During his reign as the preeminent king of American crime lit, the late Elmore Leonard was often described as “the most cinematic novelist in the English language.” It was a designation he seemed to encourage, once remarking “I’ve always seen my books as movies.”
To be fair, the cinematic track record of Leonard adaptations is one of peaks and valleys (actually, it’s more like mountains and chasms), but for all the truly terrible adaptations that have sprung from his books, there have also been several outright classics, including three back-to-back films from the late Nineties.
The first of that thematic trilogy was Get Shorty, which came out in October of 1995. With that film’s 25th anniversary due up later this year, now seems as fitting a time as any to look back on the height of Dutch’s cinematic prominence, a period that might well be known as ‘The Leonardssance’.
When 1995 rolled around, Leonard was an established bestseller and one of Hollywood’s favorite writers to turn for material. At the same time, he’d also earned a reputation as being an extremely difficult author to adapt, despite a strong run of films from the first phase of his career, starting with the noir-infused, psychological Westerns 3:10 to Yuma (1947) and The Tall T (1957) and followed by the socially conscious, revisionist efforts Hombre (1967) and Valdez is Coming (1971). By the time Valdez was released, Leonard had already begun transitioning from Westerns to crime fiction, with his first novel in this new genre, The Big Bounce, receiving the Hollywood treatment int 1969 (the same year his novel was published). Leonard would later describe the film, a forgotten early starring vehicle for rising heartthrob Ryan O’Neal, as the worst movie ever made—or at least he thought it was, until he caught the 2004 remake.
Starting in the early ‘70s, Leonard had shifted to a “dialogue-driven writing style influenced by George V. Higgins’s novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972).” But while Higgins’s book received a sterling, if underseen, adaptation shortly after its publication, Leonard wasn’t so lucky. Aside from the fun 1974 Charles Bronson revenge thriller Mr. Majestyk (for which Leonard wrote the original screenplay and subsequent novelization), the next two decades of adaptations resulted in a run of forgettable features, often produced for television, as well as a couple of notorious flops, including Burt Reynolds’s Stick (1985) and Abel Ferrara’s Cat Chaser (1989). The latter disaster was the result of massive studio interference and editorial butchery, but the former’s failure owed to director/star Reynolds’s inability to capture the rhythm and humor that made Leonard’s stories so irresistible. The author summed up the problem in a letter to Reynolds, explaining “When I’m writing I see real people and hear people…but when I view the picture I see, too often, actors acting…I hear what seems to me too many beats between exchanges, pauses for reactions, smiles for the benefit of the audience—like saying, get it?”
So much did Reynold’s winking and mugging continue to irk Leonard that when Barry Sonnenfeld began prepping an adaptation of his 1990 novel Get Shorty nearly ten years later, he advised the director, “When someone delivers a funny line, I hope you don’t cut to another actor to get a reaction, like a grin or a laugh or something.” Luckily, Sonnenfeld heeded the advice.
It’s ironic that Get Shorty should be the first modern film to nail Leonard’s voice, given that the book is as much a sendup of the vacuity and idiocy of the Hollywood studio system as it is a cracking crime story, much of it inspired by his own experience and featuring characters inspired by real people (including Ferrara, who gets off light, with Leonard merely poking fun at his sartorial style, as well as Dustin Hoffman, the eponymous “Shorty” with whom Leonard had spent time when the actor was considering doing an adaptation of LaBrava and who is portrayed as the fussiest, more self-deluded phony imaginable).
“When I’m writing I see real people and hear people…but when I view the picture I see, too often, actors acting.”
In hindsight, Sonnenfeld seems an odd fit for the material, given that almost all of his other directorial efforts are special effects-laden broad comedies. However, Sonnenfeld has always been an expert craftsman, having made his name as a cinematographer working for the likes of Rob Reiner, future Get Shorty star Danny DeVito, and, most importantly, the Coen Brothers (who, alas, tried, but failed, to bring Leonard’s adventure epic Cuba Libre to screens in 1997). Prior to that, Sonnenfeld cut his teeth in pornography (working behind the camera, that is), so his affiliation with the very top and very bottom of the film industry made him the perfect person to bring the breezy, but deceptively brutal Hollywood satire to life. Sonnenfeld also had the benefit of working from an ace script by the great Scott Frank, who would go on to adapt Leonard’s Out of Sight three years later.
Much of Get Shorty’s success is owed to the lead performance of John Travolta, fresh off his career resurgence following the mega success of Pulp Fiction the year prior. So effortlessly suave is Travolta that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Chili Palmer, the movie-loving shylock who travels from Miami to Hollywood to collect a debt and ends up establishing himself as a hot shot producer, but it almost didn’t happen. Sonnenfeld wanted Danny DeVito to play Chili Palmer, and so strong was his enthusiasm that the diminutive actor/director purchased the rights to the novel in order to make it happen, before scheduling conflicts necessitated him taking a smaller role in the film. An offer then went out to Warren Beatty, Michael Keaton and, hilariously, Dustin Hoffman, before Sonnenfeld eventually landed on Travolta after catching an early screening of Pulp Fiction (for which DeVito served as a producer). Travolta initially turned down the role—twice—although he eventually accepted after being persuaded by his previous director, Quentin Tarantino, who told him “John, this is not the one you say no to. This is the one you say yes to.”
It’s entirely fitting that Tarantino should have played so pivotal (if limited) a role in the success of Get Shorty, since there’s no filmmaker more synonymous or simpatico with Leonard than he. From the start of Tarantino’s career, the Leonard influence was obvious, with the author recognizing a shared sensibility as early as the 1992 romantic crime drama True Romance, which Tarantino wrote (not surprising, given that it features a direct shout out to Mr. Majestyk). For his part, Tarantino was quick to acknowledging the debt he owed to Leonard, figuratively and literally, as he’d later reveal that he’d actually been arrested as a teenager for shoplifting a copy of Leonard’s 1978 novel, The Switch. In an act of true serendipity, Tarantino came upon the galleys for Leonard’s sequel to that novel while contemplating his follow up to Pulp Fiction. This was how Jackie Brown came into the world.
In The Switch, Leonard introduced the racially mixed duo of Ordell Robbie, a ruthless would-be criminal mastermind who’s not quite as sharp as he thinks he is, and Louis Gara, his dependable, but morose running buddy, as well as a conniving, buxom beach bunny named Melanie who takes up with pair during a failed kidnapping scheme. Fourteen years later, Leonard decided to catch up with these low rent hustlers in Rum Punch, an ensemble crime saga set in West Palm Beach and centering around a plot to steal half-a-million dollars of gunrunner money from under the noses of law enforcement. Along with Robbie, Gara and Melanie, Leonard included two new characters: Max Cherry, a tough but sensitive bail bondsman undergoing a mid-life crisis, and Jackie Burke, a cunning flight attendant/money launderer adept at playing all sides against the middle.
In adapting Rum Punch, Tarantino was careful to avoid the pitfalls of pre-Get Shorty efforts, saying “I wanted to keep his dry sense of humor without getting too ‘jokey’.”
In adapting Rum Punch, Tarantino was careful to avoid the pitfalls of pre-Get Shorty efforts, saying “I wanted to keep his dry sense of humor without getting too ‘jokey’.” But even as he adhered to the tone of the novel, he made a number of radical departures from the text, moving the setting from Leonard’s familiar Florida haunts to his own home base of South Bay, Los Angeles, excising a number of subplots, and, most importantly, changing the name and race of the main protagonist so as to allow ‘70’s blaxploitation icon Pam Grier to star.
(For all that Tarantino gets criticized for his casual deployment of racial invective throughout Jackie Brown, his casting proved incredibly forward-thinking one, not merely because it provided a rare starring role to a middle-aged actress of color, but because it helped break up what otherwise might have been considered a troubling trope across the three Leonard adaptations at the time: Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Out of Sight all feature noble white antiheroes going up against—and eventually killing—vicious, half-smart black male villains. I’m not charging Leonard’s novels as being ‘problematic’, as that term that has ambiguous meaning within the cynical and often intentionally transgressive realm of crime fiction, but were it not for Tarantino’s decision to alter Burke’s ethnicity in Jackie Brown, I do believe this pattern would have proved more noticeable and controversial.)
Retitling the story Jackie Brown, after it’s reimagined heroine, Tarantino’s film is actually less violent and convoluted than its source material, while also being a more complex study of aging and longing, something which surprised audiences and critics at the time, who didn’t think the brash young Tarantino capable of telling such a mature story. Leonard, meanwhile, was full of praise. Even accounting for the various changes to his story, he declared, “That was not an adaptation; that was my novel.”
Less than a year later, another darling of the early American independent film scene took a swing at Leonard and knocked it out of the park. Steven Soderbergh’s version of Leonard’s star-crossed romance/heist novel of two years prior, Out of Sight, is the nexus point between the slick, breezy fun of Get Shorty and the more baggy but deliberate Jackie Brown. Stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez turn in arguably the best performances of their respective careers, while also managing to one-up Travolta in the cool factor. In place of the slow burn longing of Jackie Brown’s romantic subplot, their smoldering chemistry burns down everything around it, setting a new gold standard for cinematic sex appeal.
Like Jackie Brown, Out of Sight was modest success that has since earned status as a modern classic. It’s generally regarded as Soderbergh’s best film, as well as the best Leonard adaptation. It’s hard to argue against the latter claim, although I do believe Out of Sight loses a couple of points for replacing the book’s tough, unsentimental conclusion with far happier (and admittedly very charming) coda. Conversely, Jackie Brown deserves extra points for going even farther than the novel in its embrace of melancholy and ambiguity.
It’s something of a moot point arguing over which of the three feature length Leonard adaptations is the best, as taken together, they feel entirely of a piece. They share so many features with one another, from their soundtracks filled with smooth R&B and funky jazz, to their cross-coastal settings, to a number of key figures behind the scenes—along with being scripted by Scott Frank, Out of Sight was also produced by DeVito and Sonnenfeld—as well as in front of cameras, including Dennis Farina, Samuel L. Jackson, and, most importantly, Michael Keaton. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came into existence, Soderbergh bridged the world of his film to Tarantino’s by having Keaton reprise his role as the cocksure federal agent Ray Nicolette. While keen-eyed viewers at the time dismissed the connection as little more than a winking homage, it actually speaks to the true power of Leonard’s pop cultural prevalence during this period: of the twelve novels Leonard published between the years 1987 and 1999 received adaptations, all but two were adapted for film and television, three of which—the feature film Touch, the TV movie Pronto, and the Sonnenfeld-DeVito produced series Maximum Bob—came out in the interim between Jackie Brown and Out of Sight.
The intervening years have likewise produced a steady stream of Leonard adaptations, ranging from the truly terrible (the 2005 Get Shorty sequel Be Cool and the aforementioned remake of The Big Bounce), to the underrated (2003’s prematurely canceled ABC series Karen Sisco, on which Frank serves as a writer), to the brilliant (the FX drama Justified, which ran from 2010—2015), to the mystifying (the series version of Get Shorty, currently airing on Epix, which seemingly has nothing to do with Leonard’s novel or Sonnenfeld’s film).
All of these efforts have used the ‘90s trilogy as a template, and while this has paid some enjoyable dividends—Tarantino plucking several cast members from Justified for memorable roles in his last couple films, as well as that show taking a page from Jackie Brown and Out of Sight by bridging its own universe to Karen Sisco’s—I think we can all agree, we’re well overdue for a new Leonardssance.