Elmore Leonard provided source material for films for well over 50 years. Surprisingly, given his reputation as a crime novelist, his first stories adapted for the screen were Westerns, written for pulp magazines when Leonard had a job in an advertising agency and was still trying to establish himself as an author at two cents a word. In a late interview for Criterion, Leonard reminisced about being paid $90 for his story 3:10 To Yuma, which was first made into a movie in 1957 and then remade in 2007.
The original Delmer Daves 3:10 To Yuma is an excellent film in the High Noon mode but Leonard devotees would surely be very surprised to discover that he had written it. The story is about a man doing what a man has to do – a cattle rancher (Van Heflin) is accompanying an outlaw (Glenn Ford) to the train that will take him to prison. Another Western made from a short story written early in Leonard's career was The Tall T, directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. Again, it's a much-admired film but seems light years away from the preoccupations of the later movies based on Leonard's crime fiction. The wide open spaces and Old Testament morality of the Western seems very different from the urban bustle of the typical Leonard thriller.
It's a testament to Leonard's range that he not only wrote stories for traditional Westerns like 3:10 To Yuma. He also wrote revisionist fare like Joe Kidd (1972), with Clint Eastwood playing the same kind of loner that he portrayed for Sergio Leone, and Martin Ritt's Hombre (1967), starring Paul Newman as a white man raised by the Apaches.
Leonard had a low opinion of most of the adaptations of his work. However, it's easy to see why film-makers, from Hollywood old-timers like Daves and Ritt to a later generation of independent directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, were so drawn to his work. He was a master storyteller who created very vivid characters. The dialogue zinged and there was often a political undertow to the work as well.
Look through the list of films based on Leonard novels and you'll find Charles Bronson vigilante movies (Mr Majestyk) and Prohibition era dramas (The Moonshine War). There have even been caper movies in the shape of the films of The Big Bounce, first made in 1969 with Ryan O'Neal and then remade in 2004. The author's own verdict on these two films was terse and withering. In 2004, when the remake appeared, he pointedly called the 1969 version "probably the second worst movie ever made."
The films based on Leonard stories that stick most vividly in the mind all come from the 1990s. Get Shorty (1995), about a gangster in the movie business, was full of in-jokes that were rapturously received in Hollywood. Then, there was Tarantino's wisecracking, digressive Jackie Brown (1997). Based on Leonard's Rum Punch, this was part blaxploitation movie, part crime thriller. It had wonderful performances both from Pam Grier as the flight attendant drawn into smuggling and from Robert Forster as a world-weary bail bondsman. Leonard also inspired one of Steven Soderbergh's best films, Out of Sight (1998.) This had a flavour of old Bogart and Bacall films or even screwball comedies in the way it paired bank-robber George Clooney with federal marshal Jennifer Lopez. Critic Roger Ebert suggested it was the most faithful of the 1990s adaptations of Leonard's novels.
Neither Jackie Brown nor Out of Sight were tightly plotted movies. Both had an aspect of the shaggy dog story about them. The richness of the characterisation and the dialogue were what mattered, not the heists or action. Film-makers, it was clear, were looking to the comic potential in Leonard's fiction. The profile of Leonard's fiction, meanwhile, was benefitting from the interest shown in him by a range of different contemporary directors.
"Quentin Tarantino's rise has so much to do with Elmore Leonard's world, as he would be the first to admit, that by the time a 'real' Leonard adaptation showed up in the form of Get Shorty, everyone had been prepared by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction for that tone," Soderbergh told Sight and Sound magazine "Actually Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight are textbook examples of what a director does, because all three feel like Elmore Leonard movies but are completely different from each other."
Soderbergh's remarks point to what still makes Elmore Leonard so attractive to film-makers. They can mould his work to their own sensibilities. If they want to make hard-boiled and violent movies, Leonard is the man. If they want to make comedy capers, Leonard is the man. Even if they want to make Westerns, Leonard is still the man.