Top Elmore Leonard Adaptations

Contemporary audiences might recognize the late Elmore Leonard most for the series Justified, which appears on FX TV. Storied film and literature buffs know of a richer history, of a man writing quirky and sometimes comedic crime dramas. Leonard’s early work was largely based in the Western genre, but he is also known as a crime novelist to rival the likes of Raymond Chandler. Many of his books have been turned into movies, but not all of them were so hot. Leonard himself described the 1969 version of “The Big Bounce” as the “second-worst movie ever made.” His thoughts on the 2004 remake weren’t much better.

Still, Leonard’s flair for dialogue and intricate plots made his work distinct and interesting. Nuanced. More than 20 of his stories have been adapted into films, and his writing kept getting sharper with each iteration. Yet his work is difficult to translate into film, despite the fact that he viewed his books as films when he wrote them. Here are the top films that best spoke to Leonard’s work, even at its strangest.

Get Shorty

Get Shorty is an effortless blend of crime and fiction, on screen and figuratively, as the movie whisks us through the criminal process of getting a movie made. The film is based largely on some of Leonard’s own frustrations with Hollywood, complete with archetypes like the tough guy stunt man to the sleaze ball director.

The film uses Leonard’s dialogue effectively, helping expose the character’s motivation in a “get-to-the-point” style. These characters feel authentic, but they don’t beat around the bush. They are impulsive, but quick to change their aims to get what they want. The result is a smart and sardonic take on the state of Hollywood. While the message may be a little outdated by today’s standards, anyone who has tried their hand at making movies can certainly still relate.

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is one of those quintessential heist movies where everyone feels one step ahead of each other. It’s a game of cat and mouse told within a fully realized world. This isn’t just about stealing a half million dollars. It’s about meeting these characters and seeing how relationships play out. Dialogue is crucial, but what isn’t said is equally as important.

Novels have the ability to transport us into the minds of characters. When Ordell, played by Samuel L. Jackson, realizes that Jackie Brown has stolen his money it is not a quick moment. We are left to witness a long thought process, where he seems to cross out names from a long list of people who could potentially be out for blood. Plot and pacing, so intricately woven together, are this film’s greatest strengths.

Out of Sight

Like most Leonard adaptations, this is a movie far more concerned with how characters relate to each other than what they do. From the opening scene, it’s obvious that manipulation will be key to this film and we are taken on a journey totally unlike the standard canned heist films. Closer to the jumbled time line of Memento or Pulp Fiction, this story teases us with plot points and charming characters until its ingenious conclusion.

Every character in the film is given at least one opportunity to shine, and the actors take the script and run with it. All of these people are unique and the story has a “day in the life” quality that few films seem to live up to. These are not extraordinary circumstances. These are people used to being bungled and conned, who must learn to outthink one another in order to get what they want.

Freaky Deaky

One of Leonard’s personal favorite novels, Freaky Deaky had a rocky start as a film. It was difficult to nail down casting and funding the project took some time. When Charles Matthau took over as director and screen writer, one of his primary goals was to craft a script that would complement Leonard’s vision. The two decided to set the script in 1974, drawing inspiration from the sexual liberation and Patty Hearst kidnapping, to bring surrealism to the events in the story.

The strength of this film is twofold, drawing from both cast and dialogue. Crispin Glover shines as the eccentric movie producer with far too much money and not nearly enough empathy. Michael Jai White is the smart talking body guard with expert comedic timing, and Christian Slater as one of two burnout hippie bomb makers looking to make a name for themselves. Like Pulp Fiction, there is a sense that everything you are seeing is connected but not readily apparent. That intrigue helps propel a film fueled by smart dialogue and excellent performances from actors we don’t see enough of.

3:10 to Yuma

Whether you are discussing the 1957 original with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin or the 2007 remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma consistently ranks among Leonard’s finest adaptations. The initial release was filmed in sharp contrast black and white. Ford was the perfect villain, and audiences ate up the suspense. The remake explores the greed aspect of the story more than the original, but it dared to be a Western during a time when the genre was thought to unfashionable.

The movie brings back the original sense of morality that somehow got lost in the genre of Western. The Good The Bad and The Ugly was as much a biblical parable as it was a violent Western opera, and 3:10 to Yuma seems content in exploring those roots through riveting characters who find themselves in circumstances well beyond their control.

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