[List] - 5 Other Elmore Leonard Books That Should End Up On TV



The departure of Justified leaves two sizable holes in our hearts. First, there is now a vacant hole in the list of top shelf television dramas currently on TV. For the first time in six years, we cannot take comfort in the fact that we'll return to Harlan next winter. We're on our own from here. Second, Justified proved, after two previous attempts, that an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novels and short stories can work, and work well, on television. Adaptations of Elmore's work are hit and miss on the cinematic side, but until Justified came along they were batting a thousand into the dirt. Maximum Bob, starring Beau Bridges, tried it in 1998 and lasted seven episodes. Karen Sisco tried again in 2003 and managed to last 10 before getting cancelled (both by ABC). Justified broke the trend in spectacular fashion, and sets the standard for any future attempts.

And why shouldn't there be future attempts? In his career, Elmore wrote forty five novels and near as many short stories over the course of his fifty year career; twenty six of which have been adapted to screen (and about half that many successfully), and likely up to half that many again have been attempted over the years. His works provide a gluttony of well written, engaging, conflicted, interesting characters getting themselves caught up in the wackiest, bloodiest adventures. Despite being set in Detroit, or Miami, or Kentucky, his stories are about the universal flaws of man kind: our greed, our ego, our inability to self-criticize and unwillingness to improve. That is why his works are popular, and why they make enticing fodder for adaptation. And as Justified showed us, on television, an adapter can move beyond the plot of any particular novel and really dive into the characters in a way that a 90 minute film doesn't allow.

After the jump, I look at 5 of Elmore's unadapted works, and see how they might work out as a spiritual successor to Justified, and as a continuation of Elmore's legacy.

But first, a confession. As much as I love Elmore's bibliography (he is likely the author who has had the most profound effect on my own writing), I feel his strongest works were those he produced after the turn of the nineties. His prior works are superior to most other authors, but his output from Get Shorty on feels more... perfected. He had honed his craft by this time, and the final two decades of his career I believe saw his best work. As such, this list favours this latter stage of his career.

Karen Sisco

A bit of a cheat right off the bat, but one I honestly believe makes the most sense. One of the reasons Justified exists at all is because FX head John Landgraf was one of the producers on Karen Sisco half a decade earlier. As he explained to Uproxx:
"... that was based on the character from Out of Sight, the Jennifer Lopez movie. Carla Gugino played Karen Sisco in the series. Terrific pilot, just a beautiful pilot, directed by the same director who directed Justified, Michael Dinner. So I worked with him on that and as a producer on that show. But what we found was once you got past the pilot, which you could really lavish attention to and really work very hard to attach the view of Elmore Leonard’s unique tone and dialogue and approach to story and character, it really was very difficult to sustain the quality of the scripts thereafter. At least I don’t think we were able to with Karen Sisco."
So Landgraf was familiar with Leonard's works, and the potential they held. It was also because of this connection to the earlier series that Justified was able to get away with featuring Gugino in a lawyer-friendly cameo in season 3's Cut Ties. To avoid tangling with whomever holds the rights to Out of Sight or either of the two short stories in which Karen appears, the character is never called Karen, and given a married name of Goodall. Then they spend the episode all but winking at the camera: it's Karen Sisco.

Sisco the series had a few things working against it: first, it was a procedural, and Elmore's works lend themselves more towards serialized storylines when told in the long form of television. In 2003 though, the trend had not yet shifted towards arcs. So, the episodes were relatively self contained, depending on the characters to carry them through. Second, as Landgraf mentions, the writing wasn't able to keep up the quality Elmore's material demands. And finally, it was on a network. In 2003, network TV was still where all TV of note was being produced. In the modern environment though, with a quality team behind the scenes, and a willing home like FX or the like, and I feel that a Karen Sisco series, starring Gugino, could really succeed.

While Out of Sight and the earlier series focused on her early career as a Deputy Marshal, the new series could pick up with her having nearly twenty years under her belt and functioning as Assistant Director, the rank she held during her cameo. That position doesn't really exist - there is a Deputy Director - but Assistant Deputy could be easily handwaved as a multi-regional position in the higher bureaucracy of the Marshal Service (I'm thinking between a full Marshal and the Deputy Director). They could set the series anywhere in the US they wanted, keeping it in Karen's home town of Miami, or moving it to California, Seattle, Detroit or Washington.

The series would focus on what Karen's character in Elmore's writing has always focused on: her continuing to excel at her job, while being absolute shit at every other aspect of her life, especially her choice in men, who tend to be criminals she is expected to arrest. Her final literary outing, a little known short story called Chick Killer, is actually set on the day that Karen hands in her badge and becomes obsessed with taking down one last bad guy. A Karen contemplating retirement provides her plenty of conflict with which to move through a season, and the prospect of her overseeing a multi-district man hunt for an escaped serial killer provides the initial plot structure for an arc.

Cuba Libre

The Coens Bros. attempted to get an adaptation of Elmore's Spanish-American War era novel made some years back, and if the thought of the Coens taking on Elmore's material doesn't make you tingle in your happy-bits, then I don't think you've got a clear enough picture of what joy looks like. The picture went nowhere, likely because getting period westerns made and distributed is among the most difficult things in the entertainment industry. But also, from all accounts, the brothers attempted to pack the entire plot of the book into a two hour film, a tall order considering that the book twists and turns considerably before setting into a faux-kidnapping plot. There is too much material to cover in a film, but on television, there would be adequate time to build up towards things.

I say adapt Cuba Libre as a book rather than focus on either one of the two main characters, because honestly I can't decide who like more as a primary focus. On one hand, you've got Ben Tyler, who is a quintessential Leonardian hero: a cattle rustler and accidental bank robber and gun hand gets released from prison and gets caught up in a gun running scheme to Cuba, using horses as a cover. His bad luck holds out as they arrive the day after the Maine explodes in Havana harbour and the outbreak of the Spanish-American war. On the other hand, there is Amelia Brown, a quintessential Leonardian heroine: a mysterious past and something of a con artist, she's the arm candy of a plantation owner thinking it would be a easy way to a fast buck but has grown tired of being treated like somebody's property. While the war explodes around them, these two work up a kidnapping scheme to bilk Brown's fella out of a sever amount of cash.

Brown feels like a far more complex character with which to make the centerpiece of the a series, as Tyler, like so many of Elmore's characters, is set in his ways and shows little room for growth. He's honourable and loyal, and has a firm idea in his head of what is right, and takes it personal when he's wronged. But Brown leaves so much more to the imagination. There is an undercurrent of manipulation though her every interaction, and while the book does build up a romance between the castle rustler and the lady of the manor, you can never escape the thought that she's just using him to get what she wants, and will dump him just as quick when they're clear. Creating a period series based on a complex and independent female character would be a bold direction to go in, and boldness begets benefit. Such a series could have the potential to be a feminist, Cuban Deadwood. And, with real world attitudes towards Cuba shifting back into friendly territory, there might be no more appropriate time to revisit the era when everything started to go wrong.

Carl Webster
Elmore was never one to shy away form reusing characters, but in the latter stage of his career, he returned to former characters with a greater frequency then ever before. Karen Sisco got a novel and two short stories, Jack Foley got two books as did Chili Palmer, Raylan Givens got three novels and a shorty. And then there was Carl Webster, Elmore's last great original character, and a member of what may well be the largest dynasty in Leonard's interconnected universe.

First appearing in The Hot Kid in 2005, set during the Tommy Gun era of the Great Depression, Webster is a US Marshal in that inhabits that period between when cowboys ruled the west and when the gritty street crime of the 70's takes hold. It's a period that Elmore didn't write a lot about - his stories are either late 19th century westerns, or contemporary works. Webster was picked up again in 2007's Up In Honey's Room, which saw Carl hunting down escaped Nazi war criminals in Detroit during the Second World War, and again in a series of collected short stories and a novella as Comfort to the Enemy in 2009. Webster's father Virgil appears in Cuba Libre, and Carl's son Ben predates them all, appearing in the short Tenkiller in 2002's When The Women Come Out To Dance.

While Ben presents interesting potential as a protagonist for a series - an ex rodeo star and Hollywood stuntman returns to work his family farm in Oklahoma - he shares a lot of character traits with Raylan, and the similarities between Tenkiller and Fire In The Hole are many and marked. Carl holds far more potential for the longevity of a series. The series could take place over multiple years, or take place in multiple decades, as an older Carl reflects on his brash youth, or as a multi-generational story between him and Virgil, who would have lived through the Spanish-American War and the First World War, while Carl lives on the edge of the Second. Not to mention the added benefit of Honey Deal, who conforms closer to the mold of Amelia Brown, and provides an excellent foil for Carl as he fights the war on the homefront. But at the core, a series set during the war, following a Marshal hunting Nazi and Nazi-sympathizers in old Detroit has a lot of appealing notions to it.

Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara

Ordell and Louis feature the biggest gap between appearances in Elmore's lore. First appearing in 1978's The Switch (recently adapted as Life of Crime), the pair are a couple of opportunistic small timers, looking for a fast buck. Ordell is a thinker with ambition, while Louis is laid back with some morals and a lot of human decency. They don't appear again until 1992's Rum Punch (made famous as Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown). By then, Louis is fresh out of prison and Ordell is set up in West Palm Beach as a gunrunner. The 12 year gap in between, during the Miami Vice era eighties, is a blank page.

With eighties nostalgia at it's peak, its a little surprising that the only shows that seems to have attempted to tap into that are Halt and Catch Fire and the Americans. Maybe it's because, for most people, the eighties still feels relatively recent; too recent to be considered a period piece. But for two barely-better-than-losers like Louis and Ordell, it could hold considerable potential. The series would follow the same basic set up as both their novel appearances: Ordell gets them roped into a get rich quick scheme that quickly balloons out of control. Ideally, over the course of the series, I picture it developing like Raylan and Boyd on Justified, as the characters slowly go their separate ways, but still inhabit a shared sphere of influence. And all of it building towards Louis getting pinched. And as Better Call Saul has recently shown us, just because we know how something ends doesn't mean we have any idea (and won't enjoy) how a character got there.

Road Dogs

Bringing things full circle, perhaps the character I believe is best suited for television expansion is Jack Foley. First appearing in Out of Sight opposite Karen Sisco, he returned in 2009's Road Dogs, the culmination of Elmore's shared universe, as it brought together Foley, Cundo Rey from LaBrava, and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. Foley was brought to life by George Clooney in one of the best Elmore adaptations in 1998, but despite being an enigmatic protagonist, there hasn't been that much interest in him since. Much like the original Karen Sisco series, I think there is great potential in the future adventures of Jack Foley, the country's most notorious and successful bank robber. And because of Jack's notoriety, there is even a built in alternate title: Infamous.

The novel Road Dogs provides, to my mind, two seasons worth of plot in the least. It would begin with him getting out of prison thanks to Cundo, and spending the season working off his debt while waiting for Cundo's release. The first season would have Cundo hanging over it like a blade, while Dawn frets and manipulates, and has Jack help her run her cons on the rich of Miami. In the background would be FBI agent Lou Adams' belief that Jack will rob another bank, the publication of his book, and a sudden unexpected celebrity being forced upon Jack. The season would culminate much as the novel does in terms of Dawn and Cundo, leaving Jack once again alone. Season two would then make use of the remaining plot elements from the novel. Move Jack to LA, where a film based Lou's book is being filmed, with Jack as the technical adviser. Bring to the forefront Lou's obsessive belief that Jack will relapse, and introduce Danialle Karmanos as the actress looking for a distraction. Scenes from the novel, like Jack's confrontation on the roof with Tico, are rife with tension, and I would imagine the tone the series being closer to Breaking Bad then Justified.

Like Justified, which made use of elements from Raylan's novels as well as borrowing heavily form the rest of Elmore's writing, I can easily imagine a Road Dogs series pulling liberally but legally from the other books. Hollywood ego and vanity from Get Shorty and LaBrava, ex-rodeo stunt men from Ten Killer, that sort of thing. Having re-read Road Dogs recently, I was struct too by how clearly I pictured a particular actor playing Jack. Not George Clooney, whose playboy optimism worked in Out of Sight, but Jon Hamm, whose charm but distracted sadness are much better suited for a post-prison, post-Karen Foley.

So that's it. A brief and obviously incomplete list. I've obviously missed a bunch, so if you've got any ideas about which of Elmore's characters or books you think could support a TV show, let me know.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

2 comments :

  1. Out of all of your ideas, I like Road Dogs the best. It makes me wish FX does produce the adaptation.

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    1. I was just reading it for the first time since it came out, and was struck by how adaptable it would be to a serial format. It all seemed to be laid out perfectly for it.

      I assume the major hold up is, when it comes to shared characters like this, that the rights would be held by those owning the novels in which the characters originated. So, Jack with Out of Sight's owners (likely still Universal), Dawn with Sony (since she originated from a Raylan Givens book) and Cundo from whomever has LaBrava at this point. All the Road Dogs owners would have would be characters originating within the novel, and the events of the plot (this happened on Justified, who couldn't call Karen by name, and had to change the Crowe family members because they appeared in a Raylan novel but didn't originate there).

      That is potentially a lot of legal hurdles to jump over. Which is a damned shame.

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