Monday, March 28, 2011

Hell Up In Harlan

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” – Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Nothing that “Dutch” Leonard writes sounds like writing. It sounds like eavesdropping.

Elmore Leonard writes stories the way Howard Hawks used to make movies. It’s not about three acts, beginning-middle-end and all that Syd Field stuff. It’s about stacking great scene after great scene until you have a helluva story. Plots can be fun, but sometimes nothing beats a run of great scenes. It doesn’t even really matter where the story is going, as long as you enjoy the ride. And nothing makes a ride go smoother than being in the company of seasoned raconteurs with a nice line in salty dialogue.

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

There was a time when the overwhelming majority of Elmore Leonard adaptations failed miserably. The people who snaffled up those books as “properties” for adaptation misunderstood their appeal by foregrounding the least important component (the plot) and fudging the stuff that really makes his work sing (the characters and the dialogue). That finally stopped happening with the one-two punch of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, paving the way for the small-screen arrival of Graham Yost’s Justified.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens first appeared in Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap before easing further into the limelight with the short story Fire in the Hole, which serves as the springboard for Justified. Working out of South Florida, Raylan Givens is an anachronism. Imagine a cowboy wandering through an episode of Miami Vice. Deceptively unassuming with the soft-spoken manner of a true Southern gentleman and his ever-present stetson, if he ever has cause to draw down on you, you can be damn sure that bullets will fly. A questionable shooting gets Raylan booted back to Eastern Kentucky and the town of Harlan where he grew up, having to face up to the family and friends he thought he’d left behind. And that’s your basic set-up. Not so much “fish out of water” as “fish thrown back in the pond he’d been desperately trying to get out of.”

Leonard trades in the archetypes of crime and Western fiction: thieves and murderers, lawmen and gunslingers, all manner of colourful scumbags. But it’s never as clear cut as black hats and white hats and it’s not straight genre fiction. He’s much more interested in letting the characters speak for themselves as they navigate that large murky wedge of grey that we all live in. Which brings me back to the dialogue again.

All my favourite moments in Justified are the two-handers between Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan and his childhood friend, nemesis, extremist and explosives expert Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). The verbal parrying between Olyphant and Goggins crackles in an ambiguous, complex brew of mutual respect, affection and enmity. It is the stuff that slash fiction is made of (and some of the “Brokeback Justified” videos I stumbled across on YouTube seem to bear that out.)

Although, running a close second in the favourites stakes, there is a killer moment in Season One when Raylan, sitting in a bar trying to get quietly shitfaced, turns and silences the raucous guffaws of a bunch of redneck boors with the line: “I didn't order assholes with my whiskey”.

But this is starting to sound a little bit too much like “Justified's Greatest Hits”, and that’s not the way to truly soak up the heady moonshine brew of the show. Justified is deep into the guts of Season Two right now. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample the downhome, deadly delights of Harlan County, it’s time to play catch-up.

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