The old adage goes, “Read the book. It’s better than the movie.” This axiom begins, of course, with an unfair premise. The printed page and a blown up image on a flickering screen are hard to compare; and that’s without even considering what goes into a screen adaptation of a novel or short story. At what studio has it landed? Who are the producers? Who is the writer doing the adapting, and what writer’s words are you trying to adapt?
If that writer is Elmore Leonard, this last part becomes trickier than most. Leonard’s writing has a cinematic flair and a sense of pace that puts most screenplays to shame. The man known as Dutch to his friends and “the Dickens of Detroit” to his legions of fans practiced his craft for more than five decades, beginning with stolen moments devoted to prose when he was an advertising copywriter and continuing until his death in 2013. He also wrote scripts for industrial training films, but after first being published in 1951, it became clear where his destiny lay. He began writing pulp Westerns, and then graduated to the crime and suspense genre that became his playground.
And while Leonard was an occasional screenwriter himself—he wrote the original screenplays for “Joe Kidd” and “Mr. Majestyk,” as well as the adapted screenplays for his own novels “52 Pick-Up,” “The Moonshine War,” and “Stick” among others—the number of screenplays adapted by others from his novels is a considerable number in itself.
The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre
That legacy, of his plots and characters given life by different writers, is what many people know of him. And it’s quite a mixed bag. While it’s great that one of the last adaptions of his work while he was alive was FX’s superb “Justified,” based on Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” there are the forgettable: “Killshot” and “Touch” come to mind (or maybe they don’t). And finally the truly awful: “The Big Bounce”–pick whichever version you like—they’re both equally bad.
It became something of a running joke when the latest Leonard inspired project had been announced. Even he once said, “I don’t remember all the bad ones. I know ‘The Big Bounce’ was bad, though, and they made it twice. It wasn’t bad enough the first time [‘The Big Bounce’ (1969)]. I don’t think anybody in the picture knew what they were doing. The second time they made it [‘The Big Bounce’ (2004)], they shot it in Hawaii. They would cut to surfers when they ran out of ideas.”
The difficulty of adapting Leonard is trying to be too much like him. His premises often involve intertwining characters whose schemes implode upon each other. And nobody—and many have tried—can write dialogue quite like him. This would seem to be a simple blueprint. Just take what is already there and try not to screw it up. And that of course is easier said than done.
Just attempting to put good-looking, supposedly interesting people together for two hours without capturing the essence of Leonard’s style is where many writers—and directors—fail. Though the bulk of Leonard’s novels are character driven, they always have something to do. And while this plays out differently over the course of a novel than a movie, the truly good ones, like “Out of Sight,” directed by Steven Soderbergh (with an adapted screenplay by Scott Frank) or “Jackie Brown,” (based on the novel “Rum Punch”) written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, stay faithful to Leonard while also maintaining their originality.
Leonard and the Western
Hollywood discovered the power of Leonard’s writing early. 1957’s “3:10 to Yuma” is a spare Western, something at which the literary and cinematic Leonard excelled. Directed by Delmer Daves with an adapted screenplay from Halsted Welles, “3:10” has an elegantly simple setup: a reluctant small time rancher (played by Van Heflin) has to protect outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) from an outraged town hell bent on their own brand of justice and get Wade on the train to Yuma and a court date. With a haunting score, great pacing, and Daves’ ability to inject tension into almost every scene, “3:10” has the feeling of a pulp Western brought to life.
1967’s “Hombre” and 1971’s “Valdez is Coming” benefit from a couple of things. First of all, they have the star power. “Hombre” stars Paul Newman and “Valdez” is headlined by Burt Lancaster. Also, as the 1960s were coming to a close, the Western was undergoing radical shifts. Directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah had turned the genre on its ear just as it seemed that cowboy shoot ‘em ups on the big screen were dying.
Both “Hombre,” and “Valdez is Coming” tackle heroism from skewed viewpoints. In “Hombre,” directed by Martin Ritt and co-written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., John “Hombre” Russell (Newman) is a white man raised by Apaches and scorned by white society. He ultimately has to lead a group of townspeople through the desert to safety after a stagecoach robbery gone wrong.
“Valdez is Coming,” directed by Edwin Sherin and co-written by Roland Kibee and David Rayfiel, approaches us from a different direction. Valdez (Lancaster) is an aging sheriff who is seeking monetary compensation for the pregnant Indian widow of a murdered black man. The townspeople know little of Valdez; here is the classic archetype pitted against other classic archetypes. Jon Cypher is outstanding as Frank Tanner, the land baron who stands in the sheriff’s way. Both of these movies tackle racism, monetarism, and the meaning of justice with toughness and grit.
As the Western genre dried up in the print medium through the 1970s, Leonard was becoming the master of the twisted crime/suspense novel. His adopted hometown of Detroit became the backdrop for the menacing, interesting, entertaining, and yes–occasionally lovable–characters which began to populate his work. “52 Pick-Up,” “Swag” (originally “Ryan’s Rules”), and “Unknown Man #89” are all standouts from the decade.
And while Leonard was becoming a rising literary star, the 1970s was a relatively Leonard-free decade when it came to filmed adaptations. Even 1974’s “Mr. Majestyk,” starring Charles Bronson as a farmer who takes on organized crime, was an original screenplay written by Leonard and then novelized. It took Hollywood quite a while to come to terms with the “new” Leonard.
“The Ambassador,” led by aging, raging alcoholic Robert Mitchum and a seriously ill Rock Hudson (an early Hollywood casualty of AIDS), only used “52 Pick-Up” as a starting point. The rest of the movie had little to do with the source material; the book was centered on a successful Michigan businessman whose affair becomes blackmail fodder. While there is blackmail in “The Ambassador,” the setting is now Israel and it’s mostly about the PLO and other terroristic considerations.
“Stick,” starring Burt Reynolds (also directing) as Ernest “Stick” Stickley, is one of the first times you get to see the power of Leonard’s plotting and pacing. And while the film does occasionally become muddied with all that is going on, Reynolds acquits himself nicely as an ex-con (see, most of Leonard’s main characters are ex-cons!) pulled into a world drug running, questionable investments, and the lust of a beautiful woman—here played by Candice Bergen. The losers, the boozers, and the menacers—headlined by the truly evil Moke (the late, great Dar Robinson) are all here.
The Best and the Rest
With his 1985 novel “Glitz,” Leonard truly established himself as a bestseller with staying power, and 30 years’ worth of adaptations have followed. 1986’s “52 Pick-Up,” turned into a movie 12 years after the novel was published, is an underrated thriller, and one of Roy Scheider’s best performances. Directed by John Frankenheimer, the movie crackles with great dialogue and a feeling that Scheider’s character, Harry Mitchell, has his back against the wall but is ready to fight back. And even though the novel dates back to the mid-1970s, the film dovetails neatly with the rise of video voyeurism in the 1980s.
The mid-1990s saw the Elmore Leonard boom in full swing. “Get Shorty,” with reformed gangster Chili Palmer (John Travolta) attempting to make his mark in Hollywood doesn’t hold up that well but it’s still good fun.
The absolute best adaptations of Leonard’s work, though (aside from “Justified”), came out in 1997 and 1998, respectively—the aforementioned “Jackie Brown,” with Pam Grier as the title character and the eminently watchable Robert Forster as beleaguered bail bondsman Max Cherry, and “Out of Sight,” starring George Clooney as Jack Foley and Jennifer Lopez as Karen Cisco.
“Jackie Brown” is Tarantino at his finest. Since this world is not a grandiose vision of his own making, he stays close to the source material, minus changing the main character from a white woman into a black woman. That’s a point for the purists, because Grier is great as a middle aged stewardess attempting to play both sides against the middle. Samuel L. Jackson is his usual scenery chewing self, and while the act has gotten old, in 1997 it was still relatively fresh. Robert De Niro’s slow-witted Louis is a departure from his usual tough-guy characters and Bridget Fonda is a hoot as surfer girl Melanie.
“Out of Sight” captures Leonard’s playful side with Soderbergh’s fine touches. If you ever read another novel featuring Jack Foley, such as “Road Dogs,” Clooney will probably appear in your head as the character. The only false note is Steve Zahn as Glenn, but that’s okay. He was popular for about five minutes, and while his character sets up a lot of the action that happens later on the movie, he sort of fades away as Clooney and Lopez take control. This is where the most fleshed out big screen versions of Leonard’s characters can be seen. While all of the backstory can be spread out over the course of an entire book, here the actors’ faces tell all.
Since that mini-renaissance, and minus “Justified,” the adaptations of Leonard’s work have been of varying quality. 2005’s “Be Cool” was an annoying sequel to “Get Shorty.” The 2007 remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale was solid, but was it necessary? 2008’s “Killshot” was somewhat interesting but very dour, and “Freaky Deaky” and “Life of Crime” came and went with nary a peep.
With an enormous body of work, it’s also important to note that not every novel Leonard wrote was a classic, but even his most average work was quite readable and well-crafted. The same can’t be said of many of the movies adapted from his books. There are gems, to be sure, but it just goes to show you that his unique talent as a writer is more ably enjoyed spread out over 200 pages rather than two hours.