Once upon a time, Ron Howard was going to direct The Chamber, based on an as-yet unwritten John Grisham book – but a lot changed in the years that followed.

The late screenwriter William Goldman wrote some terrific books about the movies as well as Oscar-winning scripts, but in his 2000 tome Which Lie Did I Tell?, the near-500 page paperback edition had barely 100 words on his experience making 1996’s The Chamber. The $40m John Grisham adaptation had been expected to be a huge hit, but as Goldman wrote, he pretty much left it out of the book “because “it was a terrible experience, it wasn’t a very interesting one, and besides I never saw the movie and neither did anyone else, so no one would give a shit”.

He’s to the point, but wasn’t far wrong.

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At the point Universal Pictures bought the film rights to Grisham’s novel, his fifth, it looked like a smart investment. In fact, there was no shortage of other major studios sniffing around. Grisham was box office.

Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer persuaded the studio to shell out a record $3.75m for the book. A sound investment on the surface, given that the films of Grisham’s first four books were all hits: The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief and A Time To Kill (even though not all of those were out when Universal did its deal).

The problem though, and it was a teeny tiny one, was that Grisham hadn’t written a word of the book before the cheque was written. He knew that the idea was: a murder, a death sentence, a race against time for justice. But that’s a long way from a finished manuscript. Originally, it was a love story too, with a very different ending.

Still, before things went wrong, this was being geared up to be a Ron Howard-directed project, and that gave Grisham confidence – especially when Howard was zeroing in on Brad Pitt to play the young lead (and Marlon Brando’s name was mentioned to play opposite him). Grisham didn’t have a contract with script and director approval, but it was hard to grumble when Goldman (Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriter) and Howard were mooted for the project.

In July 1994, Goldman, Grisham (pictured) and Howard even did a tour of Mississippi’s Parchman Prison, and in particular its gas chamber. It was a 48 hour intense trip, where the conversation was directed on how to best bring The Chamber to the big screen.

But the problems began when Ron Howard’s head was turned. He had to choose which of two thrillers he had on his slate to make, and he jumped ship – wisely – to make Ransom with Mel Gibson instead.

With Howard gone, Brad Pitt was gone too. Still, the project was ready to go, Universal was keen to press ahead, but needed another director for The Chamber. There was reportedly a little bit of a list, and as per an Entertainment Weekly report in its October 18th 1996 issue, eventual helmer James Foley wasn’t top of it – although at least he was on it. He’d won acclaim himself for helming Glengarry Glen Ross, and had form in thrillers thanks to the-then incoming Fear.

Grazer sounded him out, Foley said yes.

High profile names were still circling the film too. Jack Nicholson was talked about, Val Kilmer was even announced at one point. But it was at this point Chris O’Donnell – immediately pre-Batman Forever – signed on for one of the lead roles in the film, and Gene Hackman agreed to play opposite him.  Faye Dunaway said yes as well. A quality cast was coming together.

A bit of script polishing work was undertaken by Phil Alden Robinson (of Field Of Dreams and Sneakers vintage, who would end up so unhappy with the film he went under a pseudonym on its credits), and it seemed everything was ready to go. James Foley opted to make the trip to Mississippi as well, as part of his own research.

And after that, everything changed.

As that aforementioned EW article noted, Foley returned with an enthusiasm to rewrite the script himself. It would be fair to say that this was the part where the movie and John Grisham started to drift apart. By this stage, Grisham had already, in his words, “got some unsolicited vibes on how to write … some of the studio people had ideas about what should be in the book, and it was infuriating”.

The studio wasn’t best pleased either. It thought it had bought a standard Grisham thriller, one that was sold to it as having a love story element. The eventual narrative of the book – no spoilers – wasn’t what Hollywood was looking for. And not just because the love story element was nowhere to be found in the final text.

If Grisham’s book had gone against what Hollywood wanted, Foley’s rewrite firmly divested from Grisham’s view of it all too. In particular, the author objected heavily to the f-bombs that were now present in the script. Foley had sent a copy of his draft to Grisham a week before the start of production, with a note that this was still going to changed. Grisham hit the roof.

The four films based on his books to that point Grisham had been a keen supporter of. In the case of The Chamber, he cut all ties with it pretty much there and then. For future movie deals, and there have been fewer, Grisham has since insisted on director, cast and script approval as a very basic (although he did actually have that on earlier films).

The Chamber still moved forward though, and Universal was hopeful – in spite of the fact that the material was much darker than it had hoped – that it had a commercial project on its hands. When Batman Forever hit, it’s easy to forget just how in-demand O’Donnell was for instance. And here was his first big leading role, sandwiched in-between two Batman films. Universal had reason to be confident. It was set to follow another high profile John Grisham adaptation that was due a few months earlier – A Time To Kill – and when that hit big for Warner Bros, few expected The Chamber to dramatically stumble.

Which is exactly what it did.

Hindered by dour reviews – and not unfairly – the movie debuted in the US in October 1996, and opened to just $5.6m of business. To add insult to it, Ron Howard’s Ransom would trundle along a month or two later and be one of the biggest hits of the season.

But The Chamber neither had the box office juice to cover production costs (it topped out at $22.5m worldwide) nor the acclaim to get it even sniffing the piss of an Oscar nomination. It didn’t help that Grisham’s displeasure with the way the project had gone was headline news as it headed towards release. “Foley changed everything”, Brian Grazer said in a piece the week before it was out. “Some of it was fine by me, some of it wasn’t. Grisham got wind of it and wasn’t happy”.

Everybody moved on, and fast. Brian Grazer’s original hope for at least a $40m US box office return was gone. The project went off into Hollywood history.

One footnote, though. Unlike William Goldman, who elected not to see the finished film, John Grisham did watch it. His quotes did not make it to the poster. He would ultimately describe the film as a “train wreck”, the worst adaptation of any of his films, and would reflect to EW that “I made a fundamental error when I sold the film rights before I finished writing the book. It was a dreadful movie. Gene Hackman was the only good thing in it”.

And that was a quote that never made the DVD cover either…

John Grisham image: BigStock

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