Film Adaptations of James Ellroy’s Work

James Ellroy’s rich characters and plotlines have inspired a wide array of directors and screenwriters to adapt his work to the silver screen. These adapted writings include famous novels like The Black Dahlia (novel 1987; film 2006) as well as some of Ellroy’s lesser-known work, such as a draft screenplay called The Night Watchman written in the late 1990s and transformed into a feature film called Street Kings in 2008. In general, Ellroy has not taken a role in the filmmaking process beyond composing the literary basis for many movies, but he rarely hesitates to offer his review of film adaptations of his work.

Major Titles

Many of Ellroy’s major novels have been adapted to full-length films due to their multi-layered plotlines and character depth. Ellroy’s first film adaptation was the made-for-TV movie Cop (1988), which was based on the novel Blood on the Moon (1984). Cop opened to poor reviews and lukewarm receipts, and Ellroy himself expressed disappointment in the movie. The screenplay failed to capture Ellroy’s engaging writing style, and many reviews cited dismay at the level of violence in the movie – a natural issue given Ellroy’s difficulty in getting the novel published in the first place.

Ellroy’s next film adaptation did not come until 1997, when Curtis Hanson directed and produced L.A. Confidential. The movie featured well-known actors such as Russell Crowe and Danny DeVito, and unlike many other Ellroy adaptations, the film received rave reviews and performed well at the box office. Even Ellroy himself praised the film. In a documentary called James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (2001), Ellroy states:

“L.A. Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke—and a wonderful one—and it is never going to happen again—a movie of that quality.”

Though the film deviated substantially from the book, it went on to receive a number of awards, including Oscars for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) and Best Supporting Actress.

In 2006, Brian De Palma and Josh Friedman took on another volume of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, The Black Dahlia. However, unlike L.A. Confidential, De Palma and Friedman’s The Black Dahlia received reviews ranging only from cold to lukewarm, and Ellroy, naturally, expressed disappointment in the film. Prior to the film’s release, Ellroy quipped:

“My novel The Black Dahlia (2006) will be poorly filmed in March of next year by overrated auteur Brian De Palma. Fatuously good-looking Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson will weakly star in this vehicle. The production designer is Dante Ferretti who production designed most of the great Scor-sleazy movies, so it will look very good and it will be shot by the esteemed Vilmos Zsigmond. I predict an intriguing flop...that will nevertheless sell me a shitload of books.”

Overall, critics widely appreciated the cinematography and the film’s ability to capture the atmosphere of 1940s Los Angeles, but they felt the writers failed to capture the complex and alluring plotline that Ellroy weaved into the book, which was compounded by poor acting performances by many of the main characters.

Full Filmography

Cop (1988)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Brown’s Requiem (1998)
Stay Clean (2002)
Vakvagany (2002)
Dark Blue (2002)
Das Bus (2003)
The Black Dahlia (2006)
Street Kings (2008)
Land of the Living (2008)
Rampart (2011)


James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction (1993)
White Jazz (1995)
James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (2001)
James Ellroy: American Dog (2005)
Murder by the Book: “James Ellroy” (2006)
James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons (2011)