If I were forced to make a choice between the two, movies would win, every day of the week. Don’t get me wrong: I love savoring authors’ language, diving deeply into story, and making personal relationships with characters, and it’s no joke that reading is a more complex intellectual task than passively watching a film for two hours. As a teacher (and teacher educator), I can’t underscore enough the importance of being a regular reader, and of challenging ourselves to read things that force us to grow in ability and humanity. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t always found movies more immediate, more affecting, more visceral. And maybe most importantly, I find myself becoming more emotionally invested in movie characters than I do in most book characters.
To top it off, some of the authors I currently love might never have popped up on my radar without the benefit of smart, talented directors (whereas I can rarely say a book has turned me on to a good movie). Elmore Leonard is Exhibit A and probably the best example I can use. I’d heard the name growing up but always associated it with boring genre fiction – hackneyed potboilers written to make a buck, just a step up from the Harlequin romance novels whose covers I giggled at as a kid. It wasn’t until the solid-gold mid-90s triptych of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and especially Steven Soderbergh’s masterful adaptation of Out of Sight that I sat up and took notice. There was clearly more going on here that I originally thought, and after poking around a little I suddenly realized the esteem attached to Leonard’s name: the master of the modern American crime novel and quite likely the best writer of dialogue in the game.
Now, after reading fifteen of his books, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to review Out of Sight, a book based on a movie I adore which I’ve seen probably a dozen times. In other words, this will be short, because the movie is so indelibly scrawled in my mind. The book isn’t lacking (it’s Elmore Leonard, after all), but I’ve lost the ability to take it as its own entity. As I read, it was impossible not to see George Clooney as master thief Jack Foley or Jennifer Lopez as U.S. marshal Karen Sisco (even though in the book she’s blonde) or Ving Rhames as Foley’s good hearted accomplice Buddy (even though in the book he’s a white Southern redneck). I heard their cadences in Leonard’s typically whip-smart dialogue and saw their faces as each scene played out. It ceased, in other words, to be a pure reading experience and became a weird amalgam of movie and book, which is something I’ve never experienced to this degree.
One thing I’ll say is that Out of Sight is (along with Get Shorty, maybe) the best entry point to Leonard’s work. Leonard plays with his usual tropes – especially his tendency to people his books with con men who aren’t nearly as clever as they think they are and brassy dames who are the smartest people in the room – in ways that are so original that they cease being tropes. Jack and Karen’s halting romance – they’re thrown together when he breaks out of jail and she’s an unwitting witness to the escape – seems inevitable despite its unlikeliness. They Meet Cute™ in a way that’s typically Leonardian – crammed together in Buddy’s trunk as he speeds away from the jail – and the two characters’ spiky banter (about Three Days of the Condor and Jack’s bank robbing CV) betrays their tentative attraction to each other, despite being at opposite ends of the career spectrum. The job of the rest of the book is to keep them apart – while Jack and Buddy plan one last huge job in Detroit and Karen tries to track them down. We know they’re going to meet up eventually, and the romantic promise of that first claustrophobic encounter hangs over everything.
The problem, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that my familiarity with the movie means I don’t really know how effective this situation is for those who come to the story cold. It feels like it works – Leonard’s characters and dialogue are as sharply-drawn as ever, and the plot is lacking some of the overly complex twists I’ve occasionally found distracting in his other books – but there’s just no good way for me to judge. I know too much.
Television – Marquee Moon (1977)