Though Elmore Leonard’s fiction now carries a literary seal of approval, films adapted from his street-level crime novels have, until recently, seldom exceeded the mediocre. As his novels- produced at nearly one a year for some forty years- have become more anodyne, his screen adaptations have become, on the whole, more watchable. Not that Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown are without blemishes. In fact, they might not be any more noteworthy than 3:10 to Yuma, Valdez is Coming, The Tall T and Hombre, adapted from Leonard’s stories when the latter was primarily a writer of westerns.
Yet there have been few writers who have been so often adapted, but so badly served. In a 1997 interview, Leonard recalls seeing the The Big Bounce (1969), adapted from his first crime novel: "About fifteen minutes into it, the woman sitting in front of me turned to her husband and said, 'This is the worst picture I ever saw.' And I agreed with her and all three of us got up and left." However, that film’s 2004 remake is barely any better. Made by George Armitage, the director of one of Leonard’s favourite films, Grosse Point Blank, the remake looks like a cross between a Hawaiian tourist board travelogue and Leonard dumbed-down for the sake of a consumer-oriented audience.
Part of the problem with adapting Leonard lies with an industry that seeks an easy profit, opting for generalities over detail, ersatz style over substance. Because Leonard’s fiction reads so effortlessly and seems cinematic, some think he can be produced on the cheap. As Leonard told me when I interviewed him for my book Heartbreak and Vine, “The problem is that what’s left after the adaptation is just the dialogue, and it’s not always my dialogue...[When] you reduce one of my manuscripts to 120 pages...you realise my books are not just about dialogue. Nor are they just about plot. It has more to do with the characters. So the screenplay is just the plot. An unusual plot, but it’s still just a plot.”
One wonders why it’s taken Hollywood so long to realise that Leonard’s work is character, rather than plot, driven. Even if his last few novels haven’t been as exciting as earlier work like City Primeval, La Brava and Glitz, characters in the more recent Mr Paradise and Tishomingo Blues retain their ambiguity, particularly Leonard’s criminals, who are as, if not more, interesting than those who pursue them. Though in Leonard’s world everyone stumbles towards corruption, there are, with the exception of his drug-addicted psychotics, few who do not garner sympathy from the reader. Consequently, part of the problem with Leonard adaptations has been Hollywood’s inability to establish back-stories for his various characters, or to understand that Leonard’s characters are more complex than they seem.
Faced with a novel that reads like a film treatment, directors convince themselves the hard work has been done. Yet until Get Shorty (1995), most of the characters in the films, even where Leonard is credited as screenwriter, have lacked the depth of their fictional dopplegangers. As Scott Frank, who wrote the script for Out of Sight and Get Shorty, said in an interview, “You have to start with those characters and that may mean reinventing some of the plot." Of course, plot fundamentalists would prefer not taking that risk. Yet Leonard’s plots are usually little more than an excuse for his characters to interact, revealing their personalities through their use of language.
Leonard’s humour, sprinkled with references to race and sex, has also been a problem for Hollywood. As Leonard told me, “When I wrote screenplays, I would...plot out adaptations straight from the books. I assumed that they liked the style, and the ironical element running throughout the story, which is not exactly comedy. Sure, the characters say funny things, but, ultimately, the characters aren’t trying to be funny.” At least Frank and Tarantino have understood that Leonard’s dialogue can be funny and serious at the same time. As Leonard reported saying to Sonnenfeld, “When one of the characters says something funny, don’t cut to another character to get a reaction or a laugh. Treat them seriously and let the audience decide.” Of course, Leonard’s characters love to talk. “‘Chili Palmer's a talker,’" says Nick in the novel Be Cool. ‘That's what he does, he talks.’” But what interests Leonard is not what is said but how it’s said, not the words so much as the rhythm of the words, which is difficult to capture whether on the page or on the screen.
Then there is the way Leonard breeches the gap separating the real from the representational. As the narrator says of Chili in Get Shorty, “He could see himself in different movies Robert DeNiro had been in. He could maybe do an Al Pacino movie, play a hard-on.” Conversely, in the movie Out of Sight, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez portray people who could be basing themselves on those two stars. It not only represents confusions between the real and the representational, but conveniently substittutes for character description, which Leonard, more Hemingway than Chandler, likes to avoid.
By the late 1980s, Leonard decided to stop writing screenplays, having notched up screenwriting credits for a number of his own novels. Not just The Big Bounce (1969), but The Moonshine War (1970), Joe Kidd (1972), Mr Majestyk (74), The Rosary Murders (1979), Stick (1985), and 52 Pick Up (1986), Cat Chaser (1988). “You’ve put all your energy and thought into the book,” said Leonard, “then you’ve got to redo it in a script...So you’ve done that first draft and it might be good, but then you’ve got to rewrite it a number of times. In the end you get sick to death of the whole thing.”
Understandable, since Leonard’s relationship with Hollywood was, even then, more than thirty years old, stretching back to 1957, when Delmar Daves’s adapted his story 3:10 to Yuma. Now considered a classic, 3:10 to Yuma was written in the post-High Noon era of psychological westerns. With a screenplay by Halsted Welles, Daves’s film stars Van Heflin as a rancher who, to collect the bounty money that will save his drought-stricken ranch, escorts outlaw Glen Ford to the state penitentiary. That same year saw the release of a more underrated, but no less successful, adaptation. Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, scripted by Burt Kennedy, stars Randolph Scott and Richard Boone. If any old-school director was to do justice to Leonard it was Boetticher. Described by historian David Thomson as perhaps the “most impressive and least handicapped B film ever made,” The Tall T begins with Scott, having lost his horse in a bet, hitching a ride with a stage coach carrying a pair of newly weds. The stage is soon overrun by Richard Boone and his team of half-wits. “Almost all of the dialogue,” said Leonard, “came right out of the novel.” Like a character from Ed Dorn’s epic poem Gunslinger, Scott endears us through parable, wordplay, and, according to Paul Shrader, “a crackerbarrel Socratic method: questioning, teasing, suggesting.”
Though Leonard’s westerns might be violent, they are mostly anti-racist. This is the case for Hombre. In a deal brokered by Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson, 20th Century Fox in 1964 paid Leonard $10,000 for the rights to the novella, enabling him to quit his Detroit advertising job, though he still supplemented his income by writing scripts for films put together by his old ad agency. Having represented Chandler, Woolrich, Cain, Burnett, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Swanson was largely responsible for Leonard switching from westerns to crime fiction, having sold his first crime novel, The Big Bounce after it had been rejected eighty-seven times. Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman, Hombre (1967) concerns a cowboy raised by Apaches who attempts to make a life for himself in white society. Notable for its realistic dialogue, Hombre depicts the heartbreaks of someone who fights intolerance while indifferent to his fate.
If the efficient and timely Valdez is Coming (1970), starring Burt Lancaster as a Mexican double-crossed by a rancher, was not the classic it seemed to be when it first appeared, it’s still one of the better examples of the genre during a time when good westerns were becoming fewer and further between. Made by neophyte director Edwin Sherin, whose reputation at the time rested on having staged The Great White Hope, the movie is another tale of intolerance and racial hostility in the southwest.
Throughout the 1970s, Leonard’s scripts would be misused by a series of lackadaisical directors and producers. The first example of which was The Moonshine War. Directed by Richard Quine at MGM, it features Patrick McGoohan, Alda and Richard Widmark. Fresh from the ground breaking TV series, The Prisoner, McGoohan reportedly approached Leonard on the set and said, “What’s it like to stand there and hear all your lines fucked up.” Still, some of the characters display Leonard-like characteristics. Such as Dual, played by singer Lee Hazlewood, who develops a lascivious liking for “that boy’s nice suit.” While Quine, having previously directed Drive a Crooked Mile and Pushover, is uninspired, Alan Alda appears too one-dimensional to be a convincing Leonard protagonist.
A couple years later, Leonard was writing the screenplay for Joe Kidd- bounty hunter tracks down Mexican bandits- for John Sturges at Universal. Starring Clint Eastwood, the film seems both violent and morally dubious. One might think the combination of Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at OK Corral and Bad Day at Black Rock), Leonard and Eastwood was a menage made in heaven, but the film doesn’t come off to anyone’s credit. Though neither The Moonshine War nor Joe Kidd is an unmitigated disaster, neither is comparable to their director’s best work, nor to Leonard’s fiction.
In 1974, Mr. Majestyk, made at United Artist, gave a passing nod to Leonard’s anti-racist westerns. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it features Charles Bronson as a melon grower who confronts the local mafia. Here Fleischer commits the cardinal sin of Leonard adaptations and fails to create a convincing back-story for the movie’s villain. "Most of my movies,” said Leonard, “make the bad guys over-the-top bad rather than bad but human underneath. In Mr Majestyk, he is so over-the-top evil that it ruined it." Like Quine and Sturges, Fleischer was a Hollywood veteran with a decent track record, including noir classics Narrow Margin and Violent Saturday. But the subtleties of Leonard’s manner and libertarian perspective were beyond him. In searching for material that would allow him to repeat past successes, Fleischer ends up simply recycling past clichés.
The next to trample on Leonard’s work was Burt Reynolds, who, as director and lead actor, turned Stick from a crime novel containing some interesting characters into another Hollywood action movie. “In the end,” says Leonard "I didn't recognise my screenplay at all.” Around the same time, Whiskers Production paid Leonard $20,000 to rewrite the first twenty pages of a script to his novel Cat Chaser. Instead, Leonard rewrote the entire script. The studio promptly fired him, and the film slouched towards incomprehensibility. Abel Ferrara would say, “Even I couldn’t understand it. And I directed it.” So contorted is Cat Chaser that any dedicated Leonard fan might be excused for taking a perverse interest in it Likewise, 52 Pick-Up. Directed by John Frankenheimer, it derives from an early street-wise Leonard novel about a businessman who takes revenge on blackmailers who attempt to film his sex life. Unfortunately, the once talented Frankenheimer turns the narrative, starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret, into a routine thriller, itself a remake of The Ambassador, an even less remarkable adaptation starring Robert Mitchum, made two years earlier, minus Leonard’s screenplay.
Ironically, Leonard’s emergence as a bankable Hollywood property coincided with the publication of Get Shorty, a novel that lampoons Hollywood and its relationship to organised crime. Suddenly everyone in Tinseltown was extolling Leonard’s virtues. While Sonnenfeld’s film would be surpassed by subsequent adaptations, it contains, thanks to Frank’s script, some excellent repartee, and comes-off as a tangled comedy of manners. Though it enjoys biting the hand that feeds it, Get Shorty succumbs to its self-consciousness and stylisation, perhaps inevitable given its subject matter. Unfortunately, the camerawork does not equal that seen in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Millar’s Crossing for which Sonnenfeld was responsible. Yet, with its many fine moments, Get Shorty helped revive Leonard’s Hollywood profile.
Unfortunately, Paul Shrader’s Touch (1997) did not do the same. One would have thought a former critic, screenwriter and director of Mishima and American Gigolo, would have been up to the task. But Touch seems overly static, and, at times, tedious. Not qualities one associates with Leonard, who wrote the novel in 1977, ten years before its publication, only for it to be rejected due to its prickly subject matter. Touch centres on a young man trained in a Catholic order who looks after alcoholics, curing those by touching them, after which stigmata wounds appear on his body. Though the ex-Calvinist Shrader deploys Christopher Walken, Bridgit Fonda and Skeet Ulrich, the humour is stilted and the portrayals cartoonish. But Touch, which portrays religion as a structure comparable to organised crime, should at least be commended for mocking religious zealotry, tabloid television, America's penchant for the sensational.
As the most successful of recent Leonard films, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) attests to an obvious affinity between author and director. “Quentin Tarantino has always been a fan of mine,” said Leonard. “Ever since, as a teenager, he stole Switch, and got caught doing it. Then he went back and stole the book again. When, thirteen years later, Rum Punch was published, and he realised that some of the same characters in that book, he wanted to buy the film rights straight away.” Jackie Brown was to became Leonard’s favourite adaptation and script. After all, Tarantino’s script pays homage to the spirit, if not letter, of the novel, adding his own touches, such as changing the locale to the west coast and portraying Jackie Brown as an African-American. While Tarantino has a refined eye for actors capable of playing Leonard’s off-beat characters, the movie’s success can be attributed to the fact that, as producer, director and writer, he was able to exert control over the entire process.
Appearing a few months later, Steven Sonderberg’s Out of Sight (1998) may not be as convincing as Jackie Brown, but it works well as an adaptation. This is helped by the fact that Leonard was in constant communication with scriptwriter Frank, and consulted on aspects of the film, including casting: “I suggested Elizabeth Shue because Leaving Las Vegas had just come out. Then Jennifer Lopez came along, and I liked her immediately.” Not that he and Frank always agreed. “He wanted a more upbeat ending,” said Leonard. “I said, ‘You’ve got to remember it’s her story.’ But Scott Frank said, “No, it’s her book, but it’s his film.” When I saw the picture, I realised he was right.”
Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, though more complex than those early westerns, work for much the same reasons. That is, they are built around interesting characters and are authentic in their depiction of a particular time and place. While only Jackie Brown approximates classic caper movies of the past, each conveys Leonard’s attitude and sense of language. Though Tarantino, Sonderberg and Sonnenfeld, have, to varying degrees, succeeded, others, beholden to disinterested economies of scale, lack the autonomy needed to confront the narrative traps presented by Leonard’s work. As for Leonard, he remains characteristically upbeat, saying, “I think in the future, film will affect writing more and more.” Surely, the opposite might also prove to be true. In either case, it takes more than money to make a smooth transition.
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