Before making the long-term transition to writing crime fiction and suspense thrillers, American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard made a literary name for himself in the genre of Westerns. He started writing back in his college days, around the same time he got a position as a copywriter, and initially simultaneously balanced his career and passionate hobby by burning the midnight oil. His first literary successes came in the form of pulp Western short stories and novels, a genre he continued to excel at all throughout the 1950s and 1960s, until in 1969 he finished his first crime story that marked a thematic shift in his creative endeavors. Be it Westerns or crime fiction, Leonard’s writing was so specific, so fresh and so unique in style that he soon managed to distinguish himself in the field and gain recognition he continued to attract up until his death in 2013.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
His gritty realism enriched with absolutely dynamite dialogues and centered around strong individuals in many different ways considered underdogs or outcasts earned him a spot in the American literary pantheon, and it’s to no wonder that his novels and short stories served as an inspiration to many filmmakers over the decades. It the following space generously provided by NeoText we’ll try to compose a brief catalog of all the film and TV shows that were directly adapted from Leonard’s work, both as a practical reminder for all of the Leonard aficionados and as a starting point for all those viewers still unfamiliar with the brilliant prose of “the Dickens of Detroit”, as he was often called. The films and TV shows are listed chronologically, and it’s really satisfying to note that, even years after his death, Leonard’s prose still continues to inspire.
The Tall T (1957)
Directed by Budd Boetticher and starring the filmmaker’s long-term collaborator Randolph Scott, The Tall T tells the story of an independent ranch foreman kidnapped alongside a rich heiress by three greedy outlaws. Adapted for the screen by Burt Kennedy, whom Boetticher once called “the best Western writer ever”, the film is based on Leonard’s short story The Captives. The Tall T is another great example of what fine quality Boetticher was capable of reaching even with a severely limited budget.
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
In 1953 Leonard published a short story called Three-Ten to Yuma about a poor rancher who agrees to take on the risky assignment of escorting a notorious and ruthless criminal to justice. The intriguing premise inspired two great movies, the first of which came out four years upon the story’s publication. Directed by Delmer Daves and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma is rightly considered to be one of the best Western films of the fifties. Nominated for a BAFTA in the Best Film category, Daves’ film turned out to be so popular it even caused the word “Yuma” to become a part of Cuban slang, referring to an American visitor.
Six years after Leonard published the novel Hombre about an Apache-raised white man meeting prejudice when he returns to the white world to collect his inheritance, Hollywood transferred the story to the screen with the help of a stellar cast comprised of Paul Newman, Fredric March, Richard Boone and Martin Balsam. Critically praised and financially successful, director Martin Ritt’s suspenseful revisionist Western also stands out as one of several prominent films of the decade dealing with the subject of racism against the Native Americans.
The Big Bounce (1969)
Having met great success with his Westerns, Leonard transitioned into crime fiction with his 1969 novel The Big Bounce. We meet a drifter and delinquent who earns his living as a seasonal farmworker, but gets the opportunity of changing his life around. The same year Leonard’s novel was adapted for the silver screen with Ryan O’Neal in the lead role. Directed by Alex March, The Big Bounce is an appealing and sometimes campy version of neo-noir carried on the shoulders of the solid cast.
The Moonshine War (1970)
In 1969 Leonard published The Moonshine War, a novel the New York Times called a “near-perfect shotgun opera”. The very next year, filmmaker Richard Quine shot the adaptation of this mixture of crime and comedy with Leonard himself penning the script, while Patrick McGoohan, Richard Widmark, Will Geer and Alan Alda played the main parts. Tense in tone and sometimes violent in execution, The Moonshine War still possesses a certain lightheartedness, successfully balancing between the two poles of its identity.
Valdez Is Coming (1971)
Based on Leonard’s novel of the same name, Edwin Sherin-directed Valdez Is Coming is an exhilarating Western revenge film with Burt Lancaster in the role of a former sheriff forced into a showdown against an unscrupulous and corrupt rancher. Probably the most striking thing about the film is the fact that the main event propelling the plot forward is the violent death of an innocent black man, with his Native American wife left widowed and penniless.
Mr. Majestyk (1974)
A bit of an exception on this list is Mr. Majestyk, an action film directed by Richard Fleischer and starring the great Charles Bronson, as its screenplay was written by Leonard and later gained new life in the form of a novel based on the film. The story revolves around a Vietnam War veteran who makes a living running a watermelon farm in Colorado. An altercation with a small-time criminal puts him behind bars and stops him from finishing the harvest, but his dreadful situation further escalates when he crosses paths with a notorious mob hitman.
The Ambassador (1984)
Loosely based on Leonard’s 1974 crime novel 52 Pick-Up, J. Lee Thompson’s The Ambassador is a skillfully made thriller with great performances from Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson. Unfortunately, it was also Hudson’s last theatrical release. Even though Leonard’s novel served as the inspiration, the author claimed it really had nothing to do with his book. After writing two drafts of the script, he pulled out of the project. “It has none of my characters, none of my situations, nothing.” But Leonard still received a fee for the screen rights.
When Leonard published Stick in 1983, his career received a welcome boost, partly because Burt Reynolds soon expressed interest to transfer the novel to the screen. He decided to direct the film himself, star in it, and Leonard was hired to write the screenplay. The author’s original tone considerably shifted and the end result seemed like a decent and entertaining vehicle for actor-director Reynolds. Leonard wasn’t all that thrilled with the picture, as he felt Reynolds didn’t fight hard enough for the integrity of the film with the studio. Reynolds later agreed and expressed his regret. Stick, however, still found its audience.
52 Pick-Up (1986)
An adaptation Leonard was reasonably satisfied with was John Frankenheimer’s 1986 52 Pick-Up, a neo-noir crime film about a successful white couple living in the Los Angeles suburbs whose lives are turned upside-down when they are blackmailed on the count of the husband’s infidelity. With an impressive cast featuring the likes of Roy Scheider, Ann-Margret, John Glover, Vanity and Kelly Preston, 52 Pick-Up offers a very satisfying watch, with a plethora of twists and turns, memorably written characters and a fast pace that doesn’t allow you any room for a breather.
Cat Chaser (1989)
Based on Leonard’s seven years older novel of the same name, Abel Ferrara’s Cat Chaser is an expectedly unusual thriller about a former American paratrooper from the Dominican Republic Intervention who runs a small hotel in Miami and gets involved with an unhappily married woman whose husband turns out to be a sadistic former Dominican general. The film is mostly remembered as “the movie that made Kelly McGillis almost quit acting”, due to her tense relationship with Ferrara and Peter Weller, the lead actor, but such a classification doesn’t do it justice. An interesting erotic thriller for Leonard’s biggest fans.
Get Shorty (1995)
A huge box office success and the critics’ favorite, Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 gangster comedy Get Shorty was based on Leonard’s 1990 novel of the same name and was adapted for the screen by the great Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report, Logan, Godless, The Queen’s Gambit). With John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito, among others, Leonard, Frank and Sonnenfeld brilliantly tell the story of a Miami loan shark accidentally getting involved in feature film production after going to Los Angeles to collect a debt. Highly enjoyable two hours well-worth spending in front of the screen.
Jackie Brown (1997)
The only feature-length film Tarantino adapted from a previous work – which is a great compliment by itself – Jackie Brown was based on Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. Starring Pam Grier and a whole gallery of Hollywood A-listers (Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), Jackie Brown came to life when Tarantino and Roger Avary bought the rights to three of Leonard’s novels: Rum Punch, Freaky Deaky and Killshot. Tarantino planned to have someone else direct the adaptation of Rum Punch, but decided to do it himself when he read the novel again. Upon seeing the script, Leonard admitted it wasn’t only the best adaptation of his novels, it was also “possibly the best screenplay he’d ever read.”
In 1997 Paul Schrader directed a mixture of drama and black comedy called Touch centered around a young man with the alleged power of curing the sick by using only his hands. Schrader was interested in adapting Leonard’s Rum Punch, but resolved to doing Touch instead when Tarantino purchased the rights to the former and turned it into Jackie Brown. In Touch, good people are mixed with the not-so-good sort in a realistic twist that occurs when the young man’s apparent blessing from God wants to be exploited for financial gain. The critics might not have loved it, but Schrader took Leonard’s unusual novel and turned it into an equally unusual film worth watching.
Maximum Bob (TV show, 1998)
In the late summer of 1998 ABC aired seven episodes of Maximum Bob, a series about a right-wing conservative Florida judge infamous for giving the maximum sentence to defendants. This atmospheric show led by Beau Bridges and full of eccentric, colorful characters is based on Leonard’s 1991 novel, but was taken off the air before it could fully blossom. Wacky, humorous and well-written, with an above-average intelligence in the development of both the characters and the plot, Maximum Bob may be short, but it’s more than sweet enough.
Out of Sight (1998)
Steven Soderbergh’s crime comedy Out of Sight, developed upon Leonard’s novel of the same name, marked the second time screenwriter Scott Frank adapted the author’s material to the screen. Adored by the critics, Out of Sight also marked Soderbergh’s first collaboration with George Clooney, who led a talented cast comprised of Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Steve Zahn and Albert Brooks. “A crime movie less interested in crime than in how people talk, flirt, lie and get themselves into trouble,” as Roger Ebert described it upon its release, Out of Sight remains one of the most successful adaptations in Leonard’s literary canon.
Karen Sisco (TV show, 2003)
In Out of Sight, Jennifer Lopez played a U.S. marshal called Karen Sisco. Five years later, this interesting character was put under the spotlight in ABC’s short-lived TV show Karen Sisco with the great Carla Gugino as the titular hero. Unfortunately, a decade later the show ended up on TV Guide’s list of 60 shows that were canceled too soon, as it was taken off the air after only seven episodes. Jason Smilovic and Peter Lefcourt served as co-executive producers and writers, and Scott Frank once again got involved with Elmore Leonard’s body of work, as he took on the role of an executive consultant.
The Big Bounce (2004)
2004 marked the second time Elmore Leonard’s first crime novel The Big Bounce was produced into a film. 36 years after we’ve watched Ryan O’Neal as a seasonal worker faced with some tough decisions, in George Armitage’s comedy heist film we see Owen Wilson as a laid-back surfer thrown into similarly challenging circumstances. With Morgan Freeman, Gary Sinise, Charlie Sheen and Vinnie Jones, The Big Bounce didn’t do well at the box office and was largely (and a bit unfairly) discarded as a missed opportunity.
Be Cool (2005)
Some time after the events from Get Shorty, mobster Chili Palmer leaves the film business and enters the equally dangerous music industry. Based on Leonard’s 1999 novel, produced by Danny DeVito, with F. Gary Gray in the director’s chair and Travolta reprising his role from Sonnenfeld’s acclaimed Get Shorty, Be Cool was a financial success, but failed to win over a large audience. According to the director, an important reason why it didn’t work so well was the fact that it had to be made PG-13. “I should have walked off the film,” Gray reminisced. “This was a movie about shylocks and gangsta rappers and if you can’t make that world edgy, you probably shouldn’t do it.”
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
When I asked him about what inspired him to do a remake of Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, James Mangold listed two main reasons. Firstly, he said, the original film from 1957 wasn’t even available on VHS or DVD, and since it had gone out of print, almost no one knew it existed. And secondly, even though he considered Daves’ film genius, he believed he could do something new and worthwhile with the material. “I just felt there was something so rich in the structure of the story, but that there was so much that could be done through a modern lens.” And right he was: his take on Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story restored the faith both in remakes and in contemporary Westerns. With Christian Bale and Russell Crowe on the top of their game, Mangold’s film was a financial and popular success, always somewhere around the top of any list dealing with the best remakes of all time.
Shakespeare in Love’s director John Madden tackled Leonard’s novel Killshot in 2009, with The Wings of the Dove screenwriter Hossein Amini adapting the material. A fast-paced and exciting thriller about an estranged married couple forced to reconnect within the Witness Protection Program as they’re being chased by ruthless killers features an excellent cast, but Diane Lane, Thomas Jane, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn’t help the project get the recognition it deserved.
Justified (TV show, 2010 – 2015)
One of the most critically acclaimed American TV shows of the past decade, Justified is a Western crime drama that Graham Yost developed on the basis of Elmore Leonard’s stories featuring the character of Raylan Givens. Situated in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky, the show revolves around a resolute deputy U.S. marshal with a specific (and highly entertaining) sense of justice. With unforgettable roles from Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, Justified was nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards and stands out as one of the absolute highlights from the rich world of Leonard’s adaptations.
Freaky Deaky (2012)
Written, directed and produced by Charles Matthau, Freaky Deaky is a slow-burning mixture of crime and comedy distinguished by much welcome humor and intriguing characters, two traits expected from an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s work. An undeniable low-budget vibe is enriched with good acting (Crispin Glover is always a welcome sight), originality of the plot and a pleasant, casual tone.
Life of Crime (2013)
Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch got its break on the big screen with filmmaker Daniel Schechter’s 2013 black comedy Life of Crime. Premiering on the closing night of Toronto International Film Festival, the film tells an amusing story of the kidnapping of a woman whose husband then refuses to pay the ransom because he’s on the verge of leaving her. With Jennifer Aniston, Tim Robbins, Isla Fisher and Mos Def, Life of Crime mostly went under the radar, but its fate wasn’t all that fair: it’s still a competently made, sometimes very funny film that Elmore Leonard fans definitely shouldn’t skip.
Get Shorty (TV show, 2017 – 2019)
Inspired by Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty, Davey Holmes gathered a respectable cast led by Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano to make a TV series about a criminal who tries to get a clean slate by becoming a film producer, only to bring his criminal baggage with him into showbusiness. Holmes used Leonard and Sonnenfeld’s basic premise, but offered an original story and completely new characters, ending up creating three seasons of fine quality television.