November 2003

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

The Grisham Experiment

So many people tell me, when I explain this column to them, that their preferences regarding adaptation depend on whether they see the book or movie first. This isn't a sentiment that I necessarily agree or disagree with, but it does make an interesting point regarding first impressions. What are we going to fixate on when we first read something? How are we going to react when those elements are altered for film?

The First Inaugural Book-to-Film-to-Book Experiment was meant to address that question via instruments of science -- specifically, the cheesy Excel graph. Through the Bookslut blog, I requested a number of volunteers to join one of two sample groups -- one would read the John Grisham novel The Runaway Jury and see the film adaptation afterwards; the other would do the same, but in reverse order. All would report back with their thoughts and a numerical assessment of the book and film, and these results would help in the determination of which way works better -- reading the book first, or seeing the movie first.

What I found most interesting, in compiling the responses from the volunteers, is how many of the criticisms regarding the adaptation process revolve around the plot. Despite the cardboard characters, stiff acting, and clichéed writing found in both versions, the plot-driven nature of both book and movie meant that the changes to the story -- both ways -- were felt the most keenly. The movie-first group seemed unilaterally in favor of the movie, enjoying John Cusack's charms much more than Grisham's prose. The book readers were less divisive, however, preferring the book by only a slim margin, and more than a little concerned about the dumbing down of the protagonists and the change in the story's moral center.

Sadly, the major thing I've learned in the course of the First Inaugural Book-to-Film-to-Book Experiment is that I need to pick a more interesting book, give my subjects more time, and um, get more subjects. As a result, there will be no cheesy Excel graphs -- there aren't enough statistics to support them. There will be, however, some great responses.

From the book-first group

Dahlia Naveh:
"The movie doesn’t come off as smart as the book... I guess that as a film on its own, it was a decent thriller with some substance behind it, but I think that when it comes to court cases such as these, the tobacco case is more thought provoking than the gun manufacturer case."

Rose Bengal:
"In the book Marlee is clearly the brains and the driving force behind the con and in the end Fitch expresses his respect for her and her ability to outwit and outmaneuver him at every turn. In the movie Marlee is seen as at times weak, whimpering, beaten up, etc. A person quick to jump to conspiracy theories might say that Hollywood can’t handle strong female characters and has to resort to beating them up to keep the audience interested…"

Doug Stuart:
"I never thought I would say this, but the movie made me appreciate Grisham's storytelling skills... Grisham knows that the suspense of his story hinges on very smart people trying to outsmart one another... The only time I thought the movie was about to get interesting was when it appeared that Hoffman's character was debating whether or not to pay for a verdict. 'Finally,' I thought, 'we're going to see someone in an actual bind over all this blather I've had to listen to.' And then of course it was dropped immediately."

From the movie-first group

"Let's face it. John Grisham is no Gene Hackman. He's no John Cusack or Dustin Hoffman either. The movie was a treat. I liked the idea of destroying gun manufacturers more than the tobacco industry, too."

"While reading the book I gave Grisham credit for being consistently cynical. If I hadn't seen the movie first I probably would have thought "I don't like spending time with these characters" instead of "thank heavens he doesn't have Rohr shocked at the dirty tricks of Fitch when Fitch is known for nothing but playing dirty tricks." ... Grisham's no Dashiell Hammett -- it's not like he made that point in any interesting kind of way. Given a choice between his unpleasant but shallow cliches and the movie's unearned idealism, I preferred the movie's version."

As for me? Grisham's characters are flat as cardboard, but Dustin Hoffman should never ever ever be made to feel superfluous. The updates to present-day technology worked really well for the movie, but watching stupid people screw up is a whole lot less interesting than reading about smart people scheming.

I keep my copy of The Runaway Jury around for novelty's sake -- it's the lightweight "traveler's edition," printed on thin pages and bound with airy cardboard, that I found in a English airport years ago. Never really thought about what it'd be like as a movie -- I don't think I ever expected to see it as one. So reading it was fun enough. Lightweight was exactly the right word for it.

I imagine the movie'd be great airplane viewing as well. Nothing to walk out on. Plenty of eye candy and hijinks, with a little violence to keep you on your toes.

Which one did I prefer? It's as simple and shallow as this -- I like John Cusack very much indeed. But I like the novelty of my traveler's edition much more. The major changes from book to film, including the dumbing down of the plot and the slightly misogynistic tone, were all fairly predictable. But while the movie's first half did a deft job of setting the scene, the second half's moral righteousness felt oddly jarring with the cynicism still left over from the book -- sound and fury clashing together, but in the end signifying very little. Overall, lightweight on both counts.

Which one do I wish I had experienced first? Perhaps the movie. It would have left me unspoiled for some of the book's better twists. But that's all with hindsight. The results of this experiment are interesting, but inconclusive. More experimentation is necessary.

Thus concludes the First Inaugural Book-to-Movie-to-Book Experiment. Many thanks to all the volunteers -- may your lawsuits go untampered, and may your juries always vote with their hearts.

Will there be a Second Inaugural Book-To-Movie-To-Book Experiment? Well, Doug Stuart suggests Cold Mountain, and if Jude Law isn't prettier than the Cusack, then Nicole Kidman certainly is.

So -- any takers?