The Best TV and Film Adaptations of Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard was a prodigious writer, who wrote countless short stories and novels over the years. With incredible dialogue, fumbling criminals, quirky characters, and sparse prose, his stories were always entertaining, surprising, and unique. Stephen King called him “the great American writer”, Martin Amis told him at an event in his life: “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler awkward”, and he acquired the reputation of “Detroit’s Dickens”, as most of his criminal stories. and the cops were installed in his hometown.
Elmore Leonard’s writing reads almost like a screenplay, and that’s no coincidence. The writer himself said: “I have always seen my books as films. And that’s why so many of them have become projects on the big and small screen. Here are the best TV and film adaptations of Elmore Leonard:
6 Man (1967)
Before being known for his detective novels, Leonard had written many westerns. Man was one of the best adaptations of this period. John Russell (Paul Newmanlisten)) is a white man raised by Apaches, who returns to “civilization” to obtain his inheritance after the death of his biological father. He leaves town in a stagecoach and is threatened by outlaws. The rest of the people with him might think he’s an alien, but Russell might be their only hope for survival.
Paul Newman gives a movie star performance (as always). His portrayal of Russell isn’t the typical cowboy, but he’s a hero nonetheless. For once, it’s not the dialogue that makes this a good adaptation of Leonard, but it’s the twists and turns of the story, and Newman’s physical and stoic presence in this film, that speaks volumes about the prejudices and the abuse of Native Americans.
5 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
3h10 to Yuma was the only Leonard short story to be adapted for the big screen twice. First in 1957, then again in 2007. Both versions have their merits, but we love the James Mangold version.
A small rancher holds an outlaw while waiting for a train to go to Yuma Court. Christian Bale plays the breeder, and Russell Crowe plays the villain, giving us two heavyweights playing badass. As with all of Leonard’s writing, the two characters are more than just good guy versus bad guy in this tension-packed, action-packed and dangerous story, with an excellent performance of flight scenes by Ben Foster. We recommend watching both versions because you’ll see how western movies have changed in 50 years, but if you can only see one, it’s the one with Bale and Crowe.
4 Get Shorty (1995)
Adapted from the book of the same name, Get Shorty is Hollywood satire in a mob setting in one of Leonard’s funniest stories. This movie and Jackie Brown got the industry interested in writing it again, after many years, and with good reason.
Palmer pepper (John Travolta) is a mafia underling who loves movies. He travels to Las Vegas to collect money from a B-movie producer, ends up selling him an idea, and becomes part of the Hollywood machine. Get Shorty is one of John Travolta’s best performances, but the entire cast is excellent, which includes Danny DeVito, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo and James Gandolfini. Barry Sonnenfeld directed the film with a screenplay by Scott Frank, and the two showed the industry how to adapt a Leonard story, creating one of the most acidic views from inside Hollywood (The player and state and main maybe the other two).
3 Jackie Brown (1997)
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who is forced to smuggle money from Mexico for crime boss Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) when she gets caught by an ATF agent (Michael Keaton). From there, Jackie must make the best of her situation while trying to stay alive.
Jackie Brownwas adapted from Leonardo rum punch in what was a match made in adaptation heaven. Tarantino has often cited Leonard as a substantial influence on his writing, and that makes a lot of sense, as both have a love for unique dialogue, colorful characters, and intricate storylines. This movie has amazing work from both of them. It has all the unique, double-crossover characters from a Leonard story, with a Tarantino layer on top (and Blaxploitation influences) that made this adaptation great. Leonard himself loved the changes and called it one of the best adaptations of his work. All of This May Explain Why Jackie Brown Isn’t Just One of Tarantino’s Best Movie Characters, but also why this film has a lot more heart and love (the relationship between Jackie and the surety Max, played by Robert Forster) than most of his films.
2 Justified (2010-2015)
Justified is the only TV adaptation on our list, but it’s more than (pardon the pun) justified, as its main character, Raylan Givens, is one of Leonard’s finest creations. He’s cool, sweet, sometimes even a grudging hero, and Timothy Olyphant embodies it perfectly. Raylan is a U.S. Marshal sent to rural Kentucky to end local crime, including dealing with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a friend from his youth. The pilot episode was adapted from Fire in the hole, and although many episodes don’t use any of Leonard’s stories, his tone and sense of humor are there, in every frame and every word spoken. Olyphant was great and had some spectacular acting battles with Goggins, although his best acting rival might have been the second season’s big bad, Margo Martindale.
Graham Yost, Justified‘s showrunner, told Uproxx that “Elmore liked our show. He was proud of it and felt we were doing his writing justice.” The creative team worked so well together thatthere will be a Justified restart next year, and Tarantino could direct some of those episodes. Leonardo would be proud.
1 Out of Sight (1998)
Out of sight is still Leonard’s greatest film adaptation. The movie is amazing. It tells the story of Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). It all starts when they have a “cute encounter” in the trunk of a car. Although on opposite sides of the law, they cannot stay away from each other. Is it lust or love?
Out of sight uses Leonard’s original story to great effect. The film retains the peculiar thieves, incredible dialogue, Detroit and Miami locations, and messiness of its main characters. The film also adds a sexy-noir story with smooth direction from Steven Soderbergh; a stacked cast, including Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames and Michael Keaton; and great performance. Out of sight is a masterpiece, and that’s why, more than twenty years later, it’s still Elmore Leonard’s best-adapted work.