Exploring Hollywood’s Fascination with Elmore Leonard

In a career that spans over sixty years, Leonard’s first story was “Trail of the Apache,” which he sold to the magazine Argosy for one thousand dollars. Throughout his long career, he published forty-five novels, penned four original screenplays and a produced countless number of short stories and essays. Having never given up writing long hand, he wrote with a pen and a yellow legal pad, with each legal pad equaling sixty-three pages of a novel. An almost romantic notion of writing, long forgotten in the age of modern technology, it’s almost as romantic as Hollywood’s attachment to Leonard’s work. Thirty-six times his material has been adapted to film in all forms, from short films to television movies and series to first run movies. An impressive catalogue for a novelist whose first agent warned him again and again not to give up his day job.

In his early years, Leonard’s routine consisted of writing from 5am-7am, and then heading to his job as a copywriter, where he wrote ads for Chevrolet. Focused on supporting his growing family, he wrote Westerns, which were at the peak of their popularity. Continuing to work for the ad agency, he supplemented his income by selling short Westerns to pulp magazines and dime publications. Finally heeding the advice of his agent who predicted a waning of the genre, he began to write crime fiction.

During this time, his major influence was Ernest Hemingway, whose economy of words and dialogue heavy approach appealed to Leonard. After realizing that Hemingway didn’t have a sense of humor, Leonard searched more deeply to find his own style. While maintaining an appreciation for Hemingway, Leonard’s stories soon developed his trademark humor, a trait that to this day draws many admirers to his work.

Not always the sensationally respected author we now know him to be, Leonard’s novel “Mother, This is Jack Ryan,” was rejected eighty-four times and his novel “Unknown Man #89,” one hundred and five times. After a reread of the manuscript for “Mother, This is Jack Ryan,” Leonard knew he needed a revision that strengthened the story line. His persistence paid off and in 1969, Fawcett published the novel under the title “The Big Bounce.” The retitled “Unknown Man No. 89” was published by Delacorte Press in 1977.

Motivated by its financial payoff, Leonard was always explicit about his intentions of selling to Hollywood saying, “I want to make money writing. And that’s not my first purpose…but it’s certainly important. If you can’t make a living at it, why do it?” It was that attitude that led him in the late 1960s, to begin writing original screenplays. Unsatisfied, he soon abandoned the venture though. In a multifaceted system where screenwriters must adhere to a collaborative process, Leonard quit the trade frustrated by his loss of control, deciding instead to stay with novel writing where he could retain that control.

Elmore Leonard’s style is distinct for many reasons. Often cited is that his novels are character driven, with plot a secondary notion. He is renown for his ability to construct compelling characters, characters that are realistically flawed and convincingly human, who live a fine line between good and bad. His characters are distinctive and unlike heroes in any conventional sense. Leonard loves all his characters and his affection for them aptly seeps into his audience’s subconscious. The key tying it all together is Leonard’s narrative abilities. Much has been said about his “sound” and his ability to create characters with particular voices. Leonard writes from each of his character’s point of view, switching often throughout and taking care to view the world as the character would see it, not as Elmore Leonard would. The resulting dialogue is succinct, dry but funny, and unique to each character. Benjamin Cavill, writer for the series “Justified,” has said that his “narration has a sort of Hemingway staccato,” appropriate considering Leonard’s admiration for the author.

All this begs the question, why is Hollywood so fascinated with Elmore Leonard? The reasons are many and varied. When Leonard opens one of his novels, he dives right in, hooking the audience immediately. He’s soft handed with exposition, which he delivers in small doses throughout, respecting the audience enough to believe they will catch on. There is no flowery language and he is sparing in his descriptions. A compact narrative, delivered from multiple characters points of view, creates a vivid world. These characters that are neither saintly nor evil, are of great appeal to actors. His novels move quickly, cutting often, lending themselves to quick and fluid scenes. Maybe most importantly, his novels paint a picture, but not so fully that a filmmaker can’t extrapolate their own ideas and convey their own vision.

Of the many adaptations of his work, some are worth highlighting:

3:10 to Yuma

The first of Leonard’s material sold for film. Originally a forty-five hundred-word story, Leonard was paid ninety dollars when it was published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. Leonard was a big fan of the 1957 adaptation, calling the casting “perfect.” The 2007 remake, starring Russell Crowe, was a critical success.

The Big Bounce

Directed by Alex March and adapted by screenwriter Robert Dozier, Leonard had very little good to say about the resulting film and was especially angered by the transformation of Jack Ryan into the “obvious hero type.” So irritated was Leonard, that he walked out of the theater after agreeing with a fellow moviegoer who proclaimed it to be the worst movie she’d ever seen.

Stick

Yet another film Leonard was unhappy with. Directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, the film suffers from Reynolds overacting, which directly contradicts the typical low key, but confident, Leonard antihero. So incensed with the film, he sent a four page letter to Reynolds with his complaints. As Leonard’s trusted researcher, Greg Sutter explains, “Reynolds did just about everything as wrong as he possibly could-the thing bears no resemblance to anything Leonard would ever dream of writing.” Leonard would even go so far as trying to have his screenwriting credit removed.

Get Shorty

The first of two films adapted by screenwriter Scott Frank, it is one of the most successful adaptations of Leonard’s material. With director Barry Sonnenfeld at the helm, the film was faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue and both director and screenwriter were admirably attuned to Leonard’s sense of humor. In it, Sonnenfeld creates the world you would expect from the novel. Spot on performances from John Travolta, Gene Hackman and cast ensured its success. The film would garner Frank a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay. After Get Shorty, much of Leonard’s work was optioned, with a slew of films guaranteed soon to come.

Jackie Brown

Leonard super fan Quentin Tarantino was just coming off his success of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s quirky style was, in part, from a reverence for Leonard’s work. After having optioned two other of Leonard’s novels (“Freaky Deaky” and “Killshot”) Tarantino decided on “Rum Punch” after rereading the novel one night. After changing the Jackie Brown character to African American, plus changing the location and film title, Tarantino was scared of what Leonard would think. He was thoroughly relieved when Leonard thought that not only was one it one of the best adaptations of his material, but that it was “maybe the best script he’d ever read.”  The film is a true amalgamation of Tarantino and Leonard’s style; quick dialogue, a penchant for cool, and, unlike other Tarantino movies, understated in its violence.

Out of Sight

After his successful adaptation of Get Shorty, screenwriter Scott Frank would tackle Leonard’s novel “Out of Sight.” While considered a box office miss, the adaptation was true to form and comprised some of the best elements of Leonard’s style. With George Clooney’s knack for a deadpan delivery, Frank’s care not to overpower the script, instead letting Leonard’s voice come through, and Steven Soderbergh’s gritty style, all came together to deliver one of the best films to highlight Leonard’s unconventional humor.

Justified

The most recent and another superb adaptation of Leonard’s work, the FX series “Justified” is based on Leonard’s short story, “Fire in the Hole.” The story marks the reappearance of one of Leonard’s most iconic characters, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Since Leonard’s short story is the basis for only the first episode, series creator Graham Yost and his team of writers were tasked with filling in what would turn out to be six seasons of material. Longtime fan Yost, saw “Fire in the Hole” as a coming together of Leonard’s earlier work in Westerns melding with his later career in crime fiction. Remaining as an executive producer, Leonard’s presence was felt throughout the series run. Guided by the mantra “What Would Elmore Do?” Yost and his writing team would turn often to a library of Leonard’s material located in Yost’s office for inspiration while crafting a series that remained faithful to its originator.

For all the times that Hollywood producers, directors, writers and actors have taken on Leonard’s material, they have done so with varying degrees of success. Many have felt the need to divorce the characters from the plot and vice versa, or felt the need to carve out pieces of the story they find fascinating. All too often, they have not been true to the characters, not true to the stories and worst of all, not true to the storytelling. Those who have been successful have been so because they understand Leonard’s work and approach the material with a respect and even a reverence for his style. They understand that humor is not always reaction or about jokes but rather about irony, that characters are complex and represent an opportunity to explore the gray areas of life and that violence is often unexpected and not the least bit gratuitous.

After fifty-years of filmmakers adapting Elmore Leonard’s material, Hollywood’s fascination with Leonard is obvious. It’s a symbiotic relationship, though, and film influenced Leonard almost as much as he influenced film. Whether writing with specific actors in mind or writing about the industry, Elmore Leonard never shied away from expressing the importance of Hollywood for his career and to the end, film remained an inspiration to the man many call the greatest American crime writer.

 

Photo: Michelle Donnelly, ElmoreLeonard.com


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