Six Damn Fine Degrees #37: Elmore Leonard

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I don’t care how many movies you own, if your bookshelf doesn’t contain at least one single Elmore Leonard novel, there is a gap in your collection. There are very few novelists whose prose is already so close to a screenplay; in fact, if you, like me, imagine something very much alike to a movie scenes while reading a novel, you have it easy with Leonard, because his writing is, in the best sense of the word, graphic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: his characters immediately jump off the page and exist outside it, mostly in such cineastic treats such as Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) or Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). Leonard is unable to write a whodunit or a serial-killer romp; instead, he lets his small-time crooks and determined dames, his jailed boxers and mild-mannered bankrobbers mix and mingle, ogle and cheat each other like no-one else can. And his character might sometimes be idiotic doofuses, but others – Jack Foley, Ordell Robbie – really think on their feet; they might do illegal stuff, but Leonard refuses to let them be dumbed down. That is why you feel empathy for a bank robber or a stewardess smuggling drugs.

Which brings us to Get Shorty (1995). Some ignorant movie bigwigs thought it would be a good idea to change the characters’ idiomatic way of talking. What fools. Their speech patterns are exactly what enables any reader to guess correctly who is talking at any given point in the novel (and in the screenplay). Only when Quentin Tarantino intervened did they leave the lines intact. And that was two years before Mr T made Jackie Brown.

And now go out and get yourself some Elmore Leonard novels. I’ll wait.

What did you get? Rum Punch, the book Jackie Brown is based on? Out of Sight, Get Shorty? Touch, or The Switch? Some of the western novels? Raylan? Good for you. Sit down in your snug corner and read Out of Sight.

Now watch the movie.

Done? So tell me – isn’t the film’s ending much better than the novel’s?

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