Monday, March 21, 2011

Books and TV

Story Reviewed: "Fire in the Hole," by Elmore Leonard (from the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance)

I love TV. As someone who tries so hard to be intellectual and bookish, it's embarrassing just how much I love the medium of television. Now, I agree with the rest of the world that 97% of what's on on any given day is total crap. But I also think that too many people dismiss the entire medium without taking into account all the great programming out there. There's nothing quite like Mad Men (my favorite show) out there in books or movies, art or music. It exists in a kind of isolated awesomeness. Same goes with cancelled shows you can now only enjoy online or on DVD, like Freaks and Geeks, or the often beautiful and emotionally-satisfying Friday Night Lights (which will air its last season on NBC starting next month). TV is capable of providing very solid entertainment; and as someone who loves lingering, complicated narratives, the long-form series on TV satisfy me in a way that movies do not. I am way more attached to my favorite TV shows than I am to my favorite movies.

Not surprisingly, I am also way more attached to my favorite books than my favorite TV shows. But sometimes, these two mediums connect in interesting ways. I have been following the bloody FX show Justified since it's very beginning last spring. I always knew that the series was based on some Elmore Leonard books and stories and that the pilot had basically been lifted wholesale from Leonard's short story, "Fire in the Hole." However, it wasn't until the AV Club did this feature on Elmore Leonard (a mystery writer that even my lit profs followed religiously) that I finally decided to read this story.

It was totally worth it. I love the pilot episode of Justified, and reading this story brought into focus all the reasons why. There's the sheer badassery of the main character Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall who's a little too good with a gun. There's the setting of the backwoods Kentucky crime scene. Best of all, there's all sorts of underlying tensions beneath the surface of Raylan's relationship with Boyd Crowder, the story's villain. Boyd runs a neo-Nazi group, and he's super-self-righteous. The marshalls want him for murder and a handful of other crimes. Raylan and Boyd have known each other since high school, back when they used to dig coal together at the mines.

In the meantime, there's the murder of Boyd's brother by the brother's wife, Ada, a strange kind of accidental, rural femme fatale. When all these plot strings tie together at a final scene at Ada's house, you feel like the story was two or three times longer than it actually is. Leonard never directly points to the actual relationship between Raylan and Boyd. It all comes out through dialogue and action. The story's final line, a piece of dialogue spoken by Raylan to his boss, packs a great punch.

I really enjoyed reading this story, just as much as I enjoy the TV show. Whole chunks of dialogue and backstory are taken from this story to the pilot verbatim. But the ending has a different outcome, and there's more gaps you have to fill in yourself as the audience. Overall, I have to recommend "Fire in the Hole" and Justified equally. They are both exciting, simmering tales about where one comes from and how people can take divergent paths and still end up in the same place. I am definitely going to have to check out more Elmore Leonard in the future.

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