How did Elmore Leonard manage to write such compelling page-turners? "I try to leave out the parts that readers skip," the author famously explained. It's no wonder that Hollywood turned to his work more than 40 times over the last 57 years in hopes of bringing that headlong, fast-moving, pulpy action sensibility to the big and small screens.
Alas, only rarely did filmmakers and TV producers get it right. "All the adaptations of my books sucked," he complained, until 1995's "Get Shorty." That film launched a mini-revival of Leonard's career as a screen source, one that continues to this day with the critically acclaimed FX TV series "Justified."
At the time of his death at 87 on August 20, there were two more Leonard-based movies in the can. He has an executive producer credit on "Life of Crime" (based on his novel "The Switch"), which stars Jennifer Aniston and Mos Def and will debut next month at the Toronto Film Festival. And "The Arrangement," starring Bryan Greenberg, is due on the USA network later this year.
Leonard was one of the few writers who excelled at both Westerns and modern crime dramas. In both genres, Leonard populated his world with bitter bounty hunters, desperados, femmes fatales, and loose-cannon simpletons. He also played those kinds of characters for laughs in several raucous crime capers, where the eccentric and the dangerous collide like billiard balls.
Keeping all those balls in play while maintaining a tonal balance of levity and suspense is a very difficult trick, and it's the reason why few Leonard adaptations worked as well on screen as they did on the page. Nonetheless, there were a handful that did work on their own terms as movies. Besides TV's "Justified," there were the following essential movies.