Published on February 20th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant


Book vs. Movie! Get Shorty

You know how most movies don’t measure up to the book?  The Feedback Society’s ‘Book vs. Movie’ looks at both properties to see how they measure up to each other.

The late Elmore Leonard was the hip king of crime fiction, a prolific writer that turned hustlers and other sleazy street types into fleshed out characters, rather than caricatures.  More than a few of his books have been turned into films or TV shows, including Justified, The Big Bounce (it was adapted twice, into two horrible movies), Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, and the book Rum Punch was made into the brilliant Tarantino film, Jackie Brown.

Of course, one of his biggest book to movie transitions, and one Leonard himself endorsed, was Get Shorty (though he wasn’t so kind about the sequel, Be Cool).  I recently read the book and then rewatched the movie (directed by Barry Sonnenfeld), which I hadn’t seen in a few years.  It’s a meta movie industry satire about a Miami shylock, Chili Palmer (John Travolta), who chases an errant debtor to Hollywood, where he realizes his tough guy skills transfer to the movie business.  He subsequently gets wrapped up in producing a film with B-movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), while outrunning several rival gangsters.

Oddly enough, though Leonard is a fantastic writer, I actually found that the book is very slow off the start.  I’m sure that’s to set some tone, but it really takes a long time to launch into the actual plot.  Some scenes that don’t ultimately add up to much in the bigger picture of the story take forever to play out.  This is part of Leonard’s style sometimes, but it felt sluggish to read.  This is one place where the condensing that has to happen in a movie actually strengthens the proceedings.  The movie jumps right in and blasts through these scenes, getting us right to the meat of things, but giving us all the important information of the inciting incidents.

Chili Palmer is a well-written character; a tough guy that doesn’t often feel the need to be that tough.  Unlike some of the knuckleheads and crumb bums he comes up against, Chili thinks things out.  He’s cool, in trademark Leonard style.  The book matches the movie well here by casting Travolta, still hot off his career comeback, thanks to Pulp Fiction.  Travolta isn’t one of my favourite actors, aside from the odd role here and there, but he embodies Palmer with ease.  He’s able to traverse back and forth from being a friendly face, to a calculating loan shark strategist, all while seeming like two sides of the same guy.  The only distracting thing about his performance was watching him pretend to smoke.  Real smokers inhale, Travolta.

Danny DeVito is poorly cast if we’re looking at the character from the book, who struck me as more of a younger, better-looking Tom Cruise-type.  However, there are only marginal reasons that the character couldn’t be changed to DeVito, and he does a bang up job.  No one can argue that he doesn’t fit the ‘Shorty’ of ‘Get Shorty.’

The movie does an admirable job of executing what’s at the heart of most of the scenes in the book.  The scene where Palmer and Harry Zimm meet with criminal Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) is a prime example.  Harry immediately fucks up Palmer’s plan, running his big mouth, and the dynamics of the situation are palatable — you can almost hear Palmer/Travolta rolling his eyes.  There’s also the scene where Palmer throws Catlett’s henchman Bear (playing well by a ponytail sporting James Gandolfini) down the stairs, remarking dryly about the ex-stuntman, “That’s not bad for a guy his size.”  Dennis Farina is great as irritating gangster Ray ‘Bones’ Barbone as well, in fact, he’s funnier than the ‘Bones’ of the book.  And while we’re simply comparing characters, Rene Russo didn’t seem to have the mileage on her required to play Karen Flores, a former B-movie scream queen, but she didn’t muck things up either.

I wouldn’t call either the book or the movie laugh our loud hilarious as some have, but the property is a clever look at the movie industry and its various criminal types.  You know, like agents and producers.  Other than a few details and some story compression, Get Shorty the movie is actually very close to Get Shorty the book. It captures the feel of the novel, making it a good watch for fans, but it also constructs a proper movie for discerning filmgoers.  I don’t know if this column should really ever have a winner (because it’ll usually be the book, right?), but in this case, I’d actually call it a draw.


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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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