Elmore Leonard is the author of some 80 books. The majority of his early works were in the western genre. With titles like 3:10 to Yuma, Last Stand at Saber River, Valdez Is Coming, and more, Leonard is second only to Louis L’amour in western output and rivals the old master in quality.
Leonard’s fame, however, comes from his crime fiction works. Leonard’s ability to write dialogue in a realistic manner and use that dialogue to advance the story, makes his work particularly easy to adapt for the screen.. Sometimes. His characters are often quirky, relatable, and deep. Leonard has set the bar for plot twists and double crosses in a thriller.
Though his first television adaptation came in 1956, Leonard ruled the made for TV movie market in the 1980s. Eleven of his stories were adapted for the small screen in that decade, none of which were notable, most of which starred no one of weight, and are virtually unwatchable.
It wasn’t until the 1995 film adaptation of Get Shorty that the run of box office hits began. The film was a humorous look at the similarities between the work of a Shylock (loan shark) and a movie producer.
The biggest smash based on a Leonard work was the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Out of Sight which also starred George Clooney. It also spawned the failed TV series Karen Sisco which lasted about 10 episodes.
The current success of the FX drama Justified, now in its third season, has made Leonard relevant again. Justified began life as a short story entitled Fire in The Hole. It is the story of Deputy United States Marshal Raylan Givens. After baiting a criminal in Miami into pulling his weapon so he would be “Justified” in shooting him (get it?) Givens is sent back to his home state of Kentucky. The past that Raylan has been running from is now his present as he deals with old friends from his coal mining days, his criminal father, and the girl that got away…even if she is a federal witness.
The Raylan of Justified is more an amalgamation of several Leonard characters. He is the quintessential lawman. He shoots now and shoots later, then asks questions. Raylan is quick talking and full of wit. His interactions with his ex-wife (who works in the same building ) are dripping with the type of cynicism and brilliance for which Leonard is famous.
Quentin Tarantino chose Leonard’s Rum Punch as the basis for his third film titled Jackie Brown. Tarantino held the option on two additional Leonard titles but ceded them in 2002 after failing to bring them to the screen. Killshot starred Joseph Gordon- Levitt and Mickey Rourke as a two-man hit team looking to extort money from a real estate agent. After spending two years in development hell and another two in editing hell, this movies was released direct to DVD and was awful.
The fate of the second, Freaky Deaky, remains to be seen. Since filming began nearly 18 months ago, most of the more prominent cast members have dropped out. The theatrical release has been pushed back twice, It seems to be destined to receive a direct to DVD release. I try not to let that bother me as two lesser Elmore Leonard titles have been optioned for theatrical release next year, though they have yet to been cast.
It takes a certain caliber of director and production company to do Elmore Leonard’s work justice. We have seen what happens when his work is carefully adapted and shepherded through the film making process. It does not work often as a TV one-shot or a straight to DVD feature. Still, given his vast body of work we have only scratched the surface, there is still plenty of content to adapt. Also, it is important to note that “Dutch,” as the 88-year-old Leonard prefers to be called, still cranks out a book or two each year, giving Hollywood plenty more chances to get it wrong and a few more to get it right.