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Worst To First: Ranking Elmore Leonard Adaptations

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is one of the most iconic novelists of the second half of the twentieth century, so it’s natural that his work would be frequently adapted by Hollywood. However, many adaptations of his work fall short or even worse. The prime problem is that it’s easy to forget that Leonard’s novels and stories aren’t plot driven: the primary focus is on the characters, dialogue and overall attitude. Quentin Tarantino gets this. So does screenwriter Scott Frank and directors Steven Soderbergh and Barry Sonnenfeld. But many times, those adapting his work do not. Hence why of the numerous adaptations of his films, only a few truly succeed.

Leonard debuted in the 1950’s writing Western short stories. After nearly two decades of success in that genre, he transitioned to crime fiction in 1969. His first crime novel was The Big Bounce which got adapted twice, albeit not successfully either time.

(Note: Leonard was a prolific writer and one of Hollywood’s favorite authors.  His works have been adapted to film and television many times over the years.  Typically “Worst to First” attempts to be comprehensive, but in this case I am only ranking the adaptations I have actually seen.)

The Big Bounce 2004

13. The Big Bounce (2004)

Summary: A young surfer (Owen Wilson) gets into a mess involving thieves and a woman who may be setting him up. Like I noted above, Leonard novels are less about plot than about characters.

What’s Good: The talented cast includes Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Charlie Sheen, Gary Sinise and Harry Dean Stanton.  The basic idea of doing another version of The Big Bounce wasn’t bad. The original adaptation had been royally screwed up. So a remake wasn’t out of the question.

What’s Bad: Unless of course, you screw it up worse. Moving the action from the Thumb Area of Michigan to Hawaii might not seem like a bad idea. But it helps throw off the tone of the novel. Also the direction by George Armitage didn’t do the book justice.

Quote: “She just has a little mischief in her that makes her kind of fun to be around. The other day she took off her clothes and then she folded them in this neat little pile.”

Verdict: Not as bad as the first Big Bounce adaptation. No, it’s actually worse. To date, the nadir of Leonard adaptations that I’ve seen.

Stick

12. Stick (1985)

Summary: Car thief Ernest Stickley (Burt Reynolds) gets released from prison and tries to go straight. But of course, such things do not go according to plan.

What’s Good: The cast includes Candice Bergen, George Segal and Charles Durning. Other than the cast, there’s not a lot in the “plus” column.  Reynolds, who directed as well as starred, tried to make a good adaptation of a book he loved.

What’s Bad: According to Reynolds, the studio more or less hacked the movie he turned in to bits. He claims that the one he made was pretty close to the book. But the studio insisted on changes being made. Either way, this one, like many failed Leonard adaptations, misses the point about Leonard’s works.

Quote: “What’s a boomerang that doesn’t come back? It’s a Stick.”

Verdict: Leonard reportedly hated this. Watch it and you’ll understand why.

Next: 11th and 10th Picks

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Posted on October 23, 2015, in Movies, Worst to First and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Great write-up, Jeff. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Elmore Leonard’s fiction and also many of the movies adapted from it. Have you seen either Life of Crime (adapted from Leonard’s novel The Switch, the prequel to Rum Punch) or 52 Pick-Up? I would rate them both behind the Big Three, but well ahead of either Killshot or Cat Chaser, among the adaptations of Leonard’s crime fiction. I haven’t seen the #6-8 films on your list yet but suspect that Life of Crime, in particular, would outrank them as well.

    While, as you note, Leonard’s Western fiction hasn’t been adapted to screen as often as his crime tales, the quality record has been a lot better. Besides the two versions of 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre is a terrific Western (featuring Paul Newman’s “other” great performance from 1967), and so is The Tall T, which I believe was the very first Leonard-to-film adaptation of all. I haven’t seen Valdez is Coming for quite a while but I recall it as being very good as well.

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    • I haven’t actually done my own ranking yet. While I love the Big 3, the only other Leonard adaptation on this list that I have watched is the 3:10 to Yuma remake. It sounds like I have lucked out and just watched the good ones. Oh, except for Be Cool. I forgot about that one. Really not good.

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      • If I made up my own ranking, not confining myself to the post-1985 choices we had in the article, it would be headed by the Big Three; the order would be Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, but they’re all really closely bunched. Hombre would be #4, and the other four Westerns I mentioned in my first post would all fall somewhere from 5 to 9, with Life of Crime mixed in with them. 52 Pick-Up would round out the list as #10.

        And that, at the moment, would probably exhaust the stock of Leonard adaptations that are really worth watching. The pickings are definitely better if you are a fan of both crime films and Westerns.

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  2. I never viewed “Cat Chaser” or “”Touch”, so I just left them at the bottom, but I don’t know if many people could argue with the top three (maybe the 2007 “3:10 to Yuma” can sneak in there). There is a definite line drawn when it comes to distinguishing quality.
    I found the 2004 “The Big Bounce” (didn’t view the original, and didn’t even know there was one. Glad I now know) and “Killshot” (viewed it because of Diane Lane) to be watchable, but rather unremarkable. I like some elements of “Stick” but I know it isn’t very good, and “Be Cool” is probably quite forgettable to most.

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    • I haven’t seen Touch, but I found Cat Chaser to be almost unwatchable. My understanding is that the film was taken away from Abel Ferrara and very severely edited before release, so it has very few of the distinctive touches of his more notable films. Charles Durning is good but there’s nothing else to recommend it.

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      • It’s always a bad sign when a film is heavily edited and tampered with by the studio; most of the time we never get to know if the initial vision was any good or not.

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  3. I have only seen four of theese movies. Top 3 and (sadly) the newer version of the Big Bounce. Agree on the rank and the reviews for them completely.

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  4. I have seen the top 5 plus a couple of the lower ones. My favorite Elmore Leonard film isn’t even included, so I cannot in good conscience vote in the poll. Ha ha! My love for THE TALL T is outsized. It trumps all other Leonards pour moi. My ranking would go something like this:

    THE TALL T
    GET SHORTY
    OUT OF SIGHT
    Both versions of 3:10 TO YUMA (Because I have the hardest time deciding which one I like best)
    JACKIE BROWN
    HOMBRE
    LIFE OF CRIME
    THE BIG BOUNCE
    BE COOL

    I haven’t seen the rest.

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    • Glad to see some love for The Tall T; I really enjoy all of that series of late 1950s Westerns that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made.

      Nice to see another mention of Life of Crime as well.

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  5. I agree with the ratings but I’d have to add a new one above #1, Justfied (TV series) is based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” and he was one of the Executive Producers.

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  6. Quentin Tarantino – Ranking His Films From Worst To Best

    http://whatculture.com/film/quentin-tarantino-ranking-his-films-from-worst-to-best.php/8

    Jackie Brown

    Still the director’s most undervalued film, Jackie Brown, a mash-up of hard-boiled 40s Noir and 70s Blaxploitation, is Tarantino straightest work; heavy in his tropes and references and touchstones, but ultimately a more classical work than the rest of his oeuvre, one far more concerned with narrative and resolution than it is any kind of timeline-fracturing chicanery (though, as is Noir, the plot is convoluted, and there is an instance towards the film’s close where the timeline is tampered with momentarily) or off-topic discourse.

    70s Blaxploitation queen, Pam Grier, is the eponymous JB, and her entrance is the coolest in all of Tarantino, the star tracked along a travellator (in a nod to The Graduate) to the sound of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street. It’s a great way to open a movie, and Jackie Brown only gets better; not quite as heavy in Tarantino ‘moments’ but just altogether more satisfying as an overall, complete film.

    It helps that Brown is one of the great QT characters, and her kind-of romance with Max Cherry, played by cult B-movie star Robert Forster, here nominated for an Academy Award, is one of the most touching, believable relationships in the director’s entire body of work. Tarantino’s characters, as established in The Hateful Eight, are now becoming caricatures, acted by stars well aware that they are in a Quentin Tarantino film. Not so in Jackie Brown, where Grier and Cherry are genuine in a way that’s becoming increasingly rare in the director’s work.

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    • I don’t think Tarantino’s style of filmmaking has changed all that much, it’s just that some people just got sick of what he delivers, like how some people may get tired of a person or TV series just because they personally aren’t as interested in them or it as they once were.

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      • That’s certainly possible. I’m sure you’re referring to The Hateful Eight, and the fact that it is failing at the box office. Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained by comparison were highly successful a few years ago, so it may be a bit more than that. My thought is that Inglorious had an A-list movie star like Brad Pitt as a major selling point, while Django had Leonardo DiCaprio – one of the most reliable stars around – to sell the movie. By comparison Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Walton Goggins aren’t big draws. Hateful more than any other film of his is reliant on the Tarantino brand alone.

        Second, it’s a nearly three hour film that is mostly dialogue driven, and that was pretty obvious from the start. Tarantino even repeatedly talked about how literary it is and how well it can be adapted to the stage. I don’t think the general masses have the patience to sit through a talky (though highly enjoyable if you gave it a chance) three hour western featuring less-than-bankable actors. The fact that the Oscars only gave it a couple of nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Score mean that the awards season will not save it. Which is a shame as it really is an excellent film, but that’s just my opinion.

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        • Yeah, I was definitely commenting on that whatculture.com article, since it seemed that the author was lumping a lot of Tarantino’s pictures together due to his dislike of “The Hateful Eight”, and basically saying he is losing his touch (many critics and people in general just can’t wait to call someone out for supposed slippage). I totally agree with you that “The Hateful Eight” doesn’t have a current Box Office megastar to hang their hat on, although I feel the roll-call of names is fantastic.
          Honestly though, I believe the majority of Tarantino’s films are dialogue driven, with most action off-screen or implied, but three hours is a long viewing (to be fair, “The Green Mile” is 3 hours, 20 minutes, and there wasn’t much action in that picture either).

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        • https://www.facebook.com/groups/thecinefiles/permalink/10153698111510795/

          What is our verdict that The Hateful Eight by Tarantino bombed at the box-office?

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