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‘Out of Sight’ Perfected the Art of Adapting Elmore Leonard

A new TV version of ‘Get Shorty’ is a solid translation of the author’s crisp, economical prose, but it’s got nothing on Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece

Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in ‘Out of Sight’ Universal Pictures

Elmore Leonard hated it when writers used words other than said to convey dialogue. No he replied, or quipped, or shot back, or especially asseverated. This comes up third in his 10 Rules of Writing, a list so sacrosanct you can buy it in hardcover.

The deified Western and crime novelist, who died in 2013, also disliked adverbs (like especially), and prologues, and the word suddenly. And exclamation points. (“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”) And florid descriptions of weather on the first page. (“The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”) And florid descriptions of anything, really. Short version: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Slightly longer version:

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

You sure don’t skip it when Elmore Leonard wrote it. And you sure don’t tune it out when Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney deliver it while crammed together in the trunk of her car.

The experts tell us Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 crime thriller Out of Sight is the best of his nearly 30 movies; other experts tell us the 1996 novel on which that film is based at least makes the top 10 of Leonard’s 40-odd novels overall.

Hollywood will probably get around to adapting all 40-odd of them eventually. Past high-profile attempts to bring Elmore Leonard’s work to one screen or another have resulted in TV shows both transcendent (the mighty 2010-2015 FX series Justified, based off his Raylan Givens novels) and forgotten (the short-lived 1998 ABC sitcom Maximum Bob, starring Beau Bridges, based on the 1991 book). Film-wise, too, you’ve got your duds (two separate shots at Leonard’s early 1969 novel The Big Bounce, the second a 2004 turkey starring Owen Wilson) and your qualified successes (John Travolta starred in 1995’s hit Get Shorty, based on the 1990 book).

Get Shorty is now available on both screens: Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano lead a grim ‘n’ gritty Epix series that started earlier this month. It’s bad, or at least it certainly makes you long for John Travolta, or Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens, or even Beau Bridges. But it does remind us why Leonard is adapted so frequently and devoutly, and who does it well, and how they do it. Start here.

Out of Sight’s trunk scene is immortal in both mediums; you could read it—or watch it, or analyze the relationship between both versions—for hours. This is a real why don’t they make the whole plane out of the black box situation. Jack Foley (that’s Clooney) is a suave bank robber who just made a daring prison escape; Karen Sisco (that’s J.Lo) is a federal marshal who by chance witnesses that escape and gets physically scooped up and dumped into the trunk with Foley, where there is no room for weather, for adverbs, for florid descriptions, for asseverated, for hooptedoodle of any kind. No exclamation points either, though one could argue the whole scene is one giant exclamation point.

In terms of Book vs. Movie, the chronology is scrambled a bit, for starters. The novel saves Foley telling Sisco, “You don’t seem like you’re scared” for the end of their long, casual, bizarrely sensual conversation about convicts and movies; in the film version, he says it immediately. Several lines are direct lifts: “If it turns out I get shot down like a dog it’ll be in the street, not off a goddamn fence,” Movie Foley says, quoting the book and dropping only the if it and the down and swapping it’s gonna be for it’ll be.

“You must see yourself as some kind of desperado,” Book Sisco says; Movie Sisco changes desperado to Clyde Barrow, just to get a Superstar Charisma awkward-pause joke out of Clooney’s reaction. The film Network comes up in their conversation in both versions, but again, the movie wins by virtue of Clooney getting to actually ham his way through a Peter Finch impression. You could light a whole city’s power grid off of Lopez’s slow-blooming smile in reaction.

There was a play in New York City back in 2010 called Gatz where people just sat around reading The Great Gatsby out loud for seven hours; Soderbergh’s Out of Sight is the slicker and sexier and more compressed version of that, plus it has better dialogue. Scott Frank wrote the screenplay, but his fealty to Leonard’s text is near-absolute. He adds a little timeline trickery and beefs up the parts for Don Cheadle (as the home-invasion specialist and nominal Bad Guy) and Albert Brooks (as the Wall Street villain whose home gets invaded). But dialogue-wise, there are other scenes where the wording is so exact the actors might as well have paperbacks in their hands. (“You wanted to tussle. We tussled.”)

And then you get here.

Sisco and Foley finally have another conversation in a hotel bar in Detroit, and Soderbergh fires off every cannon in his arsenal (the lights, the twinkling snow, the quick shock cut to convey how close they’re sitting to each other) to make downtown Detroit look like Shangri-La. Their conversation tracks Leonard’s precisely—they start off pretending to be different people, Gary and Celeste, and their back and forth is ridiculous and electric. “Tell me, Celeste, what do you do for a living?” Foley asks, and Sisco immediately steals a line from an anonymous ad-exec doofus at the bar who’d hit on her a few minutes earlier.

Sisco: “I’m a sales rep, and I came here to call on a customer, but they gave me a hard time ’cause I’m a girl.”

Foley: “Is that how you think of yourself?”

Sisco: “As a sales rep?”

Foley: “As a girl.”

Sisco: “I don’t have a problem with it.”

Foley: “I like your hair. I like your outfit.”

Then he gives a speech, lifted directly from the book, about someone passing a stranger on the street and looking in that person’s eyes and seeing some sort of recognition, and how rare that is, and how you’ll think what if for the rest of your life if you don’t stop and say something, and then this happens.

Let’s not be the sort of people who sit around ranking love scenes, but let’s acknowledge that this works for The Obvious Reasons and also a few that are less obvious. The quick freeze-frames. More Shangri-La snowfall and lighting. But also the quick cuts back to the bar, for more Leonard-driven conversation, about their meeting in the trunk, about the gun he took from her, about their mutual idea to take a “timeout” from what they both actually do for a living.

None of the actual amorousness is gratuitous, on the page or on the screen; same deal with the violence in Elmore Leonard productions, most of the time. He likes his characters, the heroes and villains alike, and wants you to like them, and of course you do. This line from the Get Shorty movie sums it up; it’s in the book, too, of course.

John Travolta in ‘Get Shorty’ MGM

This helps explain why Justified is my favorite show of the prestige-TV era: Because it’s action-packed and yet deceptively light-footed and -hearted, with the Bad Guys every bit as noble and magnetic as the good guys. Literally everyone is fantastically witty, and almost everyone is armed.

The show was inspired initially by the Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole.” But with three full Raylan Givens novels to draw from—including the last, Raylan, published in 2012, while the show was still going and a year before Leonard’s death—it had a wealth of deliriously great source material. The show also might’ve come closest to capturing Leonard’s essence without just reading aloud from his published work: The final two-line dialogue exchange of the series, which for spoiler-proof fans is worth revisiting, is as wonderfully macho as tear-jerkers get.

Get Shorty, as both a film and now its own peak-TV affair, is a stranger beast. The 1995 movie is mostly tolerable: John Travolta, a year after Pulp Fiction, is riding high as cuddly loan shark Chili Palmer, traveling from Florida to L.A. to track down a late payment, and break into the movie business while he’s at it. (Pulp Fiction comes up briefly in Out of Sight, the novel—Leonard liked the mysterious glowing briefcase. And Quentin Tarantino’s first post–Pulp Fiction movie, 1997’s Jackie Brown, was adapted from Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch.)

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the ’95 Get Shorty is a bubbly, colorful, and silly affair. It’s awfully nonthreatening given that there’s like 12 people running around going, “Where the fuck is my money?” (As on Justified and in most of Leonard’s stuff generally, the only Actual Bad Guys are those who attack or threaten women or children.) Think of this movie as the successful version of Gigli, a slightly less effective J.Lo vehicle that historically botched the same Whimsical Gangster vibe.

Leave this stuff to professionals. Get Shorty’s cast is absurdly loaded: Out of Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini with a ponytail, Out of Sight vet Dennis Farina, and Bette Midler, it’s Danny DeVito who plays the movie star. Plotwise, things get confusing and a little tiresome, but there’s plenty of Leonard’s DNA to keep the deterioration of audience goodwill to a minimum, including a wealth of book-verbatim lines like Chili Palmer’s early vow that “I won’t say any more than I have to, if that.” Clearly he owns Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing in hardcover.

The Get Shorty Epix series—created by Shameless executive producer and former Mighty Mighty Bosstones keyboardist Davey Holmes—has aired only two episodes thus far, and it’s hard to figure out this show’s angle or its fealty to Leonard. Unlike the movie, it has no interest thus far in mimicking the book. Chili Palmer is long gone; Chris O’Dowd plays a low-level erudite tough guy with the way less evocative name Miles Daly, and he starts off living in cruddy old Nevada, not Palmer’s primary-colors Miami. The book and the movie both begin with Palmer flashing some whimsy-menace as he recovers a stolen coat; the show starts with a random dude getting his tongue ripped out.

Ray Romano and Chris O’Dowd in ‘Get Shorty’ for Epix Epix

I’m not sure you need this: more bleak prestige grit, all crude violence with very little style or joie de vivre (though joie de vivre would be fun to hear O’Dowd say in his thick Irish accent). This new Get Shorty is thus far way too reminiscent of The Good Wife’s merciless prestige-grit show-within-a-show Darkness at Noon; either that or it’s going for True Detective and getting about as close as Gigli got to Get Shorty.

I wonder what Elmore Leonard would’ve made of True Detective: If he’d have admired the evocative gloom, the erudite-tough-guy aura debt it clearly owed him, or if he would’ve dismissed it as florid hooptedoodle. This new Get Shorty works fine if you need another bleak crime thriller, but it’s not sharp or assured or wry enough to live up to its name. You are apt to skip ahead looking for people; so far it’s all adverbs and no verbs, unworthy of Chili Palmer’s coat, let alone Karen and Jack’s trunk.