Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 1)

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of a two-part series, focusing on FX’s “Justified” and its origins in the works of Elmore Leonard. In part one, our humble correspondent takes a look at the show’s pilot episode and the short story “Fire in the Hole” that inspired it. Part two, coming later this summer, will look at the entire first season and how it compares with the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” For the sake of analysis many spoilers are present for the first episode, so if that bothers you here’s a warning: 24 letters to get out of town.)

A few weeks ago, in the intro to my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter,” I made the observation that you don’t usually see television networks taking a cue from books to develop their new shows. My argument went that given the range of demands on a television show – dealing with multiple cast members and sideplots, the demands of network executives and fickle audiences – show runners don’t always have the time and freedom to worry about getting every slightest nuance correct. As such, a show can’t promise to be faithful to its source material unless it has a very centralized presentation (i.e. a miniseries) or has enough source material that it can pick and choose.

I actually wrote that introduction a few months before the piece was published, and in the intervening time FX took the opportunity to introduce a supplement to my argument with their contemporary Western drama “Justified.” Based in the works of Elmore Leonard – specifically the character of Raylan Givens, star of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” – “Justified” adds a third tactic in that takes one piece of original material, and jumps off from it to take the story in a new direction. It’s an interesting approach, and one that’s definitely setting the bar high for future episodes given how well its pilot masters the source material.

“Justified” uses Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (readily available in the 2002 collection “When the Women Come Out to Dance”) as the template for its pilot episode, centered on the clash between two men who grew up together in Kentucky’s Harlan County and now find themselves on opposite sides of the law. On the law’s side is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal with an old-fashioned interpretation of the law that leads him to shoot a man after he ignores Raylan’s order to get out of town in 24 hours. Against him is Boyd Crowder, Vietnam veteran turned white supremacist who’s built his own miltia and turned his mining experience to building homemade bombs for domestic terrorism.

“Fire in the Hole” is an exemplary short story and a showcase of Leonard’s narrative talents, and show creator Graham Yost wisely decided not to mess with success because the pilot episode barely deviates from its source material. While it does add a few additional scenes, such as portraying Givens’ drawing on the gangster that gets him sent back to Kentucky as the cold open, scenes ranging from standoffs at a widow’s household to a shootout at a hotel are copied straight from the text. While it was shot in Philadelphia as opposed to Kentucky, the atmosphere still retains the small town and vacant country feel, accentuated by distinctive camera work and a nouveau-Western score.

Leonard’s selling point has always been his ear for dialogue, a sharp and wry tone that goes a long way to setting each of his characters apart. Given his writing style, it’s not surprising that most of the dialogue is maintained verbatim in the story, and the best of the scenes – Raylan facing down a neo-Nazi gator poacher, Boyd interrogating a potential undercover agent – are as exciting on screen as they are in print. A few lines are dropped here and there, and given the shortness of the story they’re a bit more noticeable than other translations – in particular, the omission “bunch of serious morons sieg-heilin’ each other” irks me.

Translating Leonard’s dialogue to script is a simple enough task, but the success of that translation depends heavily on who’s speaking it. In my “Dexter” piece I pointed out that one course of action for successful TV shows based on books is to center on the established main character, and “Justified” is also following that course with the selection of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan. Olyphant has already worn a lawman’s star on TV with his turn as Seth Bullock on the celebrated “Deadwood,” and he carries over all the right tools to this role: a sense of undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat. (It isn’t the businessman’s Stetson Leonard associates with the character, but Olyphant wears it so well the omission is forgiven – though I can’t forgive him for swapping out the .45-caliber revolver for a SIG P220.)

The performance isn’t just a regurgitation of his “Deadwood” efforts as the two men do have some key differences, and Olyphant has the acting chops necessary to differentiate. While Bullock was a man fighting against his responsibilities and keeping his temper tightly leashed, Raylan’s character is equally focused but much more laconic air, a man comfortable with the code he has chosen and who doesn’t see much need to defend it to others. Olyphant masters that poise, particularly in one scene when confronted with an intruding white supremacist – as in the book, he simply stands up, picks up his hat and “set it on his head the way he wore it.”

On the other side of the law is Boyd, who is brought to life somewhat less convincingly by Walton Goggins. This is nothing against Goggins as an actor – even though I haven’t seen his critically acclaimed performance on “The Shield” – but his unkempt and wiry character seems to have much less physical presence than the story’s Vietnam vet with a “regulation grunt cut… steel bristles crowning his lean, leathery face.” Thankfully, the performance doesn’t go to stereotypical hillbilly, and Goggins does manage to convey a great deal of focus and charisma, particularly in his interactions with Olyphant. The two pace slowly around each other as men who understand the other, “born a hundred years too late” with an unchanging way of doing things.

Olyphant and Goggins dominate the episode’s action, but given that a new series is being established it also needs to lay the groundwork for future story arcs – an equally strong responsibility for “Justified,” given that it’s essentially taking Raylan’s story over from Leonard. There’s a variety of supporting federal agents and white supremacists who have potential to do much more, and there’s a likely love interest in Raylan’s old flame Ava (Joelle Carter, who nails the book’s monologue on why she shot her husband). Yost also makes the decision to have Raylan shoot Boyd to wound rather than kill, a decision that not only complicates Raylan further as a character but makes the smart decision of keeping Goggins around for future episodes.

And complicating Raylan as a character appears to be the biggest move the show is taking. Repeated references to his criminal father which were not present in the book clearly make him uncomfortable, and also hint at a deeper wound in his life. His ex-wife Winona, given a throwaway mention in the story, is here as a supporting cast member who illuminates Raylan’s doubts on the opening shooting by calling him “the angriest man I have ever known.” It’s a departure from the more convicted Raylan of “Fire in the Hole,” although in the story an old girlfriend of Raylan’s does touch on some potential doubts:

“She told him he had an image of himself as a lawman, meaning an Old West lawman without the big mustache, and he believed it might be true in some deep part of his mind. Another time Joyce said ‘The way you put it, you said you called him out. What did you think, you were in a movie?’ Her saying that caught him by surprise, because at times he did see it that way, as something he had borrowed from a western movie. He liked westerns a lot.”

It might be because Olyphant actually has experience playing an Old West lawman with a big mustache, but the way he plays Raylan shows he understands the image that goes along with his code. The hesitations and slight flinches every time his father is mentioned, the slight uncertainty on his face as the ambulance takes Boyd away – these little moments show while he carries himself tall there is a layer of concern for the life he has chosen.

While “Justified” has clearly taken some steps to establish its own universe outside of Leonard’s world, its pilot episode proves it understands just what made “Fire in the Hole” so gripping. The selection of little details and lines dropped aren’t enough to break the immersion of Olyphant’s performance, and the atmosphere and dialogue give the same feeling of flipping through pages to find out what happens next. Future episodes may not have as much to fall back on, but what “Justified” does in its first outing is more than enough to bring Leonard fans along for the ride.

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3 Responses to Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 1)

  1. [...] win, it’s probably advisable to avoid setting the bar too high. As I mentioned in the first half of this series, the pilot episode of “Justified,” centered around the exploits of Elmore Leonard’s [...]

  2. [...] I wrote in my earlier pieces (part 1 and part 2 available on The Lesser of Two Equals), “Justified” is a show where [...]

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