How Elmore Leonard and ‘Justified’ Changed Pop Culture

FX's 'Justified' isn't just a big television hit, it's also a standing legacy to author Elmore Leonard, whose unique style changed pop culture for the better.

Apr 12, 2014 at 6:42AM

Certain writers leave their mark on pop culture beyond their books, and the late Elmore Leonard was one of those authors. FX (a subsidiary of Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA)) just wrapped the fifth and penultimate season of its critically acclaimed drama "Justified," a series sprung from one of Leonard's short stories. While that may be the most recent adaptation, it's not the first.

The author

Leonard

Credit: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

To look at Elmore Leonard's impact on the industry you have to go back much further than "Justified." Leonard was to the crime genre what Tom Clancy was to spy thrillers and Michael Crichton was to science fiction. All three transcended their books because each brought something special to the table ... a certain flair other authors didn't have.

Leonard wrote dozens of tales that sold upwards of tens of millions of copies. He mixed his stories with a dry wit and humor that critics and readers loved. His most famous rules for writing included "if it sounds like writing, rewrite it" and "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." The man knew how to write.

That's what was so hard about adapting Leonard's works -- most people ignored both of those rules (as well as the other eight he was known for). The result was a string of projects that may have had Leonard's characters front and center but didn't capture their voices. Studios quickly learned the only way to successfully bring his work to the screen (big or small) was to practice what he preached.

Hollywood hits

Get Shorty

Credit: MGM

Arguably one of Leonard's biggest hits was 1995's Get Shorty. Starring (the then higher profile quartet of) John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, and Danny DeVito, the movie was a smash hit for MGM. It also was nominated for multiple awards, including from the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes (with Travolta winning there.)

For the first time, the pop culture world was seeing Leonard's work how it was intended to be seen. The trend continued as Miramax brought Rum Punch to life in 1997 under the name Jackie Brown, with Quentin Tarantino directing. Universal followed in 1998 with Steven Soderbergh doing the honors on Out of Sight.

These were big names who know their craft as well as Leonard, and because of that, both films were big hits. Sight eventually led to ABC spinning off Jennifer Lopez's character Karen Sisco into her own (short-lived) self-titled show with Carla Gugino in the title role. The show couldn't capture Leonard's lingo, however, and it faltered like other projects from the author, including Get Shorty's sequel Be Cool in 2005.

Raylan 

Justified

Credit: FX

The ebb and flow around Leonard's Hollywood track record hit a high again when "Justified" came in 2010. Executives at FX went to great lengths to make sure this would be a success, and that started with picking the right producing team. Showrunner Graham Yost clearly understood Leonard and his style and that translated down through his entire crew.

The series is based on the short story "Fire in the Hole," which centers on U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a lawman who tells it like it is and has no problem going off on his own.

Brought to life by Emmy nominee Timothy Olyphant (who also serves as a producer), the character connected with audiences because it mirrored Leonard's original creation so closely. In an interview with Fast Company, Yost joked that the reason the pilot was so well received was that it was basically a straight adaptation.

When I spoke to Elmore for the first time, he said he really liked the pilot. I joked with him, I said, "Of course you do, Leonard -- I barely changed a word." From the beginning, he saw that we were taking this seriously. That we were trying to do a TV show that he would enjoy.

Network impact

Justified

'Justified' stars Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant. Credit: FX

FX was eventually able to use "Justified" to fill a void that shows like "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck," and "Rescue Me" had left with their departures. The series had both crossover appeal and critical support. It now serves as of the network's most reliable performer. 

Over the show's run, the electric cast of "Justified" has twice produced an Emmy winner from its midst, an FX rarity. Margo Martindale won for her role as the show's big villain in 2012, and the next year Jeremy Davies took home the gold for playing her equally twisted son.

However, the role did more than put the spotlight on "Justified" and its rock solid team, it put the spotlight on Martindale, who had long been overlooked. Some even look at her role as the one that made audiences begin to realize that this was a special series.

While Martindale and Davies were just passing through, the perfectly cast Olyphant and his amazing on-screen foil Walton Goggins have been there since the beginning. While Goggins is technically a villain, audiences have always pulled for him. It was their voices that made the actor go from guest star to series regular.

That was the appeal of Elmore Leonard -- he wasn't just a writer, he was a storyteller. When people took the time to study his work and learn his style, it popped on screen in surprising ways.

Leonard sadly passed away last year, and this next-to-last season of Justified has been a tribute to his legend. When someone of his talent is taken, it's a massive loss; aside from his charismatic personality, Leonard touched nearly every aspect of entertainment with his writing. Luckily, this will preserve his legacy for a long time to come.

Cable's domiance

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Brett Gold has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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