Elmore Leonard, who died today from complications stemming from a stroke suffered three weeks earlier, was a favorite author of filmmakers and film fans alike. He wrote genre fiction, first Westerns and later crime stories, easily adapted to screenplay thanks to their being so dialogue heavy and straight to the point. And because he wasn't too descriptive in his prose, directors could make the works stylistically their own while readers could also imagine their own versions of every character and setting.
Not all movies made out of Leonard's novels and short stories are great. That level of freedom allows for all kinds, and in fact the adaptation can wind up being so unrecognizable to the source that we wind up with something like Bandits, which doesn't even need to credit the author. That one came about at the end of a peak in Leonard love in Hollywood that began in the mid 1990s, though he's remained in constant popularity beyond that era.
Aside from his works now being adapted to the small screen in the form of the FX series Justified and the upcoming TV movie The Arrangement, we continue to get films, including the "wildly original" Freaky Deaky, which hit DVD early this year, and Life of Crime, an adaptation of The Switch (kind of a Rum Punch/Jackie Brown prequel) starring Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, Tim Robbins and John Hawkes, which debuts next month at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And surely that won't be the end of the cinematic treatments of his writing. For the time being, we'd like to take a look at the best movies derived from Leonard's work. Here are five of our favorites.
1. Jackie Brown
Based on the novel Rum Punch, this is Quentin Tarantino's only adaptation and his tamest movie. Some might say it's his best, because of those reasons. You know the filmmaker had to have appreciated the way Leonard's books are tied together with recurring characters, and it's interesting to wonder if the movie is more set in the author's universe than Tarantino's. Given that there's a new movie coming out involving Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro's characters from this movie (recast with Mos Def and John Hawkes) and that the next film on this list features the same actor in the same role as he plays here, the answer may be Leonard's.
2. Out of Sight
Six months after Tarantino's movie opened, Steven Soderbergh's take on Leonard arrived in theaters with a neat link: Michael Keaton again playing A.T.F. agent Ray Nicolet. Other than that, this is film all its own, even with the blatant homages to '70s films like Don't Look Now and Three Days of the Condor. It also gave us promise of a huge star in Jennifer Lopez, which didn't quite happen, while also spinning off a TV series that didn't work out well either (ratingswise anyway). It's just too hard to top what Soderbergh did with all he had here.
3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
That isn't to say a remake of any Leonard-based movie is a bad idea. Just look at James Mangold's recent redo of the 1957 Western classic. We could say it's actually just another adaptation of the same short story "Three-Ten to Yuma," but most of the main characters are named the same in both movies yet not the same as the source. We should just count both versions equally in this slot, though thanks to Ben Foster's stunning performance in the 2007 film we think it might just be better than the original.
4. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
One of the best things about this adaptation that's still worth noting following the above qualificaiton is the casting. Actor Glenn Ford was primarily known for playing good guys, and Van Heflin was primarily known for playing bad. Here, they're swapped, in part because Ford declined the offered part of rancher Dan Evans because he wanted the villain role.
5. Get Shorty
The movie that began the Leonard craze of the '90s, seemingly in part thanks to Tarantino's influence on the crime-film genre. Of course, it's ironic that this would be made, and made with John Travolta, because of Tarantino, and then Tarantino would shortly continue the Leonard love with Jackie Brown. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and written by Scott Frank (who went on to also adapt Out of Sight and its TV spin-off), it's one of the few crime capers to get the comedic tone right. Many have tried to mimic its sucess, including the sequel Be Cool, but never so successfully.