John Grisham was a southern defense attorney who dreamed of becoming a writer on the side. He plugged away at his hobby, eventually selling his first novel, A Time to Kill. It had modest sales, but most Americans still had never heard of him. Then came The Firm, his breakthrough novel, published in 1991. Suddenly, that shuffling sound heard above the drone of jet engines was the turning of thousands of pages, all written by Grisham. Paperback racks everywhere were loaded with this legal thriller, and people couldn't get enough of The Firm. Or Grisham's next four books, The Pelican Brief, The Client, The Chamber, and The Rainmaker - best-sellers all. (With the publication of his 1995 novel, The Rainmaker, the author could claim over 50,000,000 copies of his books in print.) And motion pictures all, filmed or about to be, even his least known and the one many still consider his best writing, A Time to Kill.
The first book to be filmed, The Firm, had a ready-made audience. So it was natural that it would do well at the box office. The story was not kept intact, however, and many moviegoers were surprised (and some disappointed) to find the ending changed from the one in the book. But huge crowds still turned out over the Christmas 1993, holiday season to watch Tom Cruise
flee from the mob. The basic plot was unchanged: top-of-his-class Harvard grad accepts cushy job from prestigious Memphis law firm after numerous perks - money, car, house, trips - are dangled before his besotted eyes. The only catch to winning this lottery is that he's now married to the mob. The dream firm is a money-laundering front for the Mafia. Once he stumbles onto their dirty little secret, it's "run for your life" time, a typical theme in most Grisham novels.
Although critics bemoaned the film's deviations from the book, audiences enjoyed the thrilling run-and-jump action, as well as the impressive cast. Gene Hackman played Cruise's mentor; Jeanne Tripplehorn (future co-star of Kevin Costner's Waterworld
, 1995) played Cruise's savvy wife; Hal Holbrook played a not-to-type corrupt partner in the firm, while Holly Hunter put on her best southern accent to play his secretary/ally in his stand against corruption. Hunter's performance caught the attention of the Academy
, who nominated her for Best Supporting Actress.
Most of the film was shot on location in Memphis, a typical Grisham setting, with local members of the legal profession providing some of the nonspeaking talent. There were no law firms, however, with the opulence required by the script, so John Willett, the film's art director, created his own in the old International Harvester plant, strewing his sets with rich mahogany furniture and moldings, antique oriental carpets, and lots of marble. To further add to the look of success, 40,000 books, filling three tractor-trailers, were trucked down to Memphis. It took two full days for ten people just to set up the books on the shelves. Many of these tomes, rented from the West Publishing Company, were seasoned movie veterans, having appeared in such recent law-related films as The Verdict, Presumed Innocent, and Other People's Money.