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One of the only saving graces of a great artist dying, though oblivious to them, is the opportunity it grants us to talk about their work. Doing so always carries feelings of guilt-especially if the artist was still working at the time of their death-as we recognise this is what we should have done all along and curse ourselves for exploiting their demise to fill our quotas. I’m taking advantage of an obituary-led spike in the commentary on one of the foremost writers of our time to talk about where he and American television have crossed paths. Morbidly timely it may be, but hopefully it sheds as much light on the medium as it does the departed, and covers parts of his career that will remain untouched by most tributes.

Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

This time last week novelist, short story author and screenwriter Elmore Leonard died at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke earlier this month. The post-mortem of his oeuvre will undoubtedly focus on his contribution to literature and the movies, and rightly so given his prolific output of books, stories and scripts, as well as the ongoing cycle of adaptation, imitation and homage to his writing in the cinema. But Leonard meant a lot to American TV. Television’s engagement with Leonard was sporadic to say the least, nonetheless it bookended his career. Leonard’s last completed book was Raylan, a novel-length revival of a character from some of his earlier novels and stories, Marshal Raylan Givens. Not only was Leonard inspired to write a book based around the character following his screen incarnation by Timothy Olyphant in the TV series Justified, but the loose collection of cases that make up Raylan and its meandering style of storytelling seem heavily influenced by TV’s episodic nature and large story canvasses. The first screen adaptation of Leonard’s writing was on the small screen rather than the big one. In 1956, the CBS anthology series Schlitz Playhouse of Stars featured an adaptation of Leonard’s western story ‘Moment of Vengeance’, a year before Hollywood cinema would do the same with ‘3.10 to Yuma’. TV introduced Leonard to the screen and it concluded his career.

Raylan: Art imitates Art!

Despite this early entry in the history of American TV, it would be a long time before Leonard would feature again. In 1980, during the heyday of the American TV movie, Leonard returned to the medium to attempt the daunting and foolish task of penning a television sequel to Stanley Kramer’s High Noon. Inevitably lacking the Hollywood star and filmmaking quality of the original and as clunky as any unnecessary sequel, the dispiritingly titled High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane notably improves on its predecessor in several respects. Leonard’s screenplay uses the quotidian, eye-witness qualities of television to carve out a politically, economically and socially realistic vision of the western frontier rather than using the ‘old west’ as an allegory for 1950s blacklist America as High Noon did. Leonard’s versions of the films’ characters are far cooler and more credible with complicated personal moralities that put the Manichean originals to shame. The script also demonstrates Leonard’s effortless skill at integrating his characters into an ongoing story world and coherent universe of his characters. The casting of David Carradine cast as a sympathetic, laid-back outlaw and the movie’s progressive representations of African-Americans gunslingers and frontier racism suggests that Quentin Tarantino, who adapted Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into Jackie Brown (still his most mature movie), may not have restricted his fandom of Elmore Leonard to the literary and cinematic efforts.

High Noon 2: Even Higher, Even Nooner!

The western TV movie would be the form that Leonard’s involvement with television would take throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with numerous adaptations of his work and contributions of original screenplays. However, TV didn’t get serious about adapting Leonard’s work until the turn of the millennium when it attempted to ride a wave of successful versions of his books in independent American cinema throughout the 1990s. The TV adaptations would be beset by many of the same problems of translation that faced earlier screen adaptations of Leonard’s work and took until the last decade of the century to be resolved. In TV, such problems were compounded by Leonard adaptations having to fight for their right to remain onscreen. Despite bringing Leonard’s Get Shorty to the big screen with great success, Barry Sonnenfeld could not do the same for a TV series based on Maximum Bob-one of his most celebrated novels-cancelled in 1998 after a truncated debut season of seven episodes. Even Leonard characters that had already entered the popular consciousness were trampled by TV. In 2003 a series was developed around FBI Agent Karen Sisco, a character who had been portrayed by singer-actress Jennifer Lopez in the movie Out of Sight, a hit star vehicle for her and George Clooney based on the Leonard novel of the same name. This time it didn’t even make it past the pilot stage.

Was Elmore Leonard justified in his decision to stay with TV?

Television was in danger of incurring the same animosity Leonard held for the movies’ mistreatment of his work. Clearly, any continuation of the relationship between Leonard and television would have to be justified. And so it was. In 2010, producer Graham Yost created Justified, a procedural about Marshal Raylan Givens returning to police his hometown in Kentucky, which took as its jumping-off point Leonard’s short story ‘Fire in the Hole’. Though following its own course after Leonard’s point of closure, Justified continues to weave characters from Leonard’s canon into the episodes-including the extended Crowe and Crowder families who genealogically permeate his writing-and structures the central dynamic of the show around the tensions between Givens and Boyd Crowder in the original story. In his last years, Leonard was vocal about his admiration for the series’ sincerity as an adaptation of his work and was particularly taken with its faithfulness to his dialogue style. Justified also embraces the no-bullshit ethos of Leonard’s storytelling, stripped down yet flamboyantly funny, giving audiences what they want and need according to taste. Leonard is credited as producer, a title vague enough to mean anything from muse to head writer. Given that Leonard’s comments about the show seem to be from the outside looking in, it’s probably more like the former. There’s certainly no greater screen testament to the power of what Elmore Leonard does than Justified.

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