I’m doing a double set of books today — Rum Punch and Out of Sight — because both have been made into very good and very successful adaptations. Rum Punch became Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Out of Sight had an adaptation directed by Steven Soderbergh. Adaptations are an interesting facet of Elmore Leonard, because he’s got a whole bunch of them and that’s probably how most people know of his work. Mentioning Elmore Leonard’s name usually earns you a lot of blank looks, but you can usually mention the Justified TV series, Get Shorty or Jackie Brown and then they understand. A sad comment on our current book-ignoring culture? Maybe, but a lot of these adaptations are just as good as Leonard’s originals. Many authors feature dialogue that will sound rather silly when stated verbatim by flesh-and-blood actors, but that’s not the case with Leonard. His dialogue sounds cool, but it also sounds real and that’s why his adaptations work.
Out of Sight and Rum Punch are perfect examples. I don’t need to repeat plot summaries, as you can find that easily enough, but I will say that both books are amongst Leonard’s best. They’ve got the coolness, they’ve got the suspense, but most importantly, they’ve got the sadness. Out of Sight’s Jack Foley is a charming sort of rogue but in one of the novel’s best parts, he tells Marshal Karen Sisco that “you can’t do three falls and say you have much of a brain.” In the film, George Clooney kind of casually says that line, a little quickly, like he’s ashamed of it. In the book, it’s divided by a ‘Foley said,’ which makes me hear it slower — like Foley is pausing and thinking it over, dwelling on the words. He realizes that his bank robbing, while cool, has kind of doomed him and he’s really sort of pathetic. It’s sad for Karen Sisco too. She likes Jack Foley, they’re a good couple and she knows that he’s not a bad guy — but she still has to shoot him in the leg and take him prisoner. That’s her job, after all. The final lines of the book are spoken by Karen’s father (played wonderfully in the film by Dennis Farina) as she explains what happened. “My little girl,” he says. “The tough babe.” It’s the final line of the book and shows that Karen has chosen her career instead of her heart — though letting a bank robber go seems pretty impossible. It’s a very sad and poignant moment, like Raylan having to shoot Boyd, but to a far greater extent.
But the final scene of the film sort of undoes this by having Karen get Jack Foley to hang out with a super jail-busting prisoner named Hejira (played by an awesome Samuel L. Jackson). It’s a great scene, but it shows that Karen does value Foley as much as her career. It sort of undermines the sadness and gives the film a peppier ending. Out of Sight is still awesome (it also added a great Albert Brooks to the cast and has probably the best Jennifer Lopez performance of all time), but I do kind of wish they stuck with the more poignant tone of the original.
Jackie Brown, on the other hand, makes tons of changes. They move the story to LA instead of South Florida, remove a fantastic heist on a white supremacist militia compound (the Operation Rum Punch of the title) and change the white Jackie Burke to the Black Jackie Brown, played by Pam Grier in a performance that is nothing short of iconic. However, I still feel Jackie Brown is the more faithful adaptation. Rum Punch, at its heart, is about getting old, being stuck in the same job for a long time (stewardess for Jackie Burke/Brown and bail bondsman for Max Cherry) and trying to make a change. Jackie succeeds at making the change and moving on to a better life, while Max does not. The novel has a very sad end with Max wistfully watching Jackie Burke driving away while he is stuck with his bail bonds. Max, unlike Jackie, is probably the main character and, like many Leonard protagonists, he tries to change and does not. The film, with the great Robert Forster as Max Cherry, perfectly captures that weary sadness.
Leonard adaptations vary in quality — and there will probably be more of them as the years go on. However, all of them can work as a wonderful gateway drug into Leonard’s literary work. The adaptations can succeed or fail, but Leonard’s stories are always going to be worth checking out.