Review by C.J. Bunce
Elmore Leonard’s 30th novel would become one of his most widely known stories. Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit” and one of America’s greatest crime authors, wrote 45 novels before his death in 2013, including Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and later popular works Get Shorty and Be Cool, but his own favorite film adaptation, and the best screenplay he’d say he had ever read, was Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, the film adaptation of Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. Although Jackie Brown will likely not go down as the most popular of Tarantino’s films–that will probably always fall to Pulp Fiction—Jackie Brown is probably his best work, a straight crime thriller without all the over-the-top operatic bloodbaths of his other films. It’s also one of the most faithful film adaptations you’ll ever see, keeping most of the dialogue and sequences from the novel. Rum Punch is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and Jackie Brown celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.
Only a few chapters into Rum Punch and it’s easy to understand why Tarantino acquired the screen rights to adapt the novel for film. The characters are edgy and typical of the pulp crime genre, yet they are also unique in their depth. Leonard weaves Jackie, Max, Ordell, Louis, Melanie, and Ray into an intricate and fulfilling caper and con job. Jackie is driven, determined, and a little rough on the edges. Max is a straight shooter and ex-law enforcer who plays by the rules. Ordell and Louis have years of crime between them and are moving beyond the petty crimes of their past. And the book is filled with cool–cool people, cool ambiance, cool talk. The biggest difference between book and film adaptation is in Leonard’s handling of the relationship between Jackie Brown and bail bondsman Max Cherry, played so well by Robert Forster in the film. Jackie Brown sketches what may be one of the best modern romances on film–a subtle and almost teenage infatuation between the two film leads that culminates in a simple kiss at the end of the film. Jackie and Max seem to care sincerely for each other, and the film leaves Max to return to his life of writing bonds while Jackie drives off into the unknown. But the original novel left open whether the two characters would go off together, while making them a romantic couple early in the story. In the novel Max has been estranged from his wife for a few years and he’s finally getting to filing the divorce papers. But Max doesn’t have much to drive him until Jackie shows up and they end up in the sack, almost taking away from something Tarantino was able to tap into to make more touching for the film. Leonard gives Max and Jackie individually second chances and an opportunity to start anew with each other–if only they’d just take it. Leonard leaves the question open–is there a happily ever after in the cards for them? But Tarantino has Max watch as Jackie drives off. It’s a gut punch–there’s no happy ending here. The viewer can’t help but imagine him getting into the car and going after her, after the credits roll. Which is better? That answer is in the eyes of the reader.
But there are other differences worth noting between the novel and the film. Leonard’s heroine is a blonde woman named Jackie Burke. Initially Tarantino was nervous about discussing with Leonard the re-casting of the lead to Pam Grier for his film, but Leonard was in favor of it. And the name shift was simply because Tarantino thought Jackie Brown was a cooler name than Jackie Burke. Rum Punch, the title of the 1992 novel, was the term used to identify the scheme that Ordell (played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson) was using to bring money into the U.S. from Jamaica (this is the same type of arms purchase scheme and players that were the focus of this month’s new Tom Cruise movie American Made, reviewed here).
The other change involves Melanie, played by Bridget Fonda in the film. Her backstory is fleshed out in Rum Punch, in part because her story, as well as that of Ordell and Louis (played in the film by Robert De Niro), were a sequel of sorts to Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch, which explains the relationship between Ordell, Louis, and Melanie only briefly touched on in the film. Melanie is not just a stoned and flighty ornament for Ordell as portrayed in the film–she’s tough and the only one among her, Ordell, or Louis with the instinct to shoot and kill a Nazi in a guns heist gone awry–an entire scene Tarantino wisely skips over for the film. One other change seems to have been made for convenience of the production–shifting the setting from Miami Beach to Los Angeles. Ultimately the audience for neither the book nor the film will be able to see much importance or difference from the seedy neighborhoods and interiors of Miami Beach or L.A. The story could take place in the seedier parts of any city.
Both the novel and the film hold up now 25 and 20 years later. Exciting, fun, gripping, and gritty, Rum Punch is an engaging read full of rich dialogue and a well-orchestrated con. If you haven’t encountered either Rum Punch or Jackie Brown, start with the novel. You won’t be able to see the characters other than as the actors from the film otherwise. But even if you’ve seen the film the novel stands up as a worthwhile experience itself. Is one better than the other? No, they really stand together as separate and equally great works.
Rum Punch is still in print, available here at Amazon. Jackie Brown is streaming on Netflix now and available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon.