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.