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R.I.P. Elmore Leonard: 1925-2013

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard: 1925-2013

When the late Elmore Leonard began writing fiction in the early Nineteen-Fifties, Westerns ruled the roost, so most of his early heroes wore cowboy hats.

When this great American writer, who died Tuesday at 87, went with the flow in 1969, and switched to writing urban thrillers (with the twice-filmed “The Big Bounce”), the change wasn’t a wrenching one. He didn’t ask his characteristically watchful and laconic heroes to change much more than their hats when they relocated from the deserts of the Southwest to the mean streets of Detroit and Miami.

The best-known current incarnation of the Leonard hero, Timothy Olyphant’s Marshall Raylan Givens on the FX series “Justified,” brings the iconography full circle. He is a contemporary lawman who has traded in his six shooter for a Glock but still favors the hat and the boots and remains calm even when engineering a shoot out.

Both Olyphant’s portrayal and “Justified” itself were among Leonard’s avowed favorites among adaptations of his work — a large statement for a writer whose protagonists have been portrayed over the years by Glenn Ford, Randolph Scott, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, Burt Lancaster, Clint Eastwood, Robert Forster, George Clooney, John Travolta, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

From the beginning, Leonard’s work was catnip to Hollywood. Both of the 1957 Westerns based on his stories, Budd Boetticher’s “The Tall T” and Delmer Daves’ “3:10 to Yuma,” are considered genre classics. Martin Ritt’s “Hombre” (1967), with Newman, Edwin Sherin’s “Valdez Is Coming” (1971), with Lancaster, and John Sturges’ “Joe Kidd” (1972), with Eastward, all have their moments.

Although Leonard was short-spoken to a fault and rarely made great claims for himself as a writer, his colleagues in the profession were more than happy to oblige. The British novelist Martin Amis was a famous admirer, declaring that Leonard’s prose “makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.”

Recounting a conversation about Leonard with a celebrated colleague, Amis said: “Saul Bellow and I agreed that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.”

Many critics have noted the influence of the stylized naturalism of Elmore Leonard’s dialog on the screenwriting of, among others, Quentin Tarantino, a debt the filmmaker acknowledged when he adapted the 1991 novel “Rum Punch” as “Jackie Brown” in 1997.

Leonard’s own claims for his writing were less grandiose. “I try,” he said, in the short and useful book Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, “to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

The humor built into Leonard’s work was not always recognized by his Hollywood adapters, although the most successful Leonard-based films, such as Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Get Shorty” (1995) and Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998), have also been among the funniest. 

Due for release later this year is “Life of Crime,” based on Leonard’s 1978 novel “The Switch.” The new film is a defacto prequel to “Jackie Brown,” with John Hawkes and Mos Def assuming the roles previously inhabited by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson.

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I was lucky to see a nice string of films with his name on them in theaters from 1967 to 1974: HOMBRE, THE BIG BOUNCE, VALDEZ IS COMING, JOE KIDD and MR. MAJESTYK. I haven't seen BIG BOUNCE since then although I feel I need to since I've since read the book and watched the horrible 2004 version. I'd argue that the best adaptation of his work was GET SHORTY. Sonnenfeld nailed what was already there in the book. Then I would cite JACKIE BROWN, which I think is actually better than the book, since Tarantino added quirky touches to each of the characters and gave it that unique editing structure.

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