Last month we lost the greatest crime writer of our generation, arguably of all time, the brilliant and irreplaceable Elmore Leonard, known as ‘Dutch’ to his friends. A master of the genre, Dutch published almost 50 novels and about as many short stories during his 87 years. His novels have become source material for over 20 films in the past 5 decades. Some great, some terrible, but most of the adaptations have been painfully mediocre. Given the prolific author’s contribution to film and his very recent passing, it was only fitting that “Life of Crime,” the latest movie based on his work, should be the closing film at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.
Since most people are far more willing to go to the movies than pick up a book, it is through the film versions of his stories that his audience has become familiar with Dutch’s world of small-time crooks, botched heists, and double-crosses. Watch interviews with the late author and you’ll notice that the questioning frequently turns to the various adaptations of his work rather than the original work itself. What people fail to recognize or admit is that there hasn’t been a worthy adaptation of his work in about 15 years.
The mid-to late 90s was truly the golden era of Dutch retellings. Following the one- two-three-punch that was “Get Shorty” (1995), “Jackie Brown” (1997) and “Out of Sight” (1998), everyone and his accomplice wanted to make a Leonard picture. These were incredibly cool, entertaining, funny, pitch-perfect movies. And while they do owe a lot to their source material, the adaptations that followed proved that it takes a lot more than a good book to make a good movie.
There is a misconception that because Leonard writes dialogue so well and his stories are normally 200 to 300 page crime capers filled with colorful characters, they are easy to adapt to film. But because his books are unadorned with heavy description or many details apart from what is necessary to tell the story, a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. When adapting these stories to film there is a lot of fleshing out that needs to be done. What do the characters look like? How do they dress? What kind of bars do they frequent? It’s when the writers and directors have tried to fill in these blanks that the adaptations since “Out of Sight” have fallen woefully short.
This unfortunate streak includes “The Big Bounce” (2004), “Be Cool” (2005), “Killshot” (2008), “Freaky Deaky” (2012) and – sadly – “Life of Crime” (2013). Leonard never shied away from giving his honest opinion on the adaptations, and said of the remake of “The Big Bounce” that it was the “worst picture I had ever seen. It was terrible. You didn’t know what was going on.” He claimed the 1969 adaptation of the same book was the second worst. Then ten years after the release of “Get Shorty”, “Be Cool” tried to recapture the magic of its predecessor. Even reuniting Travolta with his “Pulp Fiction” co-star Uma Thurman couldn’t save it, and Vince Vaughn as the jive-talking gangster was one of the biggest miscasts ever.
“Killshot” and “Freaky Deaky” are perhaps the most disappointing as they are two of Leonard’s best books. “Killshot” was shelved for almost three years and had an entire role (played by Johnny Knoxville) excised from the film after test audiences found the story too convoluted. It was finally given a brief theatrical release in hopes that the recent success of Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” would attract an audience… it didn’t. It was still lucky to narrowly avoid the straight-to-DVD release “Freaky Deaky” received last year, another mess of a film that had the potential to be so much more than the goofy “comedy” of errors it became.
While “Life of Crime” is probably best adaptation of Leonard’s crime novels (originally titled “The Switch”) since “Out of Sight,” it still suffers from a lot of the same problems that the films that came between did: it attempts to remain too faithful to the source material, doesn’t flesh out the characters enough, tries too hard to be cool and never really settles on a consistent tone. The film is well-cast for the most part, particularly Jennifer Aniston (whose 2010 sperm donor comedy “The Switch” was likely one of the reasons for switching this film’s title) playing the trophy wife who sees her kidnapping as a welcome reprieve from the country club. It’s also fun to see Mos Def and John Hawkes finally getting their due in leading roles as novice extortionists Ordell and Louis. Even though these characters play a large part in Jackie Brown as well (as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro), this shouldn’t be viewed as a direct prequel to Tarantino’s film, as he had his own take on the characters.
Which brings us back to the good ones. What made them so good? Tarantino is known for his good taste, taking from the best and making something all his own. Even though he changed the title (from “Rum Punch”), as well as the name and race of the main character, and put a blaxploitation spin on the movie, Leonard considered “Jackie Brown” to be the best of his adapted works. Tarantino’s dialogue has always been influenced by Leonard’s, therefore for him to adapt one of his books and infuse his own knack for colloquialisms was a natural transition. If you take a closer look at Tarantino’s first screenplay for “True Romance,” you’ll likely agree that it’s one of the best Elmore Leonard stories not written by Elmore Leonard. It’s no surprise that the only time Tarantino has adapted someone else’s story it was one of Leonard’s. “Jackie Brown” remains Tarantino’s most understated and underrated film.
It’s worth noting that screenwriter Scott Frank adapted both “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” and, like Tarantino, clearly has a good grasp of cinematic versus literary language. All three of these films, particularly “Brown” and “Sight,” strayed from the source materials’ linear structures to create experiences far more engaging for moviegoers. In terms of dialogue, Frank and Tarantino also knew precisely what to keep, what to omit, what to modify and what to add in order to translate it to the screen and complement the existing dialogue. Since Leonard’s dialogue has always received so much praise, a lot of screenwriters tend to leave it almost entirely intact, but lifting it straight off the page isn’t adapting it, it’s merely a lazy, uninspired recreation.
Admittedly, this examination of Leonard adaptations has taken a slightly narrowed view. I have omitted discussion of his contributions to the Western genre that resulted in such classics as “Hombre” (1967), “Valdez is Coming” (1971), and “3:10 to Yuma” (1957 and 2007). There have also been many made-for-TV movies and short films based on his work, but these are almost impossible to track down. You’re probably also wondering why I haven’t addressed the hugely successful FX series “Justified” based on Leonard’s reoccurring Raylan Givens character. From what I’ve seen, they have done a decent job of capturing that Leonard feel, but beyond the first episode, the stories have very little to do with his novels. This is not the first attempt to base an ongoing show around a Leonard character. For every “Justified”, there’s a “Maximum Bob” (canceled after 7 episodes in 1998) and a “Karen Sisco” (10 episodes in 2003-04).
One adaptation that stands alone and deserves an honorable mention is John Frankenheimer’s “52 Pick-Up” (1986). During this period most Leonard adaptations were relegated to television and therefore have become virtually inaccessible. What sets “52 Pick-Up” apart is an established director who was actually able to get Leonard himself to help adapt the screenplay. The result was a strong suspense film devoid of humor and far seedier than the lighter crime films we’ve come to associate with the author. Another reason this films works in a way that many of the current ones don’t is that it is very much of its time and doesn’t try to hide that. Most of the recently adapted books, such as “Life of Crime”, were written in the 70s and the adaptations try to recreate that retro feel because it’s the ‘in’ thing to do right now. In the 80s the only thing that was cool was the 80s.
I’m not demonstrating any kind of inspired brilliance when I say that these lesser adaptations would fare much better in the hands of more capable screenwriters and directors. All of the successful ones have been made by filmmakers of note (“Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and Steven Soderbergh respectively). Leonard’s books have been a very important part of my literary diet since I was a teenager and it pains me to see these screenwriters come along thinking Leonard has already done their job for them, resulting in half-assed retellings. The fact that there will be no more new stories from Dutch makes me hold the old ones all the more dear. It would be nice to see some fresh talent behind them, like Andrew Dominik who did a great job adapting George V. Higgins crime novel “Cogan’s Trade” (re-titling it “Killing Them Softly”) last year. Even though he lifted a lot of dialogue directly from the book, he updated the setting and directed the hell out of it with a visual style and layered soundscape that was all his own. Don Cheadle was supposed to make his directorial debut several years ago with an adaptation of Leonard’s “Tishomingo Blues”. It was to star to Matthew McConaughey as a high diving casino performer and had potential to live up to that golden era, but was unfortunately scrapped for unpublicized reasons. Of course I’d settle for old talent as well. Scorsese has mentioned being a fan of Leonard’s and I think we’d all like to be treated to Marty’s take on one of Dutch’s crime yarns.
To finish this rant on a positive note, I know we haven’t seen the last of Dutch. While the man is gone, he has left us with a plethora of stories that can be picked up by anyone at any time and appreciated for the terse, unpretentious, satisfying pulp that they are. And while the film offerings of late haven’t been great, I have faith that in better hands we could see another golden era. “Killshot” and “Freaky Deaky” may have been botched once, but we know Hollywood has no issue taking a second pass at stories (though unfortunately they tend to do this with ones that got it right the first time). Then there are great books like “Tishomingo Blues,” “The Pagan Babies” and over a dozen others haven’t even been touched yet. My hope is that younger audiences don’t see these recent B movies as a reflection of a B author, as Leonard is anything but. At this point, all that’s left to say is long live Dutch, you magnificent bastard.