Adaptations – Runaway Jury

Massive spoilers ahead!

I just got done reading John Grisham’s The Runaway Jury, which by the way, should’ve been called Runaway Jury.  Why does John Grisham insist on including the word “the” in front of all his titles?  That’s one of my pet peeves.  Unless the rest of the title is one word – like The Firm or The Godfather – or a proper noun followed by a common noun – like The Hudsucker Proxy or The Shawshank Redemption – it almost always detracts from the power of the title.  Think about it: The Bride Wars.  The Four Weddings. The Hotel for Dogs. No.  Those titles would suck.

Anyway, I digress.  I saw the movie a number of years ago and remember loving it.  Politics aside, it was great on suspense and great on character.  I love movies with Jason Bourne-type human superheroes who can anticipate everyone’s every movie, and I like it even more when two such characters have to go at it, and that’s really what this movie was.  And a few weeks ago I was looking for a suspense/thriller/mystery type novel to read, and this is what I came up with.

It’s interesting how different the two are.  We can start with the most glaring change, which is that the book covers a tobacco trial while the movie is a gun trial. No doubt this was a context choice – by time the movie was made in 2003, tobacco was no longer a controversial issue and it was nowhere close to unprecedented that a widow might be compensated for her husband’s nicotine-related death.  Mass shootings like Columbine (which occurred in 1999) were of greater importance, so that part of it I think was an excellent choice.

It gets more subtle than that, though.  In the movie, we start headfirst knowing that Rankin Fitch (great name) is the bad guy, while Nicholas Easter (great name) and Wendell Rohr (great name) are the good guys.  In the book it’s a little more ambiguous – both sides are skirting the letter of the law, both sides are hiring ruthless and unscrupulous jury consultants, and both sides are, well, lawyers, doing dirty, nasty, lawyer-like things. Easter is a little more ruthless, and actually occurs as manipulative at time, which the consummately loveable John Cusack couldn’t possibly pull off.  And Marlee is soooooo annoying.  This, I think, is Grisham’s failing that was corrected in a form that’s more prone to concisify the story to fit within a desired timeframe.  The playing games/taunting Fitch portion of the book drags on and on, whereas I remember it being much more intriguing and suspenseful.  And the movie does a better job of building suspense and building the stakes, what with the attack on Marlee’s life.

Honestly, I think the movie may be better just because of the tight storytelling.  The book kept me turning the pages, but Grisham’s storytelling style is actually kind of drab and matter of fact, a habit he no doubt picked up during his 20 years of legal experience.

So through all of this, I find myself asking the question, “How did they adapt this movie?”  The answer is that they took the same characters, put them in a similar situation, used the same plot structure, and then filled in all the beats from scratch.  Though the plot was essentially the same, few of the scenes and none of the dialogue was. This is a pretty stark contrast from, say, The Shawshank Redemption, where all of the voice over narration and most of the scenes were pretty much lifted directly from the novella.  And it’s a stark contrast from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where the basic premise is the only thing that tied the film to the story in any way, shape, or form.

I’ve never really considered just how vast you can adjust your creative license when adapting a movie. Recently I read Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and I’m looking forward to watching that movie to see what they do there.  And I’ll be in the theater at midnight to see The Watchmen to see if they follow the lead of V for Vendetta or even Sin City by cloning much of the dialogue and set design.

Oh … to be in the inquiry …

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