I was hoping that the film version would take all the things that was wrong with the book and omit them, making it a more concise and engaging story. And in some ways, it does. The character of Carl Lee Hailey is one that greatly benefits from the movie version (as if Samuel L. Jackson could disappoint, am I right?), but a lot of the other characters actually get worse.
The biggest disappointment to me was Jake Brigance as played by Matthew McConaughey. I didn’t tip toe around how much I disliked the character in the book version, and I was hoping for a really interesting portrayal from McConaughey. The screenwriter even tries to give Jake more of a stake in the trial itself, because while Jake tips off Sheriff Walls in the book about Hailey’s plan to kill the boys that raped his daughter, in the film he doesn’t – and he admits that he didn’t say anything because he was secretly hoping Hailey would go through with it. I recently read something about unlikeable characters in fiction and have thought about it a lot in regards to this book/film. I don’t necessarily need to like Jake to enjoy the story, or even identify with him. I need to be interested in his story. But he is so one-dimensional and archetypical that I find it hard to really figure out what he is about. And that is the failing here.
Kevin Spacey’s Rufus Buckley was so mustache-twirly that it would be almost laughable if it wasn’t so sad. Now, Kevin Spacey is a brilliant actor, and no one can dispute this. (Well, some people can.) But the dialogue was cringe-worthy. One scene in particular made me roll my eyes so hard. When we are first introduced to the district attorney, he gives us the exposition style dialogue that couldn’t be more blatantly talking down to the audience if they had tried.
“First, Brigance will file for a change of venue.”
“He’d be a fool not to.”
“Why? Should we tell our young, uninformed law clerk the reality of jurisprudence?”
Really? The only way this could be more blatant is if he followed that with “Here is some exposition for you!” I wasn’t really a fan of Spacey’s fake accent either. Either play it straight or get a real Southern person in there.
In general, however, the movie gets the point across better than the book did, for sure. Books are generally longer than the movies they inspire, and so lots of things need to be cut. And there was a lot of filler in this book that could easily go. There are certain things that lend a little context or nuance to the book that isn’t present in the movie, but they pretty much hit all the important stuff, and even found time to add in a bunch of random, unnecessary things. They decided to make Brigance and Roark have sexual tension and even address it in a couple of scenes, which are not in the book as such. I could probably write an entire post just on the relationship between these two characters, but I’m mostly just happy they decided to let Sandra Bullock wear a bra.
The KKK subplot is handled differently here, and I think I found it slightly more satisfying. I think Grisham had anticipated writing more stories about Ford County (as he pretty much admits to in the introduction to the edition of A Time To Kill that I read), and abandoned the idea when his “legal thrillers” sold more copies, and perhaps the KKK would show up in another Jake story, which they sort of do in Sycamore Row. In the film, there is a rogue cop on the KKK side, and somehow Sheriff Walls figures that out off screen, because he makes it clear at the end when he confronts the other instigators.
One of the casting head-scratchers was why they chose to cast both Donald and Kiefer Sutherland in fairly major parts but not have them be related to each other. You would have to be pretty blind not to notice how much they resemble each other. Donald is the alcoholic mentor and former lawyer and Kiefer is the white trash brother of one of the rapists.
Finally, I think the late Roger Ebert said it best in his review of the film, which goes double for the book:
One wonders why more screen time wasn’t found for black characters like Hailey’s wife. Maybe the answer is that the movie is interested in the white characters as people and the black characters (apart from Carl Lee Hailey) as atmosphere. My advice to the filmmakers about the black people in town: Try imagining they’re white.