Although revered crime and western novelist Elmore Leonard is an undisputed master of the printed word, the page-to-screen adaptations of his work have been a bit more spotty.
While “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty” and “Jackie Brown” all nailed the author’s rich dialogue and darkly humorous tone, flops such as “The Big Bounce,” “Be Cool” and a couple of misguided TV movies failed to give Leonard’s work the proper screen treatment.
Despite some success in Hollywood, Leonard has often seen his work mangled to the point of being almost unrecognizable from its source material. If you look at his lengthy IMDB page dating back to the late ’50s, the 87-year-old writer has had to deal with a lot of on-screen disappointments.
If the majority of Leonard’s adaptations failed to live up to his vision, his latest outing in Hollywood, FX’s wildly acclaimed series “Justified,” is the most loyal and spot-on rendition of the author’s work yet. The Emmy and Peabody award-winning series begins its fourth season at 11 p.m. Tuesday on FX.
Like FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” it has seen a steady growth in viewership with each passing season. “Justified” follows deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens’ exile from chasing the underworld in Miami to dealing with the eccentric and often volatile folk he grew up with in his hometown in Harlan County, Ky. A product of too many episodes of “Branded” and “Gunsmoke” as a kid, Givens fancies himself a old-school lawman in the tradition of the fabled West.
Givens’ quick-draw approach doesn’t sit well with his superiors, despite his easy charm and relative effectiveness in shutting down the bad guys. At first glance, “Justified” feels like a concept deeply dated and mired in cliche. In most hands it would be, but series creator Graham Yost along with Leonard as a producer have brought the writer’s idiosyncratic and unpredictable characters to life.
Givens, played by “Deadwood” alum Timothy Olyphant, is one of TV’s best characters, the type of cool cat that can wear a Stetson without a hint of irony, drop dead-pan wisecracks in the face of imminent danger often while nursing himself off a smarting hangover. Olyphant plays Givens with a well-worn confidence and odd charisma, a slick front and quick wit that serves as a levee for his rage and inherited dysfunction.
Givens wouldn’t be complete without a proper nemesis/frenemy in Boyd Crowder, an ex-con and one-time white supremacist preacher who alternates from walking the line to having his fingers in a handful of dirty activities. Played by “The Shield” baddie Walton Goggins, Crowder spent his teenage years digging coal with Raylan in the bloody period of Harlan’s union uprising. Despite the different roads the men took afterwards, their shared history and upbringing has bonded the two to where they often find themselves reluctantly on the same side of the law. Wily, smart and strangely magnetic, Crowder is one of the bad guys you some how feel yourself rooting for.
Surrounding these two is a supporting cast of veteran character actors that have the ability to steal every scene they are in, including the likes of Jeremy Davies (“Saving Private Ryan”), Joelle Carter (“High Fidelity”) and Neal McDonough (“Band of Brothers”), among many others.
All of them get to bite down on what has always been the secret to Leonard’s writing; uncanny, crackling dialogue. In a literary community that often turns its collective nose up at “genre” authors, Leonard is highly respected at getting the nuances of dialect down, whether from the street hustlers of Detroit to the hillbillies of Appalachia, a feat the cast and writers have harnessed to phenomenal effect.
“Justified” is the perfect blend of pulpy thrills, sly humor and unconventional storytelling, fronted by a character that feels like an charmingly flawed icon from a bygone era.
As fans for the upcoming season froth at the mouth for what this saga of family feuds and criminal warfare has in store for Raylan and the rest of Harlan, potential new viewers should do their best to catch up quick.
In case you’ve been missing it, “Justified” is currently the best show you are not watching on television, and the perfect adaptation of one of crime literature’s absolute titans.