According to IMDB, close to 40 films and TV shows have Elmore Leonard’s name attached, some as creator, some as screenwriter, but about three-quarters because they’re based on one of his novels or short stories. Leonard, who died August 20 of complications following a stroke, didn’t like most of them. Actually, that’s something of an understatement. He hated most of them, the distinction being he hated some more than others.
Leonard had a love/hate thing going with Hollywood. He loved taking movie money, but usually hated what Hollywood did with his material. He went public with his revulsion over Burt Reynold’s thoroughly lousy 1985 adaptation of his novel Stick, and while I don’t know this for a fact, I’m sure he was shaking his head – at least at first — when Quentin Tarantino cast Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997) to play what had been a white character in his source novel, Rum Punch (although he did consider the finished film one of the best adaptations of his work). The two versions of The Big Bounce (1969 and 2004) were a favorite whipping post for him as he labeled them the second-worst and worst movies ever made respectively.
“I don’t remember all the bad ones. I know The Big Bounce was bad, though, and they made it twice (1969 and 2004). It wasn’t bad enough the first time.”
Leonard seemed to have a pretty good handle on what the problem probably was: “…when you bring a 350-page manuscript down to 120 (script) pages…a lot of the good stuff (in my books) is gone. It disappears. Because then you’re more interested in plot than you are in, say, character development.” And despite all the scheming and plotting and inevitable double-crossing in Leonard’s novels, what made them work was his richly-developed, morally dubious characters spitting dialogue that sang like some kind of street poetry (according to Leonard, he was heavily influenced by the dialogue-heavy storytelling of George V. Higgins in Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle).
Personally, I never quite plugged into Leonard. His writing is terrific, his characters fun, his dialogue a joy to read, but his crime plots are a bit too clever for my tastes. I always preferred Higgins’ grittier, grubbier, street-real tales. Still…
Leonard hit his stride when he turned from writing Western tales to his crime stories, and nearly all the books he turned out from the 1980s on were bestsellers. But while they didn’t quite play out the way he’d penned them for the page, my favorite Leonard adaptations came from his Wild West tales.
There’s The Tall T (1957), one of the first Leonard adaptations, an intense little suspenser anchored on the psychological give-and-take between bad guy Richard Boone and hostage Randolph Scott, Boone seeing in Scott the kind of man he maybe once was, and wishes he could be again. And there’s 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and remade in 2007), another duel more psychological than shoot-‘em-up with Van Heflin (in the original) as a desperate farmer trying to win himself a bounty by getting smooth-talking bad guy Glenn Ford onto a prison-bound train. And then there’s one of my all-time favorite Westerns, Hombre (1967), a mash-up between John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach and the classic de Maupassant short story, “Boule de Suif,” with Paul Newman as a cool-as-they-come outcast, a white man raised by Apaches that the ostracizing passengers of a stagecoach turn to for help when threatened by a band of highwaymen.
My personal tastes are just that; personal taste with all the subjectivity that goes with that. But I understand and value the standing of the man and his undeniable talent in both the literary and film worlds. Coming so soon after the death of another master storyteller, Richard Matheson, it does get one wondering is we’re not witnessing the passing of an entire generation of storyteller and with them, a kind and caliber of storytelling that managed the hat trick of being deftly executed, enormously entertaining, and driven by very recognizable, life-sized human hungers and foibles.
- Bill Mesce