The 10 Best Movie Adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s Legendary Stories

Elmore Leonard was a prolific novelist and short story writer, best known for writing westerns, crime stories, and thrillers. Born in 1925 and passing away in 2013, his work ended up getting more recognition thanks to numerous film adaptations from the 1950s onwards. In addition, Leonard ended up writing a handful of screenplays himself; sometimes adapting his own stories, and sometimes creating original screenplays.

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His stories often work well for film, thanks to their satisfying plots, entertaining characters, and engaging dialogue. Thankfully, the cinematic potential of his work was well realized, as there are plenty of good films based on his stories or written by the man himself.


‘3:10 to Yuma’ (1957)

While many classic American westerns can feel a little stale or old-fashioned by today’s standards, this original film adaptation of 3:10 to Yuma still packs a punch. It was based on an Elmore Leonard short story of the same name and follows a down-on-his-luck rancher taking on a risky mission that involves escorting a dangerous criminal to a train, with said criminal’s violent gang constantly on his tail.

In many ways, it echoes another classic 1950s western, High Noon, in that both films are tightly paced, filmed in black-and-white, and have their heroes needing to undertake a dangerous task without much help from others. It’s a neat western that holds up well and features plenty of good dialogue and some strong performances.

‘Out of Sight’ (1998)

Out of Sight - 1998

Out of Sight is one of the most well-known Elmore Leonard adaptations, with the original story being written in 1996 when Leonard was in his 70s. Its potential as a film was realized incredibly quickly, with this Steven Soderbergh film being released just two years later.

It was a modest success, partly to its two stars – Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, both at the height of their powers – and also due to being an entertaining blend of comedy, crime, and romance. It’s character-driven, cool, and stylish, and has a timeless quality, thanks to it avoiding many 1990s movie clichés, and being a postmodern throwback of sorts to classic crime films from eras past.

‘Get Shorty’ (1995)

Get Shorty - 1995

A film that features mobsters becoming involved with Hollywood producers, Get Shorty is a movie that really soars thanks to its ensemble cast. It also helped to kickstart the second wind in Leonard’s career, as the late 1990s (and into the 2000s) would see plenty more star-studded, critically acclaimed movies based on his works.

It’s a clever mix of crime, comedy, and satire regarding the film industry, with the breezy yet occasionally suspenseful feel that defines many of Elmore Leonard’s best stories. Also, where else are you going to see Gene Hackman, John Travolta, Danny DeVito, and a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini all in one film?

‘Justified’ (2010-2015)

Image Via FX

Sure, it’s cheating to list Justified in among all the Elmore Leonard film adaptations, because it was a six-season-long TV show, and therefore not a movie. However, it stands as one of the best works in a visual medium to use – and be inspired by – Leonard’s stories, and so it’s therefore absolutely worthy of at least a mention.

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Naturally, it took more from Leonard’s stories earlier in its run, adapting several novels and a short story into the show’s overall storyline. In that way, it’s arguably more than just “one” adaptation. Notably, it stayed strong when it started to run out of Leonard stories, too, given the already established characters were so great, and the style already so well-defined. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the show’s final season was its best.

‘3:10 to Yuma’ (2007)

310 To Yuma

Notably, 3:10 to Yuma has been adapted twice for the big screen, with this 2007 version being released exactly 50 years after the original film adaptation. It’s worth mentioning both, though, because each one holds up as a solid western, and there are notable differences between the two of them, too.

2007’s 3:10 to Yuma has the same basic premise, involving a dangerous mission to escort a criminal to a train, but takes some interesting (and unexpected) turns as the story goes on. This one has a higher bodycount, is a great deal more violent and suspenseful, and is overall a grittier and darker western. Each maintains the spirit of Elmore Leonard’s original story though; it’s only that each film was made at a very different time, and for a very different audience.

’52 Pick-Up’ (1986)

52 Pick-Up - 1986

52 Pick-Up has a good deal going for it. It’s based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name – and contains some of his signature style – features a surprisingly great cast, and has a talented director overseeing the whole thing, in John Frankenheimer, who’s probably best known for The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).

It starts promising, and has a decent enough story involving crime, blackmail, and infidelity… but it falls apart a little as it goes on, and is also needlessly sleazy, and a little gross as a result. There are things to be enjoyed within 52 Pick-Up, and Leonard himself can’t be blamed for his faults, but it’s a film that ends up being less than the sum of its (promising) parts.

‘Jackie Brown’ (1997)

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is likely the most underappreciated film in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. It’s notable for being his only film based on someone else’s story (Leonard’s novel titled Rum Punch), and also was the film that revitalized the careers of Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

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It’s got a great ensemble cast and features an enjoyable story about gun runners, cash smugglers, and people just trying to get ahead in life, no matter the cost. It’s enhanced greatly by its great characters, who would all have to be among the best Leonard ever wrote… and thankfully, they all appear here in the one movie. It’s a film that gets buried under many of Tarantino’s other more well-known movies, but it definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.

‘The Tall T’ (1957)

The Tall T - 1957

At just 78 minutes long, The Tall T is the kind of quick, easy-to-watch western that really doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time. It’s about a group of people being held for ransom and nervously awaiting their fate, with a small amount of romance thrown in (somehow) for good measure.

It’s based on a short story of Leonard’s called The Captives, with the fact that it wasn’t novel-length being a likely reason for the runtime ultimately being so short. It came out the same year as the original 3:10 to Yuma – itself briskly paced and no-nonsense – meaning 1957 ended up being a good year for Elmore Leonard adaptations.

‘Joe Kidd’ (1972)

Joe Kidd - 1972

Joe Kidd isn’t quite on the same level as a masterpiece like Unforgiven, but it’s still a solid enough western starring Clint Eastwood, an actor who’s tied to the genre more than just about anyone else. It’s one of the rare Elmore Leonard movies that wasn’t based on a pre-existing story and instead featured an original screenplay written by the author.

Its story centers on a land dispute in the old west that gets violent, with the kind of murky morality and unpredictable characters found in many of Leonard’s best works. It also helps that there are some good supporting actors here, too, with Robert Duvall and John Saxon, in particular, making an impact.

‘The Moonshine War’ (1970)

The Moonshine War - 1970

A strange – but fairly enjoyable – crime-comedy set at the tail-end of the prohibition era, The Moonshine War involves a group of characters going to great means to make as much money as they can from their bootleg liquor before the nationwide alcohol ban is lifted.

It’s a film that’s a great deal more broadly comedic than many other movies based on Elmore Leonard’s stories, which may make it an acquired taste. However, for M*A*S*H fans, it is fun seeing Alan Alda all but steal the show in a supporting role here, just a couple of years before the iconic TV show would make him a star.

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