Pulp Fiction: ‘Justified’ and Hollywood’s Love Affair with Elmore Leonard
January 4, 2013
Timothy Olyphant in ‘Justified’/Image © FX
FX’s acclaimed drama series “Justified” returns for its fourth season on January 8. Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s stories, it’s about Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a Deputy U.S. Marshal transferred from Miami back to his coal-mining hometown of Harlan, Kentucky. Raylan’s run-ins with the crooks of the week, as well as his personal relationships with the community’s various outlaw organizations (which includes his father), form the basis of this modern Western. Riveting, funny, and with an outstanding cast (notably Walton Goggins as sometime antagonist Boyd Crowder), it’s one of the best shows on television — and one of Leonard’s favorite versions of his own work.
“Justified” is far from Leonard’s first dance with Hollywood. In a discussion with Martin Amis, he revealed that, from the beginning of his career, he “wanted to sell to Hollywood right away.” And from the first production of his work (1957’s “The Tall T”), Leonard has been a friend to film and television, his hallmarks — pungent dialogue, crackling plots, compelling characters — translating into close to forty projects with others still to come. As for the author himself, he’s relatively relaxed about the adaptation process (though he’s known to call out the ones he doesn’t like), saying, “I just hope that a good movie is going to be made.”
Here are some of the best Leonard adaptations:
“3:10 to Yuma” (1957)
Regarded as one of the best Westerns ever, this version of the 1953 short story was the second Leonard adaptation. A struggling farmer (Van Heflin) accepts a job to escort a captured outlaw (Glenn Ford) to a train bound for Yuma. Less a cowboy shootout than a psychological stand-off, this drama is a tense thriller about morality and risk. In 2007, James Mangold remade it with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.
Leonard universe: A clip appears in episode 3.9 of “Justified.”
“Mr. Majestyk” (1974)
Borrowing a name from his novel The Big Bounce, Leonard wrote the book and screenplay at the same time. Charles Bronson stars as Vince Majestyk, a melon farmer who just wants to get his crop in, but whose efforts to hire workers start a fight with a local contractor and then a mob hit man. Though featuring the action (and quips) expected of a Bronson revenge flick, it’s also a surprisingly good film about labor rights.
Leonard universe: Not a direct connection, but Quentin Tarantino referenced it in his script for “True Romance” and in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2.”
“Get Shorty” (1995)
Leonard called Barry Sonnenfeld’s popular comedy the “first contemporary story of mine that I really liked on the screen.” John Travolta plays loan shark Chili Palmer, who gets involved with the movie industry while trying to recover an outstanding debt. Co-starring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito (who also produced), it’s filled with Hollywood in-jokes and cameos. Travolta and DeVito returned for the poorly received sequel, “Be Cool.”
Leonard universe: Dennis Farina played Marshall Sisco in “Out of Sight.”
“Jackie Brown” (1997)
Based on 1992’s Rum Punch, this is Quentin Tarantino’s only literary adaptation to date. Pam Grier plays the eponymous flight attendant, whose involvement in a smuggling operation leads to a criminal investigation and a frantic cash grab. With Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro, the film belongs to Grier and Robert Forster, possibly the best couple in a Tarantino movie. The novel’s prequel, The Switch, is currently in pre-production.
Leonard universe: Forster played the title character’s father in “Karen Sisco,” while Jackson cameo’d in “Out of Sight.”
“Out of Sight” (1998)
This acclaimed adaptation of the 1996 novel marked Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s first collaboration. Clooney stars as thief Jack Foley, who meets Deputy U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) in a locked car trunk. Their instant attraction complicates his plans for one last score and her attempts to hunt him down. A sharply directed black comedy, this film was Oscar-nominated for its screenplay and editing.
Leonard universe: Michael Keaton reprised his “Jackie Brown” role of ATF agent Ray Nicolette here.
“Karen Sisco” (2003)
Carla Gugino stars as the title character in this cult television series based on Out of Sight. Set in Miami, the show is a procedural, but driven by its characters, especially the relationship between Karen and her ex-cop father, Marshall (Forster), and by its Leonard-inspired comedy. Cancelled after only seven episodes, it’s unfortunately not available in the U.S., but you can find episodes online.
Leonard universe: Gugino reprised her role in episode 3.2 of “Justified.”
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