Book to Film: From Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown

As perhaps the premiere modern filmmaker, known for filtering his wide array of influences into a single and unique vision, Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch into what became Jackie Brown remains a fascinating anomaly within his filmography. Arriving after the critical, cultural, and pop-cultural phenomenon of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino chose to adapt a work that overlaps many of his same obsessions: quirky criminals, mundane dialogue that informs character, a non-linear narrative and frequent pop-cultural acknowledgements that all merge against a fresh spin on the gangster genre. Furthermore, the Tarantino of 1995 found himself at a career zenith: the Palme d’Or, an Academy Award for screenwriting, an independent film that would redefine the genre and a genuine phenomenon that pervaded pop culture consciousness. Still, at the top of this unparalleled success, his follow up feature would be found in this quirky crime novel that revolves around six characters past their prime and chasing half-a-million dollars. More curiously, Rum Punch’s author—Elmore Leonard—has been cited as a defining influence on Tarantino’s work, most obviously in dialogue, but also in plotting and narrative invention. As a result, the book serves as a fascinating examination into the bridge between the artist that would influence the adapter, and how the latter would utilize this particular work to both complement and expand upon his own aesthetic.

Set in 1992 Miami, Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch primarily revolves around the cat-and-mouse game between the 44 year-old airline attendant Jackie Burke and Ordell Robbie – a Miami arms dealer using Jackie to smuggle his money into the States. Further aiding Ordell are the recently released convict Louis Garra and Ordell’s bong-loving beach babe Melanie. Jackie, on the other hand, employs the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry. And watching them all are law enforcement agents Ray Nicolet with the ATF and Faron Tyler with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement – hoping to make a name for themselves by arresting Ordell. The crux of the narrative centers on a heist conceived by Jackie and Max that involves their stealing the half-million dollars from Ordell and right under the nose of the ATF. Thematically, the characters’ motives are mainly informed by their middle age, and the feeling that the best of life’s opportunities have passed them by. As a 44 year-old woman, with a prior conviction that prohibits her being promoted by a major airliner, divorced three-times, and making a $16,000 a year, Jackie’s desperation to steal the money as a final chance to make something of herself demonstrates one of the most empathetic and distinct characters in all of Leonard’s bibliography.

Similarly, Louis, Ordell, and Max have all arrived at career crossroads: Ordell is ready to leave the constant pressure of criminal life; Louis’ lifetime in prison has left him an outcast in both modern and criminal society, and Max has finally realized that between thousands of bonds and a wife who doesn’t love him – his best years are probably behind him. Even Melanie – Ordell’s white woman hired to hang out and look good – obliquely acknowledges her supermodel looks that have coerced wealthy men into providing for her extravagant lifestyle are fading for the worst.

As with the film, for all the novel’s fast-paced prose and even faster dialogue, a tinge of real gravitas hangs over these characters’ last plan for happiness that only raises the stakes up through the climax. Besides allowing a great deal of insight into why this money means so much to each, the older age range inhabited by the characters allows for a fresh take on the type of character tropes always found within the crime genre. The characters are not exactly on their last leg, nor are they young enough that a decade or so in jail will mean the end of their criminal careers. Instead, they occupy a rarely seen gangster age—caught with their best years behind them, and few, if any, still to come.

Jackie Brown – the film adapted from the book – celebrates these somber themes through a controlled sense of pacing and allows time for the characters to talk, listen, and debate with one another. The film utilizes its running time not (as many were expecting) to recreate the narrative inventions of Pup Fiction; but instead, the film wallows in a luxurious sense of atmosphere that helps justify for the removal of various subplots from the book.

The largest missing subplot revolves around Ordell, Louis, and Melanie’s complicated dealings with a neo-Nazi outfit run by “The Big Guy” Gerard. The book opens with Ordell escorting Louis around a neo-Nazi power demonstration while reminiscing on their previous job together (where they first met Melanie), as Ordell plants the seed for Louis to kill Gerard. A long chapter in the middle of the book further details Ordell using the jackboys to kill off the neo-Nazis, and when the situation suddenly turns tense inside Gerard’s headquarters, Melanie ends up being the one to shoot and kill Gerard when Louis remains too hesitant. The loss of this small subplot is not as consequential to the overall plotting, as much as a loss of an important character arc for Louis. As only novels can do, Leonard describes Louis’ hesitation to actually shoot and kill someone through the text and Louis’ head – only further aggravated through dialogue with Ordell and Melanie nudging him to shoot and kill.

The beautiful payoff to this small character arc comes just after Jackie’s heist as Melanie begins incessantly annoying Louis and he hilariously cannot remember where he has parked their car. As she refuses to stop mocking him for his old age and mistakes, Louis warns her not to say another word, and when she does, Louis finally shoots her right in the parking lot. It ranks as perhaps the funniest (yet still shocking) moment of both the book and film, but knowing that Louis was so reluctant to ever shoot someone lends an additional shade of poignancy to its iteration in the book.

The second biggest subplot sacrificed from the book can be found in Max’s divorce. Although much of Max’s dealings with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend feels like fat that could even be trimmed from the book, Leonard uses the opportunity to wisely comment even further on Max’s life of regret and loss. As Max pulls off the heist inside the mall with Jackie, his continual glances toward the shop owned by his ex-wife adds just a few more moments of sadness to Max’ character, especially in relation to Jackie.

Furthermore, the book detail Max and Jackie’s relationship to a much simpler version of falling in love than in the film. In the book, Jackie and Max fall in love – without ambiguity or confusion. As Leonard writes: “The one thing Max was sure of…he was in love with her and wanted to be with her, and if he had to suspend his judgment to do it, he would.” (pg. 291). In Jackie Brown, however, Max and Jackie maintain a much more ambiguous relationship into the exact parameters of their love. Setting aside Jackie’s racial change of white to black for the film, Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s relationship can be viewed from a number of different angles: of a genuine love for Jackie, as a chance to partner with the other in pursuit of the money…all of these relationship stages overlap and mutate until their final kiss before the credits.

The final large subplot changed from book to film can be found in Faron Tyler – Nicolet’s partner in the book – that has been changed to Michael Bowen’s LAPD Detective Mark Dargus. In Rum Punch, Tyler is shot and hospitalized by one of Ordell’s employees named Cujo. More or less repeating a similar narrative function as provided by Beaumont’s storyline – of Ordell needing to kill an employee that may turn into an informant – one can see how Tarantino’s decision to excise this subsection is perhaps the most obvious of all adaptations changes. Though this also means the loss of a great scene wherein Nicolet traps the jackboys, the loss of this small subplot that ultimately adds very little thematic resonance makes obvious sense in adaptating Rum Punch’s already very convoluted plot.

“I didn’t want to do what most movie adaptations do. I wanted this to be a thing unto itself…to have the integrity of his novel and that takes time. To not just reduce the plot, but to actually keep his mood, his flavor, keep his thing and add a little bit of mine”

–Tarantino

While there are numerous other small losses from the book (Louis works for Max in the beginning, Max and Jackie explicitly sleep together near the middle, Ordell’s small storyline with Cujo near the end that is, again, mostly a rehashing of the Beaumont subplot), the most fundamental and famous changes are found in changing Jackie’s character from white to black and relocating the original setting of Miami, Florida to the South Bay area of Los Angeles. As colossal as both changes may seem on a surface level, Tarantino ensures that both changes simultaneously contribute to his own specific artistic aesthetic and further complement the themes of the narrative.

Tarantino’s relocating from Miami to Los Angeles allows for a stronger control of atmosphere, geography, and manages to make the South Bay as tangible a character as any of those inhabiting the sprawling city. In the DVD notes, Tarantino explains: “One of the things Elmore Leonard has to offer in his novels is an expert sense of Miami. I can’t compete with that. One of the things I do have to offer is that same kind of knowledge about LA. The South Bay is not used [in movies] that often either”. And indeed, Tarantino fleshes out his hometown with a unique sense of atmosphere only further aided by the strong use of colors captured by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro – allowing the viewer to glimpse this fringe section of Los Angeles occupied by characters on the fringe of society themselves. Moreover, Tarantino uses the Del Amo Mall in Torrance to very advantageous effect as the setting for the money switch. Positioning the heist within what the film inaccurately claims is the world’s biggest indoor shopping mall imbues a greater sense of urgency and raises the stakes to parallel how grandiose the heist remains for each character involved.

Meanwhile, Tarantino’s decision to change the white Jackie Burke of Rum Punch into the black Jackie Brown played by Pam Grier only provides greater depth to the stakes of Jackie’s situation. As a woman desperately clinging to both her job and place in life – a three-times-divorced woman in her mid 40s with previous arrests and earning $16,000 a year – her now also being a black woman fighting against all the above obstacles only deepens the audience’s understanding into just how critical Jackie’s success against both Ordell and the law means for her hope of a future.

Similarly, as Tarantino notes in his explanation, casting Pam Grier as Jackie creates a massive ripple effect throughout the essence of the entire piece – it is now a Pam Grier movie – and must live up to the demands of that casting significance. As a result, although not exactly one in definition, Tarantino colors the film with shades of the blaxploitation movies from the seventies that both made Grier an icon of the era and profoundly influenced Tarantino’s own aesthetic and cinematic taste. Like with Elmore Leonard’s dialogue, Tarantino merged one of his most obvious influences into the creation of something distinctively his own.

Although all adaptations from one medium to another demand unavoidable alterations, Jackie Brown’s adaptation remains one of the most curious for the virtue of its adapter’s filmography and clear influences that have largely shaped and been responsible for such a celebrated filmography. As what will probably remain the only ever adaptation of another writer’s material into his filmography, Tarantino’s filtering of his biggest influences into the adaptation of the very piece itself – from Elmore Leonard’s writing, to the significance of the Pam Grier/blaxpoitation movie legacy, to his hometown of California’s South Bay area – Jackie Brown stands as a fascinating example of an organic and distinct merging of influences when transforming the story from novel to film. Moreover, the collusion of these elements allows for Tarantino to expand and complement upon his own artistic inclinations. While at the heart of it all, however, remains a powerful story – one whose themes of aging, lost legacy, and the hope of change – manage to transcend the barriers of both mediums and become beautifully told by both masters of their respective crafts.

 

Nick Yarborough, Film Features Writer

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