Justifying Raylan: The Importance of the Elmore Leonard Character

Timothy Olyphant in 'Justified'/Image © Copyright 2014 FX Networks

There's a great scene about two-thirds of the way through a recent episode of the current and final season of "Justified."

In it, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, skillfully played as always by Timothy Olyphant, has just pulled up to a house where his series-long nemesis (and occasional ally) Appalachian outlaw Boyd Crowder, equally deftly portrayed by Walton Goggins, is staying. Crowder rushes out to meet Givens and the two quickly begin a verbal sparring match (fueled mainly by Crowder's desire to keep Givens from finding a wanted fugitive hiding inside) in which Givens reveals that the only thing keeping him from moving on to live with his ex-wife and baby in Florida is his vow to finally bring Crowder down.

"This is one of them classic stories where the hero gets his man and he rides off into the sunset," Givens says.

"Or maybe it's like that other classic, where a guy chases a whale to the ends of the earth only to drown for his trouble," Crowder shoots back.

After a pause, Givens smiles and declares: "I gotta admit, there's a small part of me that's going to miss this when it's over."

It's a fantastic moment in a cable series full of fantastic moments. For the past five years, "Justified" on F/X has been offering a guaranteed reoccurring dose of satisfaction for those in need of smart television crime-drama - with a neo-Western twist of course.

It's also become the premier entry in Elmore Leonard's pop-culture footprint, which is no small feat when you realize he wrote more than forty novels and there are more than two dozen screen versions of his work. And it's really surprising when you notice just how slight Raylan Givens originally was in the library of Leonard's work.

Elmore Leonard was always particular about the names of his characters. He openly admitted to struggling to find a character's voice until he'd changed their name to something that was more befitting. And the story goes, at least the one Leonard told, that he knew he was going to name a character Raylan as soon as he heard the name at a book distributor conference in Texas during the summer of 1991.

Two years later, Leonard introduced Givens in his novel Pronto, but as a minor character. The book's focus was middle-aged bookie Harry Arno, who managed to escape from the cowboy hat-wearing Deputy Marshal and flee to Italy with Givens and a host of bad guys in hot pursuit. Givens, along with Arno, would return in Leonard's 1995 follow-up, Riding the Rap, but again not as a main character.

Five years later, Leonard finally revived Givens for a novella, Fire in the Hole, and even gave him the main spotlight. The story banishes Givens from Miami following a shootout with a mobster (after giving him twenty-four hours to leave town) to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he grew up and runs headlong into Boyd Crowder, an old buddy he spent part of his teens working alongside in a coal mine and who now operates on the other side of the law as a white supremacist. The tale climaxes with Givens, Crowder, and the wife of Crowder's late brother (whom she killed) in her dining room and Givens is forced to shoot his onetime friend. If any of that sounds familiar to you fans of the show that's because the pilot for "Justified" is pretty much a word-for-word adaptation.

Of course, series creator and show runner Graham Yost tweaked some things when bringing the story to TV, trimming the ages of Givens and Crowder, creating Givens' criminal father, Arlo, and filling out the supporting cast (especially on the law enforcement side of things). All those changes were fine with Leonard, who was given an executive producer credit, although he did famously feud with Yost and the producers over the show's choice for Givens's trademark hat - Leonard had always envisioned Givens wearing a smaller businessman's Stetson as opposed to the one used in the show.

But most important of all, what the producers and writers of "Justified" did was choose not to just use Fire in the Hole as a springboard for a larger serialized story but an exploration and continuation of Leonard's style and tone. Books from throughout his bibliography, not just the ones featuring Givens, were read and studied and writers were even reported to have worn blue wristbands stamped with WWED for "What would Elmore do?"

Even less purposeful adjustments helped "Justified" flesh out and incorporate the Leonard style. Googins's insistence to play Crowder more as an intelligent manipulator versus charismatic racist when it was decided to bump the character up to a series regular instead of a one-off villain for the pilot fit perfectly with Leonard's habit of creating clever criminals with mouths full of brainy dialogue. And Olyphant's experience playing real-life frontier sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO's "Deadwood" undoubtedly helped him in some way get into the role of a modern-day lawman created by a writer that started out penning westerns. Leonard often said that Olyphant "plays the character exactly the way I wrote him."

Leonard himself so loved the series that the last book he finished before his death in 2013 was a whole novel centered around Givens, Raylan, which the author shared with the show's writers before publication and several elements were used as plot points for the third season.

In his last interviews, Leonard was often asked what he was working on. A writer as prolific as him often had another book in progress, even while he was promoting his most recent release. Leonard described a novel about a private prison in Arizona, far from the backwoods of Harlin, and a story about a prize-winning bull rider who runs afoul of a crooked immigration officer. And yet somehow he was still drawn to Givens and mentioned how he wanted to put the Marshall in the piece.

"I need Raylan in this one," he told one interviewer, almost as if after a near-sixty-year career he'd finally found his ideal character.