Elmore Leonard rips off "Justified"!

The relationship between the creator and the FX hit is as fascinating and complicated as the show itself

Published January 8, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens     (James Minchin/FX)
Timothy Olyphant as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (James Minchin/FX)

FX’s hit series "Justified," which returns on Tuesday for its fourth season, has been hailed as groundbreaking for its complex, moral storytelling, its modern-Old West setting of Harlan, Ky., and for its lawman hero, Raylan Givens, perpetually wearing a white cowboy hat and played with no small amount of charm by Timothy Olyphant.

But the show has been quietly breaking another kind of ground these past few years. Both the character of Raylan and the world of Harlan come from the pages of master crime-writer Elmore Leonard, who created Givens as a secondary character in two novels about Miami from the mid-'90s, "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap." It wasn’t until 2001 that Leonard wrote the story “Fire in the Hole,” which made Raylan the star and sent him back home to Kentucky. This story became the basis for the pilot episode of "Justified" in 2010.

Of course, Raylan Givens is hardly the first literary character to leave the stories where he was born for the bright lights of film or television -- but he may be among the only to return to print. In 2012, after two hit seasons of "Justified" had aired, Elmore Leonard took Raylan Givens back to the page, in a novel titled "Raylan" – his first Givens story since 2001.

Stranger still, Leonard got the idea from actor Timothy Olyphant. As "Justified’s" creator Graham Yost explained to GQ, “It started when [Leonard] was visiting the set in the first season and Tim said to him, ‘Hey, why don’t you write another Raylan short story?’” It must have been a surreal moment for Leonard, his own character standing there telling him to write more about him.

Of course, plenty of television characters drawn from literature exist on-screen and in print simultaneously, but these tend to be steadily diverging universes. The pilot of Showtime’s "Dexter" closely mimics the opening chapters of Jeff Lindsay’s "Darkly Dreaming Dexter," but by the end of the first season the entire cast of characters becomes radically different. On the show, the villainous Ice Truck Killer is defeated, but in the novel he escapes after taking down another principal character. Multiply this effect by seven seasons and six novels and the plotlines of the two "Dexter" universes have hardly a passing resemblance beyond the main character.

But "Justified’s" universes get more tangled together with every installment. Because Elmore Leonard is an executive producer on "Justified" in more than name only, he often feeds potential story ideas to the writers. As Leonard explained to the Wall Street Journal, “I've never just taken money, I've always had to write something. So I felt I should, since I know these characters better than any of their writers. But I didn't want to interfere with them, any stories they might have in mind. I thought mine would be just filler. And they've been using them.” In turn, the writers of "Justified" routinely consult Leonard’s novels for dialogue and tone. Allegedly they wear blue wristbands stamped WWED … What would Elmore do?

But in the new novel, Leonard repays the favor: He uses characters created by the writers of the TV show.

Leonard tells interviewers that he tries not to interfere with the show's scripts. "I don't ask them what they're doing. I always keep away from them … I'll do some episodes I think will work and they can use little bits then to sprinkle into 13 episodes. I don't want them feeling that they have to use my stuff, because I'm not a screenwriter, and they have good writers. I think they have very good writers."

But Yost described a more active collaboration in the third season of "Justified." “He wrote this novel … and said, ‘Hang it up and strip it for parts […] And so we did. There were two big chunks that we took from it last year, and thematic things and characters. And there’s a couple of big things we’re taking this season.” At the time, Yost said that he was saving a few things as well for the now-upcoming Season 4.

The result being that the character of Raylan Givens and the world of Harlan continue to evolve not just in two mediums, but between them in a way never before seen.

For one example, in the second season of "Justified," Raylan finds himself tangled in an old feud between his own family and the Bennett clan: Mama Mags and her sons Dickie and Coover run the general store in town as well as the marijuana racket for a thousand acres in either direction. Dickie and Coover appear in the Raylan novel as members of the Crowe family, and their father, Pervis, minds the store while his boys are off plotting to kidnap men, remove their kidneys and sell them back – a plotline that arises in the third season of "Justified."

On the show, however, it is Dickie Bennett and his neo-Nazi friend Dewey Crowe who are nearly the victims of the kidney thieves. Lovably stupid Dewey Crowe has been on the show since the pilot episode, where he is reprimanded by Givens for stepping into a lady’s home without knocking – a scene taken nearly verbatim from “Fire in the Hole.” In both the episode and the story, Raylan chats with Dewey about having previously locked up one of his kin, a fellow by the name of Dale Crowe Jr., whom Givens drives to jail in the opening of the novel "Riding the Rap." "Justified’s" writers closely adapted this dialogue in the second episode of the first season when Givens transports Dewey to jail.

Confused? Then let’s not even get into the Season 3 appearance of assistant director Karen Goodall, played by Carla Gugino, who is based on Leonard’s character Karen Sisco from the novel "Out of Sight," which was adapted into a Steven Soderbergh film in 1998 starring George Clooney, and featured Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco. The film was far more successful than the short-lived 2003 television show it inspired, a cop drama that aired on ABC for one season called "Karen Sisco," starring — wait for it — Carla Gugino. Was Karen Goodall the Karen Sisco of the novel, the movie, the television show, or someone new entirely? All we do know is that the writers seem to be enjoying themselves, inserting dialogue that practically winks at viewers-in-the-know, about how Gugino’s character married, changed her name and got divorced.

Perhaps the most startling effect that the show has had on the book pertains to the brilliant character of Boyd Crowder. Boyd is a spiky-haired chameleon: a neo-Nazi one episode, a Bible-thumbing revivalist in the next, then a dusty-faced coal miner, then a suit-wearing bodyguard for the mining company. His loyalties are forever shifting and his diction is always precise, making Boyd the perfect foil for the laconic but constant Raylan. Their odd bromance propels the show. Each respects the other somehow, and whenever they square off against one another, you can see they hardly can bear to shoot (until they do).

Both the pilot episode of "Justified" and Leonard’s 2001 story “Fire in the Hole” end with Raylan shooting Boyd. In the original story Boyd dies, but on the show his life is barely spared. Graham Yost is quite grateful that they dodged that particular bullet on the show. “We thank our lucky stars every day that we didn’t go through with that — and that was suggested by FX, by research and by Elmore," he told the Los Angeles Times. "He said, ‘Oh, you should keep that Boyd around.’”

Leonard apparently took some of his own advice. In the novel "Raylan," Boyd is inexplicably alive again, resurrected thanks to the character’s success on the TV show.

* * *

How do we talk about a book, based on a TV show, based on a book? A New York Times review of "Raylan" chose to take Leonard’s latest novel on its own merits and barely mentions "Justified." The AV Club, meanwhile, criticized the novel specifically for failing where the show triumphs: creating cohesive episodic plots with consistent character development. They conclude that "Raylan" is a “complicated culture artifact” where the adaptation almost seems more definitive than the original.

But the close relationship between novelist and TV show embodied by Leonard and "Justified" is an inevitable progression of the one begun by Jonathan Ames and HBO’s "Bored to Death," which was based on a short story by Ames. In the show, Jason Schwartzman plays a character named “Jonathan Ames” who pretends to be a detective. The real Ames continued to write for the show and at one point even guest-starred as a villain whom the character Jonathan Ames had to defeat. The show was canceled after three seasons, but HBO hopes to resurrect the characters for a 90-minute movie.

HBO, along with producer Scott Rudin, went on an acquiring spree last year, signing contemporary writers left and right to produce new shows. Mary Karr is adapting material from her three memoirs into a new show. Jonathan Safran Foer is writing a new comedy pilot for HBO and Ben Stiller. Karen Russell’s "Swamplandia!" will also be brought to life on the small screen. The novelist Ayelet Waldman, who is working on a pilot for HBO with her husband, Michael Chabon, has said that these days "HBO is like the Works Progress Administration for writers."

Will it remain so? This wave of optioning began with the high-profile adaptation that HBO planned to make of Jonathan Franzen’s "The Corrections. " It shocked many writers that Franzen would allow his novel to be adapted for TV, as Franzen had written distastefully about television in his essay “Why Bother?,” viewing it as a force that continued to move Americans regrettably further and further from what he called “the substantial novel,” arguing that “just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture, television has killed the novel of social reportage.”

Sixteen years later, Franzen not only sold his novel to HBO but he got personally involved in the production: going to the casting sessions, writing new back stories for main characters and fleshing out more minor ones. In an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, Franzen noted that because the show was a series and not a miniseries, he even saw the potential to develop things beyond the original novel’s boundaries. (Last year, HBO canned the "Corrections" project.)

In the last 17 years, HBO has pioneered new kinds of novelistic storytelling in mainstream television, and non-premium cable channels like AMC and FX have followed, with shows like "Mad Men," "Justified," "Louie" and "Breaking Bad." It’s no coincidence that Timothy Olyphant learned his rogue lawman character first as Sheriff Seth Bullock on the set of HBO’s "Deadwood," a historical western drama about 1870s South Dakota.

This is actually quite fitting. It was the dime novel cowboys and pulp magazine detectives of the '20s and '30s who eventually became the first radio heroes of the '40s and the television heroes of the '50s. Slinging guns and cracking wise, characters like "Gunsmoke’s" Matt Dillon or "Martin Kane, Private Eye" walked the same lonely road between law and lawlessness that Raylan Givens goes down today. So-called genre fiction has always broken barriers between popular and artistic cultures, and Elmore Leonard has long been a master with a foot in both camps. His hard-boiled storytelling is always surprisingly rich and never clichéd. It is exactly why so many of his books have been adapted into such memorable films: "Three-Ten to Yuma," "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight."

While promoting "Raylan," fans asked Leonard whether he plans to continue writing more Raylan stories. Leonard admitted, “I'm tempted to put the character Raylan into my new book, and my agent in Hollywood says, no, don't. And I'm not sure why, outside of the fact that Sony owns the rights to the character and I can't sell the book on my own to somebody else if Raylan's in it. So that's probably it. Well, he's an agent. I may put him in anyway.” Even Leonard doesn’t seem to know who owns Raylan Givens anymore.

But whatever road Leonard and Raylan go down, it is sure to shape fresh possibilities for the future of both television and literature. The further entwining of television and literature is bound to raise many hackles, and critics will surely expend much ink (or many pixels) lamenting the selling-out of novelists, the deficiencies of television, or the death of literature forever and ever (amen). But perhaps the education that HBO is providing television viewers is actually leaving us hungrier. An evening of watching FX might prompt a curious pause at a bookstore the next morning. If television viewers continue to embrace rich, complex, novelistic storytelling, then yes, we should expect writers like Leonard, Ames, Karr, Foer, Russell and Franzen to be drawn to the form. And we can also anticipate that these shows will likewise draw viewers back toward their tremendous literary works.

As the lines become more and more blurred, fresh possibilities are opened in both forms. Readers will be on the lookout for changes, and thinking about how what they’ve seen informs what they read. Viewers will be wary of how what they’re reading shapes how they view.

* * *

Nothing physically defines the character of Raylan more than his hat. It is the first thing characters mention to describe him. In "Pronto," bookie Harry Arno asks his girlfriend, Joyce, if she’s seen anyone odd downstairs. She answers, “‘How about a guy in a cowboy hat? Not the kind country-western stars wear. A small one. Like a businessman’s cowboy hat.’” Harry replies, “‘I know what you mean, the Dallas special … That Stetson, the kind the cops were wearing when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.” Joyce agrees. “‘That’s the one. Light tan, or sort of off-white.’” By making the historical reference Leonard creates a kind of equivalence in a reader’s mind between the morally complex Raylan and this disturbing historical artifact of the police standing by as vigilante justice is done.

In "Riding the Rap," Leonard describes Raylan as he drives Dale Crow Jr. to prison. “He had on one of those business cowboy hats, but broken in; it looked good on him, the way he wore it cocked low on his eyes.” This emphasis on his hat being businesslike but worn down is echoed in “Fire in the Hole”; Leonard has Raylan’s boss, Art Mullen, reflect on the hat when they are first reintroduced. “The kind Art Mullen thought of as a buisnessman’s Stetson, except no businessman’d wear this one with its creases and just slightly curled brim cocked toward one eye, the hat part of Raylan’s lawman personality.”

In "Justified," the hat Olyphant wears is not what Leonard initially had in mind. “The critics have been calling Raylan a cowboy with his hat. The hat came unexpectedly [with the show]. I had described kind of a businessman’s Stetson, a smaller Stetson. […] But evidently he found his own hat and design. It’s perfect. I don’t see him bareheaded. He seems to need a hat to define who he is.”

Leonard deferred his own vision of Raylan’s hat to the one on the television show. Indeed, his praise of Olyphant’s Raylan is always effusive in interviews. “Tim Olyphant plays the character exactly the way I wrote him. I couldn't believe it. He's laid back and he's quiet about everything but he says, if I have to pull my gun, then that's a different story. And it works. There are very few actors that recite the lines exactly the way you hear them when you're writing the book. George Clooney [in the 1998 movie "Out of Sight"] was one. He was very good.”

Clooney was very good, but Olyphant is exact. So much so that his picture is even on the jacket of the "Raylan" novel, the broader hat pulled down low over his eyes as he points his gun over the reader’s shoulder. It is the same image used in promotions for Season 2 of "Justified." Open the book up and start reading, and you’ll find that there is no description of Raylan’s signature hat anywhere to be found. There is no longer any need for it.

By Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma is the author of Why We Came to the City-- published by Viking in February, and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards-- , winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn.

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