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The Grisham formula

The prolific novelist writes books that translate well into movies; filmmakers respect -- and are sometimes daunted by -- his source material.

September 07, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Preparing to adapt John Grisham's "Runaway Jury" to the screen, director Gary Fleder took a cue from veteran screenwriter William Goldman. The first time he read the novel, he highlighted crucial passages. He then repeated the task, using a different color. The material that emerged two-tone would constitute the skeleton of his film.

"By the end, I'd highlighted half of the book -- way too much," Fleder recalled. "Grisham creates a high-class problem: too many great characters, plots and subplots. Hitting each beat would have resulted in a six- to eight-hour movie."

By most accounts, a Grisham novel is an ace collaborator in film adaptations -- a leg up for writers and directors alike. "Runaway Jury," due out Oct. 17, is the eighth feature film based on Grisham's work -- placing the author ahead of Tom Clancy (four) but behind Michael Crichton (12) and the prodigious Stephen King (27). Between 1993 and 1996, "The Firm," "The Pelican Brief," "The Client" and "A Time to Kill" took in nearly $500 million in the U.S. and Canada and, for the most part, struck a chord with critics. Though "The Chamber," "The Rainmaker" and "The Gingerbread Man" fared less well commercially, problems with these pictures went beyond the source material.

"There was a feeding frenzy to make everything 'Grisham' -- not always wise, in retrospect," says David Gernert, the author's agent. "John took a deep breath and now he's back."

Why did Hollywood shell out $8 million for the rights to "Runaway Jury," in which a couple (John Cusack, Rachel Weisz) try to manipulate the jury in a gun company suit? What sets the Mississippi lawyer-turned-bestselling novelist apart? Creative folks who've worked on this and previous adaptations make their case.

A good yarn

Robert Towne (co-writer of "The Firm"): Grisham's books are laid out in ways that lend themselves to big American movies -- meaning they're full of plot and subplots. We learned long ago that you need a "meanwhile back on the ranch," something to cut to, such as the letters of transit in "Casablanca." Our movies are commercially successful because there's always something going on.

Akiva Goldsman (co-writer of "The Client," writer of "A Time to Kill"): John gives you a phenomenal story engine. His plots start with tremendous velocity -- a kid in a car watching a man kill himself or a little girl kidnapped by rednecks -- which carries you far. Then he creates a wide panorama -- life and death, good vs. evil, hope and redemption -- that attracts some wonderful performers. And once a studio lays out so much for a book, it's more likely to spend top dollar for a writer and stars.

Cross examination

Some critics say that Grisham books are like flypaper, entangling but superficial. Movies made from them, more than most, reflect the sensibility of the director. The unapologetically commercial Joel Schumacher ("A Time to Kill," "The Client,") was a good fit, they suggest, while alternative, quirky directors such as Robert Altman ("The Gingerbread Man"), are not. And his complicated plots demand strong organizational skills to make sense.

Logical structure

Sydney Pollack: (director of "The Firm"): You know how a husband or wife corrects a mate who gets up to tell a story at a party? That would never happen to Grisham. He's a natural storyteller with an instinct for unfolding information in the right order, handing it out in a way that works.

Cross examination

Some say that Grisham is better at intriguing premises than endings, which were changed in "The Client" and "The Firm," for example. What's satisfying on the page may not play well with moviegoers who seek catharsis, resolution, a positive twist. "The Firm" originally concluded with the young, ambitious lawyer (Tom Cruise) as corrupt as those he'd been fighting because he'd taken the money and run. The filmmakers had him wind up as he began -- with nothing, but his soul intact.

Larger-than-life characters

Goldsman: John's character architecture is sound, fleshed out, larger than life. Still, screenwriters like me have a tendency to make them more peculiar and flamboyant. You have to compress them because we're with them for less time. And, without access to internal monologues, they have to be more distinct to reflect their inner life.

Towne: There are more complicated characters in life and fiction than Grisham's, but that's good when you're dealing with a complex plot. You don't want a character whose internal drama interferes with the external course of events.

David Levien (co-writer, with Brian Koppelman, Rick Cleveland, and Matthew Chapman, of "Runaway Jury"): Grisham's characters have clear motives and act in concert with them. That's why the action isn't confusing. Our movie is an exception. Because the motives of our protagonists aren't spelled out until later, you don't know if you should root for them.

Cross examination

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