Elmore Leonard‘s novels were filled with sharp dialogue, vivid characters and intricate plotting — not for nothing have lots and lots of people described his writing as cinematic.
Yet for as prolific and as great a writer as he was, Leonard — who died Tuesday (Aug. 20) at age 87 — didn’t have a lot of good luck when his work was translated to the screen. A lot of the adaptations of his novels and short stories turned out to be duds, and he said he grew tired of writing screenplays as well.
“I haven’t written a screenplay since ’93, that’s when I said, ‘I’m not writing any more of these, it’s just work,” Leonard said in a 2012 interview. “Because you’re working with a studio executive who really doesn’t know much, if anything, about writing what works and what doesn’t. So, why put yourself in that position when you have to do that?
However, there’s one of mine I wrote in  for [producer] Walter Mirisch” — “Mr. Majestyk,” an original screenplay of Leonard’s that starred Charles Bronson as a farmer taking on a mobster. “It’s still paying residuals. So, there’s that lucky one. … And Bronson’s pictures always, always made money. I think it was OK. The picture was OK, but I don’t think it was really that good, that 35 years later it’s still paying residuals.”
A few Leonard adaptations, however, were more than OK. Here are the five best.
“3:10 to Yuma”: One of Leonard’s early western stories was made into a movie not once, but twice — and both are quite good. The first, in 1957, starred Glenn Ford as captured outlaw Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans, a rancher who agrees to get Wade on the train to Yuma, where a court date awaits. A remake in 2007 featured Russell Crowe as Wade and Christian Bale as Evans.
“Get Shorty”: After a string of Leonard movie adaptations had flopped, “Get Shorty” kicked off an on-screen renaissance for the author. Scott Frank‘s confident screenplay captures Leonard’s tone almost perfectly, and John Travolta cemented his post-“Pulp Fiction” comeback with a great star turn as mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer in a film full of great characters and dialogue.
“Jackie Brown”: Quentin Tarantino was a fan of Leonard’s before he adapted the novel “Rum Punch” into this 1997 movie. He took a few liberties with the story, but its spirit rang true to the source material. It’s one of Tarantino’s best (and probably his most underrated) films.
“Out of Sight”: Steven Soderbergh‘s film — with another excellent script from “Get Shorty” writer Scott Frank, who was nominated for an Oscar — tops a lot of people’s lists as the best Leonard adaptation. It features career-best work from Jennifer Lopez as U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco, George Clooney in a slightly against-type (at the time) turn as the leading man and a deft balance of action and comedy. The novel also provided the source material for “Karen Sisco,” a (sadly) short-lived ABC series starring Carla Gugino that aired in 2003.
“Justified”: Leonard was an executive producer of the FX series based on his character Raylan Givens, and showrunner Graham Yost has often said he keeps the thought “What would Elmore do?” in mind as he’s writing. It shows — “Justified” is vintage Leonard, with heroes that aren’t always heroic, bad guys who are real characters and not just cartoons and line after line after line of great dialogue.