Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

August 10, 2010

(Editor’s Note: We now bring you to the second part of this analysis, up earlier than expected thanks to the completely addictive nature of “Justified’s” first season and the brisk pace at which Elmore Leonard novels can be read. Once again, spoilers abound for both the season and the related books, so if either bothers you accept a transfer to Harlan County and get caught up first.)

Unless you’re a referee at a limbo convention who’s been paid off to make sure all the contestants 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 Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, did just that thanks to its incredibly strong source material of “Fire in the Hole.” Adapting the original’s plot and dialogue almost verbatim, show creator Graham Yost and lead actor Timothy Olyphant created one of the best pilots I’d seen in recent memory – my gauge for that being an episode of a show where, if we had nothing else, I’d still be satisfied.

But since the pilot saw that short story through to the end, it raised the question of whether or not the show would be able to keep that momentum going, despite having two other Raylan novels (1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap”) to draw from. It’s always a tightrope effort for a film/TV writer to move away from source material and make the characters their own, and the video stores are littered with adaptations that failed as a result of this. After having seen the full first season however, I can safely mark “Justified” in the victor’s category, with a season that picked the best parts from Leonard’s remaining novels and manages to tell its story in a way that feels like a natural extension – and funnily enough, gets better the more its plot becomes independent from Leonard.

As we get started, I must admit that my plans for this piece were derailed early on: my original intention was to read both novels at the same time I watched new episodes, comparing how they matched in terms of voice and story. I could do the former but not the latter however, as the novels predate the events of “Fire in the Hole” by following Raylan as a U.S. Marshal in Miami, rather than post-Kentucky reassignment (“Pronto” actually ends with the shooting that forms the pilot’s opening scene). If the show wanted to adapt either verbatim, they would have to take the form of flashbacks, and spending that much time on past events can be a death knell for a show just starting out.

But while neither novel can be used chronologically as the structure for a season (and are both admittedly weak when compared to “Fire in the Hole”) each novel contains multiple interesting moments in Raylan’s life, and Yost and company decided to use their framework in the show’s early episodes. The third episode “Fixer” heavily adapts the plot of “Riding the Rap,” where a pair of mismatched convicts kidnap a loan shark for ransom and Givens finds himself unwillingly responsible for the man’s safety. Next week’s episode “Long in the Tooth” adopts “Pronto’s” plot of a fugitive criminal – and former prisoner of Raylan’s who gave him the slip – in the crosshairs of his dangerous employers and once again trying to duck Raylan in pursuit of his duties.

Both these episodes and the second episode “Riverbrook” have more of an episodic feel rather than a serialized one, and consequently do come across as much weaker than the pilot. Most of the supporting cast is largely off to the side in favor of sending Raylan on some adventure, and after the thrilling climax of “Fire in the Hole” they almost feel like decompression. Additionally, while the pilot filmed in Philadelphia the rest of the season was filmed in Los Angeles, and early episodes don’t even seem to be trying to simulate Kentucky. The show would later find dependable wooded areas and battered offices to set its action in, but “Justified” sacrifices the opportunity for the setting to be a character as New Jersey was in “The Sopranos” and Albuquerque is in “Breaking Bad.”

But while the episodes feel a little rocky to start off, they are redeemed by the fact that they raid the best scenes from the novels. “Riverbrook” opens with a vignette from “Riding the Rap” where Raylan escorts one of the skinheads arrested in the pilot to jail by himself, and the conflict and conversation that result go a long way to showing how in control of a situation Raylan is. Juicy gunfights come from each book with “Pronto’s” shootout with Italian mafiosi applied to two cartel hitmen looking to collect a contract on Raylan, and “Fixer” taking “Riding the Rap’s” practice face-off between two gangsters that quickly turns bloody. Both scenes are not only thrilling, but also betray how seriously these gangsters take their images, a recurring theme in Leonard books.

After these three episodes burn through the Raylan source material, Yost’s writing team moves back to the central plot of Raylan dealing with old ghosts in Kentucky. His old coal-mining partner Boyd Crowder has survived Raylan’s shot to the chest and supposedly found religion, a conversion even Raylan can’t determine the sincerity of. His old crush Ava isn’t too young for him anymore, and his ex-wife Winona has a new husband making some very bad decisions. And the shooting of Miami cartel enforcer Tommy Bucks, while justified in his moral code, has also earned him the ire of some very powerful and connected people.

And the more these stories take hold – using these threads as the impetus for both A-stories as well as a few sideplots – the better the show gets. The stories it tells are not only tied in with the development of its main characters (Raylan, Ava and Boyd) but also contain a solid balance of action scenes and banter to ensure boredom rarely if ever occurs. Not enough credit can be given to the show’s writers for this – all of them apparently wear bracelets inscribed with the letters “WWED” (for “What Would Elmore Do?”) to guide them through writer’s block, and it shows. One review of the episode “The Hammer” went so far as to say they have “the Leonard voice down cold.” It challenged readers to make a difference between Leonard’s books and the work of show writers like Fred Golan and Chris Provenzano, and I’d have a hard time making that decision myself.

And as with the pilot, the lines of Raylan remain strong because they have Timothy Olyphant to deliver them. I cited in my review of the pilot his “undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat,” and the longer the show goes on the more it feels no one else could or should play this character. In both “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” there was a sense that Raylan was underestimated by others but always in control of the situation, and Olyphant holds both sides of the character – able to chat disarmingly with a suspect in one scene, and then slam their head against the table a minute later. (I’m even able to forgive his not using a revolver as he’s so good in his gunfights – plus a semiautomatic was his weapon of choice in both original novels.)

Recognizing how well Olyphant does with Raylan as a character, Yost and the other show writers made the smart choice to play to Olyphant’s strengths and give the character a Seth Bullock-esque tightly focused anger. His anger has many targets, but the most obvious is his father Arlo (a fantastic Raymond J. Barry), a weathered amoral crook who raised Raylan with the back of his hand. My original hypothesis that Raylan would be a man more in conflict with his code was proven incorrect, as he remains committed to his “Old West lawman” image but seems to use it more as guidelines to keep his anger in check – unless he needs to blow off some steam in a bar fight, in which case he takes his hat off.

And in another debt the show owes to Leonard, the show remains consistently voiced when the camera moves off of Olyphant. In my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter” I postulated that one of the reasons its sideplots and supporting characters are so weak in comparison to Michael C. Hall is because its source material is written in first-person, and it’s rather difficult to extrapolate new characters from that. Leonard’s novels on the other hand are written in third-person, and regularly switch between the protagonists and antagonists in a move that enhances both the character traits and the flow of the story.

As such, “Justified” is able to bring in a strong stable of guest stars actors from week to week, ranging from M.C. Gainey as a boisterous local crime lord to Stephen Root as an eccentric judge to Jere Burns as a sadistic hitman. It’s also drawn heavily on Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” veterans, with W. Earl Brown as a dangerous convict in a stand-off with Raylan and Sean Bridges as an ex-con with a desperate plan to provide for his family. With few exceptions, these character actors play their roles with a Leonard-esque zeal, armed with clever lines and an almost theatrical flair to their actions.

When it comes to the original characters from the story, no character has been given such an expanded life as Raylan’s old coal mining buddy Boyd Crowder. I completely rescind my comment that Walton Goggins’ perfomance brought Boyd “somewhat less compellingly” to life, because the conviction Goggins applies to Boyd more than makes up for the differences in background and appearance. Boyd’s born-again arc takes the book version’s modified Christianity into fierce moralism that neither the viewer nor Raylan can be sure if it’s real, and he and Raylan continue to hold an adversarial respect that leads to some wonderful dialogue, particularly as Raylan circles Boyd trying to put him in prison.

And other than Goggins, the recurring cast continues to deliver performances that blend seamlessly with their original versions. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss and old Academy training partner Art Mullen has the air of “a big, comfortable man with a quiet way of speaking” that “Fire in the Hole” described, but also shows the frayed patience that anyone would have after more than a few escapades with Raylan. Carter continues the fine work she established in the pilot as Ava Crowder, still a strong and stubborn woman who’s attracted to Raylan for a variety of reasons, and not afraid to defend herself with a sawed-off shotgun.

In the world of characters who Leonard didn’t take as much time with, Natalie Zea is quite capable as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona, an unseen character in all the books but who keeps Leonard’s description of talking “always a little smart-alecky.” While the show leaves out the two sons he had with her in the book, it does keep the plot thread that she left him for the realtor selling their house – a plot point that builds to an excellent mid-season episode “Hatless.” Other minor characters are less well-served, as despite regular credits Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson are nonentities after the first four episodes, yielding their screen time to the various guest stars.

“Justified” has already been renewed for a second season on FX, and while I don’t plan to write a new installment for that season I will certainly be tuning in. Yost and Olyphant and company have pulled off the rare feat of taking an author’s character and giving them an even better world to play in, raiding all the right pieces of the source material and taking the story in a new and interesting direction. Leonard has mentioned that at some point he might come back to the character of Raylan Givens in a new story or novel, and if he does it’s almost certain he’ll be hearing Olyphant’s voice as he writes.

Extra Credit: Want to know how Elmore Leonard feels about “Justified?” Check out these interviews and also an essay on where Raylan Givens came from.

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

June 24, 2010

(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.

Extra Credit: