Elmore Leonard and his lasting legacy to cinema

Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Elmore Leonard.
Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Elmore Leonard.
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if you prefer the written word to the eventual movies made from your favourite books, then you will doubtless mourn the death this week of Elmore Leonard at the age of 87.

Leonard’s career was an extraordinarily long one. He published his first short story in 1951 and was in the process of writing his 46th novel when he had a stroke a few weeks ago.

The books are many and varied, from Westerns to the urban noir that made his name and represent his legacy. The titles include Hombre, Freaky Deaky, 3:10 to Yuma, Rum Punch, Valdez is Coming and Mr Majestyk.

A master of dialogue with a razor-sharp edge and off-kilter characters who spoke it with a feel for such gritty vernacular, Leonard was catnip to film studios, producers, directors and macho movie stars.

His film career – he was also a screenwriter – included collaborations with stars such as Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds and Burt Lancaster.

Latterly he was the go-to guy for relative newcomers like Quentin Tarantino, who enjoyed a hit with Jackie Brown, renamed from Leonard’s Rum Punch.

Quite simply, Leonard was smart. And he scattered those smarts through his books and short stories, all of them appearing strangely timeless, always ready for a new adaptation.

He was constantly being discovered by young cineastes and the film nerds like Tarantino who turned their hobby into a day job. Like Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury in the fields of fantasy, he was a master of his genres.

Steven Soderbergh resurrected his own ailing career when he turned Out of Sight into the surprise hit of 1998. Suddenly George Clooney was inducted into the Leonard Hall of Fame alongside Eastwood and Co courtesy of a smart and sexy thriller. Audiences were constantly surprised at the quality of a Leonard project. They shouldn’t have been. Yet the man himself professed to be unimpressed with the majority of films made from his books and tales.

Arguably the biggest disappointments were the two versions of his 1969 novel The Big Bounce. Whatever the book had, the movies missed.

It took film literate directors like Soderbergh and Tarantino to do justice to Leonard. He himself learned not to fret about the movie versions of his work. Having been let down in the early days, he sold the rights and ignored the result. If the film turned out to be half decent, then that was a bonus.

Like all great writers Elmore Leonard will live on through his books. There are a handful of acceptable movies, too, plus one or two very good ones.

And as the world of cinema changes and story becomes an afterthought – a poor second, third or even fourth to stars, special effects and product placement – then 24-carat storytellers like Leonard will be increasingly sought out by actors and directors who yearn to deliver something increasingly old-fashioned: a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.