Why Elmore Leonard’s Novels Make for Great Movies 

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Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 20 2013 2:37 PM

Why Elmore Leonard’s Novels Make Great Movies 

Out_of_Sight_still
Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in Out of Sight

©MCA/Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

Back in 2004, the Atlantic’s Christoper Orr called Elmore Leonard, who died this morning, “perhaps the most cinematic novelist writing in the English language.” Not only did his novels frequently follow the Godard recipe for a movie—all you need is a girl and a gun—but he pared down his style to action and dialogue. As he wrote when describing his 10 rules for writing (which included avoiding lengthy descriptions and leaving out “the part that readers tend to skip”), “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

It’s little surprise, then, that more than almost any recent novelist (save perhaps Stephen King), his novels have also made for many excellent movies. Among the best are Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, Hombre, and the two versions of 3:10 to Yuma—though there are about 20 more, spanning almost 50 years, not to mention TV adaptations like Justified.

How closely do these movies follow Leonard’s words? It depends, of course. But those who only know Leonard through film might be surprised at exactly how cinematic his books can be—and at how much his books and the movies were already in dialogue with each other.

A prime example: the trunk scene from Out of Sight (perhaps the best Leonard adaptation), with Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) trapped together in the back of a getaway car. You might think the couple’s way of flirting with movie references was added by director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank. But it’s all there in the novel. Before they get to Three Days of the Condor, the fugitive and the U.S. Marshal talk about Network and Bonnie and Clyde:

“That part where they got shot? Warren Beatty and … I can’t think of her name.”
“Faye Dunaway. I loved her in Network.”
“Yeah, she was good. I liked the guy saying he wasn’t gonna take any more shit from anybody.”
“Peter Finch,” Karen said.
“Yeah, right. Anyway, that scene where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway get shot? I remember thinking at the time, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, if you have to.”
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Leonard’s characters often made references to movies. Here, Foley is like a character out of a Godard film—he thinks of himself like a movie gangster. Will he go down in a storm of bullets, like Warren Beatty? And Sisco is reading him as a cinematic character as well. Will he come onto her strong, like Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor? As in Godard’s films (and Get Shorty), the scene is partly about the distance between these characters and their cinema-fueled self-images. Leonard knew that the movies have changed how we see ourselves and how we expect our stories to end, and he got that experience down on the page like few others have. 

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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