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How to adapt a book for TV, according to the showrunner of Justified

Timothy Olyphant stars as old-fashioned gunslinger Raylan Givens in the recently concluded drama Justified.
Timothy Olyphant stars as old-fashioned gunslinger Raylan Givens in the recently concluded drama Justified.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Few TV shows are as good — or as unjustly unsung — as FX's recently concluded backwoods Western/rural noir Justified. The story of Raylan Givens (the sterling Timothy Olyphant), a wry gunslinger and US marshal who's forced to return to his boyhood home in Kentucky and ultimately to pursue an old friend, Justified examines themes of family, history, and the pressure we feel to meet others' expectations. Throughout its six-season run, it was a rich, often beautiful series — that nonetheless possessed some of the funniest dialogue on television.

It was also inspired by a novella written by the great author Elmore Leonard. And so, as more and more TV series are adapted from other works, I decided it was time to talk to someone who's familiar with the process of adaptation about how to transform somebody else's work into a TV show or film that will be beloved for years to come. So I sat down to chat with Justified's developer and showrunner, Graham Yost, whose adaptation credits also include writing scripts for HBO miniseries based on either books or historical events, like Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Justified is available to stream on Amazon Prime, and you should binge-watch it now.

How to adapt a book for TV

Walton Goggins in Justified.

The character of Boyd (Walton Goggins) died at the end of the novella Justified's pilot was based on. The show changed all that.


Todd VanDerWerff: What's your process for turning a book or something else into a TV show or film?

Graham Yost: With Justified, it was both easy and hard. It was easy in the pilot in that Elmore [Leonard] had given us "Fire in the Hole," a novella. That story is a perfect fit for an hour-long episode of television. I used a lot of what he had written and then kept the [hero's] father alive, turned him into a criminal, did this and that. Made some choices, added some characters. Ultimately, we kept [the character of] Boyd alive, which is a very different ending.

Okay, what do you do for the second episode? Now it's adapting an approach, adapting a type of storytelling. It's adapting the kind of characters that Elmore would have. That became something we had to find out as we went along.

The other things I've done haven't been adaptations as much. Even Band of Brothers, which I was just one of many writers on, was an adaptation of a book, but not really. It was telling the same story as [Stephen] Ambrose's book but we could expand things, and go into certain conflicts, relationships, and characters, and spend a little more time [on them].

In [the miniseries] From the Earth to the Moon, an episode I wrote on the fire in Apollo 1, what is the story? What is that thing where you can just say, "This is about this"? You can sum it up, you know? It's a fire in Apollo 1. It's the investigation as spearheaded by Frank Borman. That's it.

The episode I wrote on Band of Brothers, that was decided by the other producers. They said, "Let's make it about Lipton." Then I found that they didn't have a functioning CO, and Lipton stepped up, and he did it. It's finding that singular thing.

Graham Yost

Graham and Connie Yost attend a screening of the Justified series finale.


TV: How hard is it to find that thing?

GY: It can be really hard sometimes, and then you know you're in trouble. I did a screenplay for 20th Century Fox years ago about the Challenger space shuttle disaster. I went so far into the research that my first draft was about everything, and it just didn't work. It took a while to find the focus. It ultimately didn't get made, I think partly because it didn't have the white hat, black hat story that I think the studio wanted.

TV: Even with something like Justified, where it seems the story is pretty clear, you still have to figure out what to keep and what to throw out. How do you know something isn't really necessary for the adaptation?

GY: You put it in, and then you see. You're supposed to have a 50-page script and you've got an 80-page script. It's like, "Well, something's got to go." It really becomes the old line, you know, "Kill your darlings." That's very helpful. "Okay, what do you love the most? Let's see what it's like [without that]."

How to adapt Elmore Leonard for television

The cast of Justified.

Tim (Jacob Pitts) and Rachel (Erica Tazel) didn't even exist in "Fire in the Hole," but Elmore Leonard added them to the story's novel sequel.


TV: Elmore Leonard later wrote the novel Raylan, which was, in some ways, based on the TV show adaptation of his character. How did you incorporate elements from a novel that was connected to the show but that was published after the show debuted?

GY: I don't know if anyone else's had that situation before. It was odd, and it was wonderful. We knew Elmore liked the show, at least he told us that, but when Tim [Olyphant] said, "Hey, why don't you write another Raylan story," he did. He kept Boyd alive, even though he'd killed him off in "Fire in the Hole." He added Rachel and Tim even though they didn't exist in "Fire in the Hole." I was like, "That's cool! He's pitching into our show." Yet it was very much an Elmore book.

Then he gave it to us and he said, "Just hang it up and strip it for parts," which was the most generous and wonderful thing he could say. In his book, it's this character named Angel who gets his kidneys taken. Boy, what if it was Dewey [on the show]? It evolved like that. [Elmore's] character Pervis Crowe we turned into Mags Bennett, added another brother, and those became the Bennetts. It was incredibly helpful.

TV: What do you think are the most prevalent misconceptions about adaptations?

GY: I'm just going to speak specifically about Elmore Leonard. I think the mistake some people would make in adapting Elmore Leonard in the past is that they thought that they were buying a story, not realizing that they were buying characters and an approach. I remember seeing Get Shorty and then Out of Sight [which are both adapted from Leonard's work]. I took notice of Scott Frank's name, and he did a great job adapting those. Then Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino, Scott Frank — they let Elmore be Elmore, and they used him. That became my goal on Justified. Let's use him as much as we can, because he's just fantastic.

TV: Elmore Leonard is a great voice in American literature. How do you stay true to that voice while also writing a television show?

GY: Well, first thing you do is you pitch it to FX. You have [FX president] John Landgraf in the meeting to ask questions and give ideas. He had been a producer on Karen Sisco [another Elmore Leonard television adaptation], co-wrote an episode. He knew what gold there was in the Elmore hills, and so he just supported us right from the beginning.

In terms of the adapting for television, it's just a gut thing. In the novella, Raylan's father is dead, and he died of black lung. He'd been a coal miner. I said, "Nah, let's keep him alive. Let's make him a criminal." Because I think if a guy makes a choice to wear that hat and be a marshal in this sort of old-fashioned way, he's making a choice. I think he's making a choice in reaction to what his upbringing was.

Either you've come from a cop family or you come from a criminal family if you're going to make such a choice. We thought we'd have an interesting dynamic there. Let's have [Raylan's ex-wife] Winona around. Let's not have them have kids. Let's make her new husband somewhat different than Elmore had him, give us more places to go. Let's add some characters. We need some marshals because we've got to come back week in, week out and see these people. It was decisions like that.

TV: What's been the most rewarding thing about writing in someone else's voice for the past six years, and what do you miss most about just writing in your own?

GY: It's been fun. It's been fun to write like Elmore Leonard. Some of the writers got into it. Sometimes we'd have to rein them in. The language would just go insane. For the most part, it was just a kick to be able to approach bad guys and good guys that way. Looking for this color, for this richness, this twist, this turn. The people are smart. They're pretty cool.

The hard part is knowing that I no longer have license to write like that. If I write like that any further, people are going to say, "Oh, you're writing like Elmore Leonard." When we're doing the show, it's like, "Oh, you're writing Justified, and that's your job to write like Elmore Leonard." In terms of stuff that I'd done before and may do in the future, I am a more on-the-sleeve, emotional person and writer than Elmore was in many regards. Justified was very parsimonious in those moments of emotion. They were there, and I think they had great impact because there weren't so many of them.

How Justified ran for six great seasons

Joelle Carter in Justified.

Ava (Joelle Carter) proved pivotal in Justified's final season.


TV: The show certainly had a tendency to meander and take its time. How tight of a structure did you follow, and how much did you just explore?

GY: The writers, as the years went on, had a lot of freedom, and they would try things. In our second-to-last episode, there's this scene where Raylan's coming down the mountain looking for Ava, and Boyd's coming up looking for Ava. Chris Provenzano's first draft of that sequence was eight pages long. [I said,] "Chris, it's not going to be eight pages." He said, "I know, but I wanted to write it." He had the freedom to try that. We gave people a lot of leeway because it's amazing what you can do in editing.

TV: Even on FX, were there ever any concerns about that? TV is not known for going that long.

GY: Landgraf supported us right from the beginning. Let it be an Elmore show. Elmore would have those scenes. As long as it had a point, right? You can tell. If you're watching a scene and it's just meandering, it's not going anywhere, and there's not any great payoff, then you're probably going to cut the whole scene or just trim it way down.

The other thing is that the whole marketplace has changed, so we didn't have to stick to our 42-minute running time. When the secondary market for a show like Justified is Amazon Prime, then it doesn't matter how long it is.

TV: When did you know what the ending was going to be?

GY: There were many different versions that we played with over the years. We really started planning for it as we were breaking season five. Really the question came down to, "Was Raylan going to kill Boyd?" We made that decision last August, last September [several months before the series finale aired in April 2015] that he wouldn't, because we felt: What has the whole series been about if Raylan does that?

TV: Back when you were working on the first season, were there moments or scenes where you thought, "We're starting to figure out what this show is"?

GY: The [second episode of the whole series], "Riverbrook," I thought was very Elmore. The characters were funny, the situation was funny, but it was also bad people who have gotten together with an even badder person, a classic Elmore thing. I felt it kind of crackled along. I was like, "Great, I think we know how to do this."

Well, boy, we did not. The next episode was a real struggle, and the one after that, and the one after that. It took a long time. There was no point really in the first season where we felt like, "We've got this." I think we felt like we ended it well. I think "Bulletville" was a really great season finale.

I said to [fellow executive producer] Fred Golan at some point, "I get the feeling at the end of season six, then we'll finally know how to do this." He said, "Graham, we're never going to know how to do this."

Justified is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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