John Grisham adaptations were box office gold for a period in the 90s – but, as Simon Brew discovers, it all came to a halt by the end of the decade.

Both on the bookshelves and the big screen in the 90s, John Grisham was box office. Off the back of the huge success of his sophomore novel, The Firm, he became one of the biggest-selling fiction authors of the decade. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to take notice. The film adaptation of The Firm attracted a high-power cast – led by Tom Cruise – and was one of the biggest hits of 1993 (finding space in the summer of Jurassic Park). Furthermore, a string of films based on Grisham books – The Pelican Brief, The Client, A Time To Kill – continued to generate box office dollars, and no shortage of them.

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In the midst of this run of success, a previously unpublished Grisham story bubbled to the surface. He’d penned the manuscript of a story called The Gingerbread Man, which followed an attorney having a one-night stand with a waitress. A waitress he then discovers is being stalked, but his actions to redress this then have ramifications. That’s a spoiler-light plot overview.

The option to make a film had been bought in 1991, before Grisham became huge, with producer Jeremy Tannenbaum purchasing the rights. His desire to turn it into a film then understandably accelerated when Grisham became Hollywood’s next big thing.

Ignition

Grisham went on to pen several drafts of the screenplay for the feature, and Polygram – flushed with the success of Four Weddings And A Funeral for one – picked up the project. It then managed to lure Kenneth Branagh to take the lead in the film. Branagh’s condition for saying yes was that the movie needed a respected director. Furthermore, as he told Entertainment Weekly, the story in the state it was at the point he committed “was generic, and had been done before”. Changes would have to be made.

An offer duly went out to director Robert Altman to see if he was interested. Altman had – of course – built his reputation off the back of M*A*S*H, Nashville and McCabe & Mrs Miller, amongst others. Then, after a bumpy patch, he’d soared back to the top of many lists thanks to his early 90s successes with The Player and Short Cuts. Polygram offered Altman the project, and – intrigued having never directed a thriller before – he signed on.

Altman, though, wanted changes made. Renowned as an auteur, he and Branagh both wanted the lead character to be more of a flawed hero. The rewrites Altman thus undertook himself were significant, to the point where his pseudonym – Al Hayes – gets the sole screenplay credit on the finished picture. Not that it sounded like John Grisham wanted it. The author moved away from the project, and as Altman told EW, “I never talked to him or met him … I wouldn’t know him if he fell in my soup”.

Production

The film was duly shot, with Embeth Davidtz taking on the other lead role in the feature. At first, Polygram was enthused at the test audience reactions to what Altman had done with it. In conversation with Robert Emery for the book The Directors Take Three, Altman notes “we kept a kind of conventional satisfactory wrap-up ending to it. When the studio tested the film [in an early state] they liked it and got all fired up over it”.

And why wouldn’t it? 1996’s A Time To Kill had been the latest hit based on a Grisham text – at one stage even gathering Oscar buzz – whilst Kenneth Branagh was at the same time also attracting Academy interest for his ambitious screen adaptation of Hamlet.

Altman’s final cut didn’t go down as well, though. It tested okay, but nowhere near as well as hoped, with the objection coming back “about the morality of this character who was married and screws this other girl on the first night he meets her. That’s what started all the problems”.

It would be fair to say that Altman did not take this feedback happily. “I told them they couldn’t have a test audience come in and give me a lesson in morality,” he said. “I told them not to pay attention to that audience.” Yet Polygram did. And when it arranged further test screenings that were getting the same reaction, Altman did make some changes to the film, all to no avail.

It was just after that that he learned the film was being taken away from him.

“They were firing my editor and bringing in another to recut it,” he recalled. It was the first time this had ever happened to him during his career, but Polygram had the contractual upper hand. “The guy they hired to do the editing was a president of the Editors Guild… I told him that I really didn’t think he should do this. I told him I thought it was bad form and all he would get out of it was a couple weeks’ salary,” said Altman.

Chops and changes

The unnamed editor went ahead and recut it anyway.

In the background of all of this, the Grisham infallible box office run was stumbling. Film adaptations of The Chamber and The Rainmaker – the latter directed by Francis Ford Coppola – had fallen a long way short of The Firm’s numbers. Meanwhile, the new cut of The Gingerbread Man was now testing worse. Altman wasn’t having any of it, and he contacted the Director’s Guild of America to get his name taken off the picture.

But then Polygram blinked: Altman got a call telling him he could have the film back if he made certain changes. He refused the conditions, yet it ultimately gave him the film back anyway.

Unbeknownst to Altman, Polygram had decided to cut its losses. He completed his edit, and the film was finally released in 1998, with John Grisham nowhere near the publicity of it. Reviews were good too, and in the small number of cinemas it made it to the inside of, the box office was quite good.

But Polygram had only struck a small number of prints of the movie. Cinemas that wanted to book it reportedly couldn’t get hold of it. The film thus had little chance to build up its word of mouth, as even if lots of people had suddenly surged to get a ticket, there was pretty much nowhere to see it. The UK release too was, at the very best, incredibly modest.

As Altman told Emery for his book, “I heard directly from someone who worked over at Polygram that the head honcho said he wanted the picture buried.” This has never been proven, should any no-fee lawyers be reading.

Altman added that “by the time the picture came out, everyone knew the story about how they tried to take the picture from me then gave it back when their plan didn’t work. So it became an embarrassment to them that they hadn’t succeeded without me, and it really made them mad. ”

Again, none of this was ever proven.

DOA

What was clear was that the film’s release was minimal, and the resultant feature has been all but forgotten. The late Altman lamented in particular that one of the big losers in all of it was Embeth Davidtz, whose performance in the movie he was a huge fan of. “That should have been a step up in her career, ” he said. “Instead, because of the way the studio handled it, it was a detriment to her.”

The Gingerbread Man is available on DVD and on demand for those who remain curious. For Grisham, though, it would be the last time one of his stories was on the big screen until 2003’s The Runaway Jury. And the year after came the final movie adaptation of his work to date, Christmas With The Kranks.

He’s still writing, of course. But it seems his interest in the movies has long since waned…

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