Graham Yost tries to wed Elmore Leonard’s skill to a TV show, and hopes it’s ‘Justified’
There’s an art to adapting a work of fiction into a screenplay, and, like all creative endeavors, it has its own set of pitfalls. Issues of tone, pace and interior monologue — not to mention readers’ expectations — all number among the hurdles faced by the screenwriter who tackles a book or short story.
For television shows, the stakes are even higher. After getting all of those issues right, a series based on an existing work must then extend a story with a finite conclusion over the course of one or more seasons. Results have varied over the last half century of television, with every adaptation that satisfies both viewer requirements and fans of the source material — think “Perry Mason” and “Peyton Place,” “Bones,” “Dexter” and “True Blood” — matched by ones that fall flat, such as “Women’s Murder Club” or “Karen Sisco,” which was based on a character created by crime novelist Elmore Leonard.
FX’s freshman series “Justified” is also based on Leonard’s writings, specifically the short story “Fire in the Hole” and elements of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” The program, developed by Graham Yost (“The Pacific”) and with Leonard as executive producer, follows Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. marshal who frequently lets his revolver do the talking, as he returns to his native Kentucky to pursue a variety of colorful but deadly antagonists. For Yost, a lifelong fan of Leonard, bringing Givens to television required the resolution to two very substantive problems.
“The first job was adapting the story,” Yost says. “Elmore writes in a very film-friendly way, both structurally and in terms of dialogue, so we just took 60% to 70% of that [first] script directly from the short story.” But once FX President John Landgraf, who was among the executive producers on “Karen Sisco,” gave “Justified” the green light to go to series, a tougher problem opened up: how to tell more of Givens’ story than was already written by his creator.
Yost charged his writing staff with familiarizing themselves with Leonard’s books and even retyped whole passages of dialogue from the stories to better understand the author’s rhythm and his dialogue — key elements in translating his work to the screen. Projects have lived or died according to how authentically they reproduced Leonard’s style, with Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1997) and Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1998) frequently cited as the best cinematic takes. Leonard himself agrees with that assessment, adding, “In ‘Hombre’ , Richard Boone delivered my lines the way I heard them,” he said via telephone from his home in New Orleans. “And he was in ‘The Tall T’  as well. I was amazed [by his performance]. It’s not trying to be a tough guy. It’s low key, for the most part.”
Yost, though, had to strike a balance between respect for the material and the needs of a broadcast television audience. “We just needed more story, and more atmosphere for that story,” he said. “Elmore’s characters don’t have a lot of back story, and in television, that’s stuff we want to explore because audiences respond to it.” In “Fire in the Hole,” Givens’ father, a coal miner, is kept off-screen, but in “Justified” he becomes a career criminal to provide his son with motivation to join law enforcement. And Boyd Crowder (played by Walton Goggins), a white supremacist with a penchant for destruction who becomes Givens’ recurring foil throughout the series, was spared the death by gunshot he receives at the end of the book. Yost also added deputy marshals for Givens to partner with, and he expanded the character of Joelle Carter’s hot-blooded Ava, whose childhood crush on Givens remains ablaze.
The key to finding that middle ground between a faithful adaptation and the elements required for TV also lies in one’s passion for the original work, Yost said. “When I got the opportunity to do a series based on Elmore Leonard’s writing, I jumped on it because I’m a fan,” he said. “So, when I’m adapting it, I’m not thinking, ‘How can I make this better?’ It’s ‘How can I do justice to Elmore?’ which is a great and simple guiding principle.”
It also helps to be on a network like FX that supports adventurous material. “John Landgraf asked me, ‘Why will this one work where [ ABC’s] “Karen Sisco” didn’t?’ And I said, ‘You’ll let us spend eight minutes on the bad guy and let scenes find their own course. You’ll let us be violent and swear to the FX limit.’ So, it’s also about hoping that you have a good home.”
Critical reaction to “Justified” has been largely positive, but one opinion matters above all others, and that’s from Leonard himself. The author, who regards his executive producer credit as largely ceremonial, is effusive in his praise for Yost’s efforts. “This one works,” Leonard said. “I like the fact that they’re trying to maintain my sound. That’s very complimentary. I’m very pleased with this one.”