Get Shorty: Act Two, the Movie

With the second season of the new Get Shorty TV series now available, I wanted to revisit Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel (previous post) and the 1995 movie of the same name. What happens when a narrative spine is used to make a new animal? In the case of the Barry Sonnenfeld movie Get Shorty, the answer is that it changed very little, except to get better.

Sonnenfeld, who started out as a cinematographer and worked on the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, and on Throw Momma from the Train, was “known as a stylist of movies,” he says. As a result he was asked to direct The Addams Family movies and eventually the Men in Black franchise. All those movies, and others Sonnenfeld has worked on, have quirky characters, atmosphere, and a visual sophistication that might be called precise or crisp. Get Shorty too has a sharp/cool look but more importantly lingers on character and dialogue, which Sonnenfeld says he will sacrifice other things for. (He told Charlie Rose that he took onGet Shorty because “there are a million plots out there,” but “the hard part is the character and the dialogue.”)

Leonard, who famously did not like most of the movies made from his books, said Get Shorty succeeded due to the cast and crew. “They’re all pros, and they made it work. And also the fact that it’s Barry’s movie,” he said “There’s no question about it. This is Barry’s movie, and yet it has the attitude, the sound of the book because everybody in it is honest.”

One of the recurring themes of novel and movie is how inbred Hollywood is, and the production and casting of Get Shorty in real life seems to validate that. Sonnenfeld happened on a paperback copy of the novel in an airport bookstore and called Danny DeVito, who he saw as right for the role of Chili Palmer. The next time they spoke, DeVito said he had the book; he meant he had already bought the rights to the book to make the film. When DeVito was pulled away to direct Matilda, he could no longer play Chili. The studio that financedGet Shorty agreed to do so only if DeVito got pulled back in to play the smaller role of Martin Weir, the famous, short, self-involved actor who Chili Palmer and crew want to hire for their movie. That is: both in the movie and in real life, they had to get Shorty.

Similarly, John Travolta was talked into being Chili Palmer by Quentin Tarantino, an Elmore Leonard fan and the one who resurrected Travolta’s career with Pulp Fiction, released the same year Get Shorty went into production “This is not the one you say no to,” Tarantino told Travolta. “This is the one you say yes to. I’m not going to let you make this mistake.” Travolta won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for playing Chili.

And the screenwriter for the movie Get Shorty was Scott Frank, who also wrote the script for Out of Sight, a 1998 movie adapted from another Elmore Leonard novel, directed by Steven Soderbergh and executive-produced by Sonnenfeld.

The Atlantic called Elmore Leonard “the most cinematic novelist in the English language” and quotes him saying, “I’ve always seen my books as movies.” Certainly that’s visible in Leonard’s prose, from the multiple points of view of an event, camera-style, to the aspects of metanarrative when discussing film adaptation (“You know [Elvis] made over thirty pictures and the only one I saw was Stay Away, Joe? A wonderful book they completely fucked up”), drama, acting, and storytelling. Real actors are mentioned in the novel, but it is still startling to hit the passage where Harry Zimm (played by Gene Hackman, with capped teeth and tight pants, in the movie) says, “See, the guy I want is the kind of star not only can act, he doesn’t mind looking bad on the screen. Tight pants and capped teeth won’t make it in this one. If I could get Gene Hackman, say, we’d be in preproduction as I speak.”

In general, the novel is followed by the movie so closely that it could have served as both script and stage direction. What makes the movie better than the book is its stellar cast, visual look, soundtrack, and how it streamlines the novel without losing anything. And while the end of the novel is a touch more meta than it is unhappy or inconclusive, the movie ending seals the deal of it being comedy, by ending in a personal and professional marriage of sorts, as well as the best parking spot on the lot for Chili. He is a made man in a new family.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.