I am sure that John Grisham’s name is far from unknown to commercial literature devourers. As a former lawyer himself, Grisham endows his novels with amazing detail with respect to legal procedures and practices while giving his characters a great degree of personality.
His first novel, “A Time to Kill”, was decently received but did not cause the stir and emotion that his second one, “The Firm”, did. “The Firm” is a special case as its colorful view painted over tax-law practices managed to imprint a very lifelike image that actually scared many people, while still inspiring many young law students to focus towards this quite intricate domain that taxes are. Alongside “The Pelican Brief”, “The Runaway Jury” and “The Client”, the aforementioned novels were made into movies with various degrees of success into which I will delve in a few moments.
Before we go cinematic, I want to offer my impressions of the novels, so as to have a good foundation when explaining the movies.
“A time to kill” is (by happenstance) the only novel lack the “the” prefix. I guess Grisham lately realized the power of this word and proceeded to abuse it nonchalantly. The novel describes the trial of a black man accused of murdering two white men who in turn had raped and killed his young daughter. This first novel deals less with legal procedures (as the others do) and more with the racial tensions in a time when the influence of the KKK was waning. There is no mastery of language and the character development is a bit shy, but the novel makes use of the inherent power of dealing with racial issues. Grisham does well to hop around in this minefield that is racism and delivers a pretty good reading.
The movie that followed was, in my opinion, the best of all that resulted. The film offers ten-fold the power that racial issues bring to the book, while taking the time to go back to Grisham’s roots and put some detail into the law practices. Having Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Samuel L Jackson together could only be a good thing.
“The Firm”, however, is less so (in my opinion), despite having scored better in sales. Benefiting from a witty story spiced up with a good conspiracy and above-average character development, “The Firm” is hindered by Grisham’s inability to build up suspense in words. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that Grisham fails to make the reader feel as the main character does, to let the reader dig into the conspiracy around him just as the main character does. Instead, the reader is served information about the conspiracy directly, as the author makes him a witness to conspriacy dialogues. Sure, they don’t deliver all the details, but come on! Any educated reader already knows there’s something wrong about the firm involved, throwing the fact into the reader’s face is an insult and a great deterrent as to the level on which the reader can empathize with the main character (since the reader is fed information the main character doesn’t have, so the reader is ready for what is to come and thus cannot connect with McDeere’s shock and fear).
The move spawning from “The Firm” followed the book quite well, but in doing this it also borrowed the inherent pitfalls of failing to build up the suspense. Tom Cruise is backed up by Gene Hackman, David Strathairn, Ed Harris and Tobin Bell and while doing some decent acting, he doesn’t really deliver. I was quite dissapointed by the movie, even more than the book.
“The Client”, as a novel, picks up the pace and is a much better reading than “The Firm”. However, it suffers greatly from predictability. The eleven-year-old boy that stars as a main character is barely believable in his endeavour to fight the Mafia and expose the murder of a US senator. John Grisham fails to convey the kid’s emotions and a reader may be frustrated by this lack of connectivity (I know I was). As the novel doesn’t offer much in the details of law practice (a redeeming quality in “The Firm”), I cannot really recommend this to anyone.
The movie that followed was, however, much much better and it almost earned an Academy Award (Oscar) for Susan Sarandon. Sarandon makes a great lawyer companion for the young boy (well done by Mark Renfro) and is opposed by a fair Tommy-Lee Jones. The movie also suffers when it comes to suspense and conveying emotions but the character development is quite satisfactory and overall the movie is a worthy manner of spending some time.
“The Pelican Brief” was the catchiest read I got from Grisham, probably because I’m quite into politics. The suspense fares slightly better here, the character development is good and the conspiracy theory factor is quite satisfactory. The cherry on the top is the nosy student factor (the law school student who stumbles on the solution to the murders of two Supreme Court Justices is a sweet factor) but it is a slightly poisonous cherry in that entertaining as it may be, it also harms the believability of the novel.
As a movie, “The Pelican Brief” fails to rise above a decent thriller. There is action, running around, shooting, but little to no character building. Popcorn becomes a necessity as I cannot imagine anyone able to connect with any of the characters. Even though there are enough thrills and the packaging is nice (Julia Roberts, a young Denzel Washington and Sam Shepard are there), the movie still feels cheap in some points.
“The Runaway Jury” delves into an interesting issue: the accountability of tobacco companies for lung cancer affections. The debate is still raging today even if little progress has been made in swaying a clear cut decision one way or another and the status quo is deffered to a propaganda war. The novel however is strong both with asking the right questions and with sheding light on legal procedures. Of course, the ending is also satisfactory for non-smokers.
The movie on the other hand, retains some of the book’s qualities but manages to flop grievously. Why? Because it switches tobacco for guns (probably in the light of the “Insider” movie, great movie launched earlier, who was dealing with tobacco companies). A real flop because guns don”t suffer from the same issues. No court in this world would punish a weapons manufacturer for someone killed by gunfire: the guilty will always be the person who pulls the trigger (unless the weapon was faulty by design). In fact it’s more likely to charge a weapons manufacturer when his product fails to work than for when it does work as intended. In this respect, the movie loses feeling and the verisimilitude factor very fast, leaving us with some witty lines but no substance behind them. The line that encompasses the movie is “Trials are too important to be left to jurors”. Scary but true to anyone who’s been involved in a jury trial. Aside from this however, the movie has nothing really worth seeing so play only if you really have nothing better to do. It only beats staring blankly at the wall.