To understand how beautifully Elmore Leonard’s books translate into films, you don’t even need to read one. Even a cursory glance at the list of adaptations tells you all you need to know. Chances are you’ve seen more than a few without even realising that they all stemmed from the mind of one of America’s greatest writers, a man who wrote dialogue so flinty it could start fires. Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Hombre, Out Of Sight and both versions of 3:10 To Yuma are the most famous, but there’s a wealth of hidden treasure once you start down the rabbit hole. And that’s not even mentioning the ridiculously cool TV series Justified, based around the ridiculously cool Raylan Givens, maybe the best character Leonard ever created.
The big guns
If you were tied to a chair, electrodes on your sensitive bits and a gun to your forehead, you might be able to choose a favourite Leonard adaptation. In situations of less duress, it proves a lot trickier. It’s likely that it would be one of Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) or Out Of Sight. The former is Tarantino on top form, with an incredible cast – including Pam Grier, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Samuel L Jackson, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster – trying to negotiate the twisty tale of an airline stewardess caught smuggling coke and cash and stuck between the FBI and her violent boss.
The latter is Stephen Soderbergh, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez exuding enough chemistry to create their own periodic table as an escaped con and the US Marshal tracking him down. Both films follow the classic Leonard blueprint of double crossing, triple crossing and then a few more crosses for good luck and a moral spectrum that is just various shades of grey.
Best of the rest
In any list of Leonard adaptations, Get Shorty and Hombre would be hot on the heels of Jackie Brown and Out Of Sight. Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty neatly taps into the comedy of Leonard’s work, a renascent John Travolta leading a great cast (Rene Russo, Denis Farina, James Gandolfini, Danny DeVito, Gene Hackman) as a mob enforcer dipping his toes into the sordid world of Hollywood. It was remade for TV in 2017 with Chris O’Dowd, Ray Romano and Sean Bridgers. A second season is due, with Felicity Huffman and Amy Seimetz joining the cast.
Hombre, on the other hand, showcases the genre that first brought Leonard recognition as a writer: the western. The 1967 film is an excellent adaptation of one of the great man’s finest novels, the story of John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches, caught between a ruthless band of outlaws and a stagecoach carrying the man who stole from Russell’s people. Russell belongs in the pantheon of classic Leonard heroes – alongside Forster’s Max Cherry, Travolta’s Chilly Palmer and Clooney’s Jack Foley – men who silently observe while everyone around them jabbers on incessantly.
There have been 21 adaptations of Leonard’s novels and stories, including the two versions of The Big Bounce and 3:10 To Yuma. Inevitably, there are a few duds in there. For every Get Shorty there’s a Be Cool, for every Out Of Sight there’s The Big Bounce. But some gems flew under the radar, especially the oddly charming Touch and the Life Of Crime. Touch is a curious exploration of the relationship between faith and fortune, with Skeet Ulrich playing a Christ-like figure who draws the attention of an unscrupulous evangelist (Christopher Walken). Jackie Brown prequel Life Of Crime sees Mos Def and John Hawkes stepping into the roles previously played by Samuel L Jackson and Robert De Niro, as two low lives who kidnap a rich woman (Jennifer Aniston), only to discover that her cheating husband (Tim Robbins) doesn’t want her back.
It would be remiss to mention Elmore Leonard and not include his hugely successful venture onto the small screen with Justified. The FX show, which takes place in Kentucky, spent six seasons delving into the morally ambiguous adventures of trigger-happy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a character who first appeared in Leonard’s short story ‘Fire In The Hole’. It was nominated for eight Emmys, winning two.