decades and genres like crime thrillers and westerns, Leonard frequently found Hollywood knocking on his door.
Nearly 20 movies and more than a half-dozen TV shows were made from his numerous novels and short stories. For the most part, filmmakers failed to capture his crackling dialogue and his dry, ironic takes on lawmen and law-breakers.
Films like "Bandits" bore only a passing resemblance to the Leonard novels on which they were based, while others like the 2009 straight-to-DVD dud "Killshot" forgot to include the humor that was an essential ingredient in writer's pulpy works.
However, a few projects like Quentin Tarantino's Blaxploitation-infused "Jackie Brown" or Steven Soderbergh's dizzyingly seductive "Out of Sight," starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, were able to achieve that mysterious alchemy that comes from matching the ideal filmmaker to Leonard's wry vision.
Also read: Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing
In memory of Leonard, TheWrap takes a look at the best of the writer's adaptations. Add them to the Netflix queue when taking a break from tearing through his novels.
JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Key Talent: Quentin Tarantino and stars Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson.
Why it Worked: "Jackie Brown" is an adaptation of Leonard's book "Rum Punch" that works because it did not feel the need to be slavishly devoted to its source material. Not only did Tarantino rechristen the film, he also altered the lead character's race from white to black and changed her surname from Burke to Brown. The result is a twisty crime story that offers up ample wit and surprises. From its opening shot of Brown (Grier) making her way through an airport while Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" plays in the background to its final double-cross, "Jackie Brown" is a film that exudes cool. Funny. The same could be said for Leonard's writing.
GET SHORTY (1995)
Key Talent: Director Barry Levinson, screenwriter Scott Frank and star John Travolta.
Why it Worked: The story of a loan shark (Travolta) who unexpectedly finds himself in Hollywood is a razor sharp satire of the movie business. It solidified Travolta's post-"Pulp Fiction" comeback, while sending up the stars, producers and studio hangers-on who fuel the industry. Its only demerit was the never-needed-to-happen 2005 sequel "Be Cool."
Key Talent: Creator Graham Yost and star Timothy Olyphant.
Why it Worked: "Justified" isn't a straight recreation of Leonard's work. Rather it uses his novels "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap," the short story "Fire in the Hole" and the central character of U.S. Marshall Raylon Givens as a way to examine the bootleggers, white supremacists and crime syndicates who are the true power brokers in the hill country of eastern Kentucky. Olyphant's grudging heroism and flexible moral code makes him one of the most endlessly fascinating central characters on television. Throughout the show's four seasons, he has been perfectly matched with a rogue's gallery of villains like a brutal backwoods crime matriarch (Margo Martindale) and a perverse mafia hitman (Neal McDonough). Is it any wonder that this was Leonard's favorite of all the movie and TV adaptations of his work?
OUT OF SIGHT (1998)
Key Talent: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.
Why it Worked: The chemistry between Clooney's devilish bank robber and Lopez's no-nonsense federal agent is electrifying and their "meet cute" in the trunk of a getaway car is a classic of the genre. Soderbergh collapses the story over itself and plays with chronology while simultaneously tracking the development of his stars' unlikely love story and Clooney's plans to pull off the perfect heist. The film was a box office failure when it was initially released, but strong reviews and a subsequent rediscovery on home entertainment platforms have insured its place in pop culture history.
3:10 TO YUMA (1957)
Key Talent: Stars Glenn Ford and Van Heflin and director Delmer Daves.
Why it Worked: Leonard's tense short story about a deputy sheriff who must beat the odds to get a ruthless outlaw to a prison train was made into two different movies, separated by many decades. The more recent 2007 version with Russell Crowe is better known, but it's also over-stuffed. Far superior is the earlier version which eschews big stunts in favor of focusing on the grudging bond that develops between prisoner and captor.