Elmore Leonard and Hollywood

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard’s punchy style and compelling characters has Hollywood continually coming back to his work. Some of the many adaptations of his writing are highlighted in this post.

Elmore Leonard’s career spanned more than 60 years, beginning when he sold “Trail of the Apaches” to the magazine Argosy in 1951 for $1,000. He published 45 novels, wrote four original screenplays, and a produced hundreds of short stories and essays throughout his long career. He never gave up writing long-hand with a pen and a yellow legal pad – each full pad equaling 63 pages of a novel.

Leonard’s romantic writing process is almost as romantic as Hollywood’s attachment to his work. Thirty-six times his material has been adapted to moving pictures, from short films to television movies to TV series and feature films. It’s an impressive catalogue for a novelist whose first agent urged him again and again not to “give up his day job.”

In his early years, Leonard’s routine involved writing from 5 am to 7 am before heading to his job as a copywriter, where he wrote ads for Chevrolet. With a focus on supporting his growing family, he wrote Westerns, which were at the peak of their popularity in the ’50s, supplementing his income selling short stories to pulp magazines and dime publications. As the genre waned, he began to write crime fiction.

One his first major influences was Ernest Hemingway, whose economy of words and dialogue-heavy approach appealed to Leonard. But unlike Hemingway, Leonard’s stories soon developed a trademark humor, a trait that continues to draw admirers to his work.

Not unlike most every notable writer, Leonard wasn’t always the sensationally respected author we now know him to be. His novel Mother, This is Jack Ryan was rejected 84 times and his novel Unknown Man #89 got 105 rejections. But he was persistent. After its many rejections, he re-read the manuscript for Mother, This is Jack Ryan and realized he needed a revision that strengthened the story line. His persistence paid off, and Fawcett published the novel under the title The Big Bounce in 1969. The Unknown Man No. 89 was published in 1977 by Delacorte Press.

Motivated by the potential financial payoff, Leonard was explicit about his intentions of selling his work to Hollywood saying, “I want to make money writing. And that’s not my first purpose… but it’s certainly important. If you can’t make a living at it, why do it?”

It was that attitude that led him to write original screenplays in the late ’60s – though he soon abandoned the venture. Screenwriters were tethered to a collaborative process, and Leonard quit the trade frustrated by his loss of control.

Leonard’s style is distinct for many reasons. His novels are driven by characters, the plot almost a secondary notion. He is renowned for his ability to construct characters who are flawed, convincingly human, and capable of walking a fine line between good and bad. His characters are distinctive and unlike conventional heroes, but the key tying Leonard’s work together is his narrative ability. Much has been said about his “sound” and his capacity to create characters with particular voices. Leonard writes from each character’s point of view, switching often throughout, viewing the world as the character sees it. The resulting dialogue is succinct, dry but funny, and unique to each character. Benjamin Cavill, writer for the series Justified (based on Elmore’s short story “Fire in the Hole”), has said the “narration has a sort of Hemingway staccato.” Appropriate, considering Leonard’s admiration for the author.

All this adds up to explain why Hollywood keeps coming back to Elmore Leonard. When Leonard opens a novel, he dives right in, hooking the reader (or viewing audience) immediately. There is no flowery language; he is sparing in his descriptions and soft-handed with exposition, which he delivers in small doses throughout. A compact narrative, delivered from various characters’ points of view, creates a vivid and shifting world. And as these characters are neither saintly nor evil, they are of great appeal to actors. Leonard’s stories move quickly, cutting often, lending themselves to quick and fluid visual scenes. Maybe most importantly, his novels paint a picture, but not so fully that a filmmaker can’t extrapolate and add his own ideas and vision.

Of the many adaptations of his work, some are worth highlighting:


3:10 to Yuma
Originally a 4,500-word story, this was the first of Leonard’s material sold for film. He was originally paid $90 when it was published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. Leonard was a big fan of the 1957 adaptation, calling the casting “perfect.” The 2007 remake, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bales, was a popular and critical success.


The Big Bounce
The 1969 adaptation, directed by Alex March and adapted by screenwriter Robert Dozier, had Leonard especially angered with the transformation of Jack Ryan into the “obvious hero type.” Leonard was so irritated, he reportedly walked out of the theater after agreeing with a fellow moviegoer who proclaimed it to be the worst movie she’d ever seen. The 2004 remake didn’t exactly excite critics, either.


Directed by and starring Burt Reynolds, the 1985 film was another adaptation Leonard was not happy with. The film suffers from Reynolds’ overacting, which directly contradicts the typical low key, but confident, Leonard antihero. He was so incensed by the film, he sent a four-page letter to Reynolds with his complaints. As Greg Sutter, Leonard’s trusted researcher, explains, “Reynolds did just about everything as wrong as he possibly could. The thing bears no resemblance to anything Leonard would ever dream of writing.” Leonard went as far as trying to have his screenwriting credit removed.


Get Shorty
The first of two films adapted by screenwriter Scott Frank, this is one of the most successful adaptations of Leonard’s material. With director Barry Sonnenfeld at the helm, the film was faithful to Leonard’s story and dialogue and both director and screenwriter were admirably attuned to Leonard’s sense of humor. Sonnenfeld creates the world described in the novel, and spot-on performances from John Travolta and Gene Hackman contributed to its success. The film would garner Frank a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenplay. After Get Shorty, much of Leonard’s work was optioned, with a slew of films guaranteed to come.


Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino, an Elmore Leonard super-fan, was just coming off the success of Pulp Fiction, whose quirky style, in part, reflected a reverence for Leonard’s work. After having optioned two other of Leonard’s novels (Freaky Deaky and Killshot), Tarantino decided on Rum Punch. After changing the film title, the location of the story, and the Jackie Brown character to African American, Tarantino was afraid of what Leonard would think. He was thoroughly relieved when Leonard expressed that not only was it one of the best adaptations of his material, but that it was “maybe the best script he’d ever read.” The film is a true amalgamation of Tarantino and Leonard’s styles with quick dialogue, a penchant for cool, and (unlike other Tarantino movies) understated violence.


Out of Sight
Three years after his successful adaptation of Get Shorty, screenwriter Scott Frank tackled Leonard’s novel Out of Sight. While considered a box office miss, the adaptation was true to form and highlighted some of the best elements of Leonard’s style. George Clooney’s knack for deadpan delivery, Frank’s care not to overpower the script, and Steven Soderbergh’s gritty style all came together to deliver one of the best films to showcase Leonard’s unconventional humor.


Another superb adaptation of Leonard’s work was the FX series Justified, based on Leonard’s short story, “Fire in the Hole.” The tale marks the reappearance of one of Leonard’s most iconic characters, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Since Leonard’s short story is the basis for only the first episode, series’ creator Graham Yost and his team of writers were tasked with filling in what would turn out to be six seasons of material. Yost, a longtime fan, saw “Fire in the Hole” as a melding of Leonard’s earlier work in Westerns with his later career in crime fiction. As an executive producer, Leonard’s presence was felt throughout the series run. Guided by the mantra “What would Elmore do?” Yost and his writing team would often turn to the library of Leonard’s material for inspiration to craft a series that remained faithful to its originator.


Written by Michelle Donnell for The Script Lab. Reprinted with permission.


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  1. Elmore Leonard is my writing hero!

    I keep waiting for people to compare my novel to his work but, as yet, to no avail.

    I’ve had reviewers compare me to Carl Hiaasen and Clive Cussler… but still waiting for the EL comparo!


  2. I’ve always admired Elmore Leonard and his amazing work ethic. This article has given me more to think about my own writing style and a great guide to why I love the Leonard punch lines. GET SHORTY was one of the most memorable movies I have watched.

    Thank for the write up.

    Ciao and Chow

  3. “dime publications”? There were none left by the time Mr. Leonard was published. Could you mean “digest publications”?


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