For years people have been comparing film and literature. These two genres have been doggedly competing since the first book came out as a movie. John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is no different. This heart wrenching novel was just as popular in its film version produced by Arnon Milchan. Though extremely similar, there are a variety of artistic differences between them, but both capture the same dark tale.
John Grisham had no idea that he would become a bestselling author of numerous books including A Time to Kill. He was born on February 8, 1955 in Jonesboro, Arkansas. In his younger years, he hoped of becoming a professional baseball player. He later changed his mind and attended Mississippi State University where he majored in accounting. Heading in another direction, Grisham buckled down to study law. He then got a job practicing in Southaven specializing in criminal defense and personal injury litigation. After being elected to the state House of Representatives in 1983, John began a career writing novels in addition to holding his political position. He currently splits his time between his wife and two children while still writing and practicing law.
John Grisham now has over 275 million books in print worldwide, each of them an international best seller. All of his success stems back from his very first book, A Time to Kill. He got the idea for the novel while listening to the testimony of a young rape victim. Grisham started forming his book around the idea of the girl’s father murdering his daughter’s attackers. For the next three years, John woke up at five a.m. daily to spend a couple hours writing this novel before going to work. Once he had the book completed, he was turned down by numerous publishers. It was finally sold and printed by Wynwood Press in June of 1988. Its popularity grew with the success of Grisham’s succeeding novels.
The book begins in the small town of Clanton, Mississippi with the brutal rape of Tonya Hailey, a ten year old African American girl. She is placed in critical condition after being found dumped near a creek in what was the last of several attempts to end her life. Tonya was vaguely able to describe her attackers and ask for her father before falling unconscious due to her life threatening injuries. The county sheriff, Ozzie Walls, is quickly able to identify and apprehend the two white men who assaulted her, throwing them in the county jail and setting them up with an immediate date in court.
The case becomes instantaneously infamous, drawing huge crowds for the boys’ trial. In the midst of the mayhem, Carl Lee, Tonya’s father, confronts Jake Brigance, a young white lawyer with a good reputation. He wants to know what Jake would do if anyone raped his daughter and lets on to his plans of seeking revenge. True to his word, Carl Lee publicly kills the men as they are being lead out of the court house after their bail hearing. He is quietly taken into custody due to the controversy already buzzing around the town. Jake feels compelled to represent his friend especially since he would have felt compelled to do the same if their roles had been reversed.
Carl Lee’s case causes a buzz across the country and attracts vast media attention. As the seriousness of the trial grows, both sides begin taking immediate action. The small southern town suddenly finds that they have been noticed by more than just the media. The Ku Klux Klan regains a foothold in the south and terrorizes anyone involved in the case. On Carl Lee’s side, the NAACP swoops in and throws around money to try to get him to allow a big shot lawyer from the North to replace Jake.
With the tension growing, the Klan goes as far to plant a bomb that destroys Jake’s house. Realizing how deep he is already in this mess, he decides to hold nothing back, fully committing himself to Carl Lee’s case with the help of his old boss and a young female law student. At the brink of the trial, both sides step up their antics. The Klan attacks Jake’s secretary causing her husband to die of a heart attack. They also target his interning law student, Ellen. Some of the Klan’s members begin to question their actions ultimately resulting in the death of their leader. All of this chaos escalates despite the National Guard being called in to Clanton due to the uprisings caused by the trial.
The trial is held, pending of Carl Lee’s plea of insanity. The case is thrown another twist when both sides’ psychiatrists are discredited. With the verdict up in the air along with all of the evidence, the outcome seems to rely on the closing arguments. Jake rests his case after emotionally reminding them about the reason the crime was committed. The jury argues endlessly for days, but one particular woman advocates for a non guilty verdict. She asks them to make the same decision that they would make if the little girl had been white, ending the book with Carl Lee’s acquittal.
As the book’s popularity grew over the years, Arnon Milchan decided to help produce the film version in 1996. Originally born in Tel Aviv, Palestine on December 6, 1944, Milchan got his start by producing plays for the Israeli stage. Over time, he has become a very successful American movie producer. He has taken part in many iconic films, including Pretty Woman and Fight Club. Now living in Los Angeles, he has three children with a former model, two of whom are also in the movie business.
This movie was filmed entirely in Clanton, Mississippi, where the book took place. The town has a museum with props and other memorabilia from the making of the movie. They also preserved the sets and buildings used in the filming process that are now open to the public. The town offers guided tours that provide behind the scenes information about the production of “A Time to Kill.”
The film also begins with Carl Lee Hailey’s daughter being viciously attacked by two white rednecks. She is found near death and rushed to the hospital where her family is called to gather. The local sheriff quickly deducts the identity of the attackers, arresting them considerably soon after the girl is discovered. The local African American community is outraged by the attack and gathers to show their support for the Hailey’s by congregating in large numbers at the trial.
The young and extremely handsome Jake Brigance also makes an appearance to show his support for the Hailey family on the day of the trial. He is approached afterwards by Carl Lee who is clearly disturbed by everything that has happened. He asks Jake about a resent case where a group of white boys went unpunished after raping a black girl. Then they have a serious conversation about Carl Lee wanting to kill the men on trial. Jake is both shocked and understanding when he actually goes through with it, murdering his daughter’s attackers in the basement of the court house.
Soon after, the sheriff stops by to arrest Carl Lee who is spending his last free minutes with his daughter. Jake is also quickly brought to the county jail where he agrees to be Mr. Hailey’s lawyer. The locals are all stunned by the events taking place in their small town and even more thrown off by the sudden publicity. The NAACP and other African American leaders quickly arrive and try to convince Carl Lee of allowing them to provide his lawyer. He tells them off, upset that they lied, telling people that the money they were raising would be going to support his family.
Jake’s wife is upset that he took the case, even more so when they start receiving death threats. She decides to leave with their daughter when her husband refuses to drop the case. Now seemingly alone, with nothing to devote his time to but the case, Jake turns to his old adviser, Lucien. He is also surprised when Ellen, a prestigious young law student, practically demands to help him with Carl Lee’s trial. They help dig through old cases and investigate potential jurors to aid Jake’s cause.
The Ku Klux Klan also becomes very active, reawakened by the murder of the white boys. They attempt to place a bomb under Jake’s porch, but end up starting a fire with a burning cross when they are not successful. They also kidnap, beat, and abandon Ellen outside of town the night before the trial. The next day, they all show up at the court house where a riot breaks out between Carl Lee’s supporters and the Klan.
Despite the havoc throughout the town, the trial continues with Carl Lee pleading insanity. Lucien brings in an old friend to support this claim, but he ends up being discredited due to a previous relationship with a minor. Luckily, Jake is also able to discredit the state’s psychiatrist who has found every patient in his history to be sane. Jake is able to sway the jury with his moving closing arguments by asking them to picture Carl Lee’s daughter as white. When Carl Lee is acquitted, Jake brings his family out to his house so that both men’s daughters can play together in the final moments of the film.
The book and movie version of this emotional story are both very similar to one another. The story told in each of them is extremely similar. The setting is also carefully and accurately portrayed through both versions. The detail in the town and even the court house scenery were all painstakingly followed in the movie to have the same effect as the descriptiveness of the book. All of the aspects were very spot on, especially the time sensitive features such as the clothing, vehicles, and architecture of the time. These effects collectively created authenticity as well as a connection between the movie and book.
The plot was also very accurate throughout both versions. Most of the events in the film directly corresponded back to the plot of the book. They each opened with the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter, followed by the timely arrest of her attackers. Carl Lee also told Jake of his plans to murder the men on trial in the two different versions. The coverage of the Ku Klux Klan’s involvement throughout the trial along with the NAACP was similar in both cases as well. The book and movie each use the mob scene outside of the court house to escalate the plot even further, heightening the climax of both. The overall story line was approximately equivalent in the film and book.
The characters throughout each version also maintain many similar qualities. In both, Jake is stubbornly determined to give this case his all despite the numerous threats to his own life. He is devoted to his family, but not so much that he can avoid doing what is right. Sheriff Ozzie is also consistently good hearted yet tough as his position requires him to be. His character struggles with separating his opinions from his position in each adaptation. Lucien maintains his love of law and liquor along with his other reoccurring missteps in both the book and film as well. All of these combine to give both a serious and heavy mood along with the shared theme of justice.
Although the two versions have a majority of things in common, there are a handful of differences that set them apart. Most of these variations are in the events that occur throughout the movie. In the film, Carl Lee asks about four white boys who never even did jail time in a rape case. Also unique to the movie is Carl Lee’s arrest at the hospital instead of his home. Naturally many events in the book had to be left out for practical purposes. In the book, Sheriff Ozzie uses an informant to find and get evidence on the men who raped Tonya. They left out Carl Lee picking up the gun from a friend in Memphis as well. Probably most significant is the difference in how Carl Lee was acquitted. A juror forces the others to imagine the rape, but with a white girl in Tonya’s place, in order to get the others to vote not guilty in the book. In the movie, Jake gives that same speech to the jury in his closing argument to sway them for the acquittal of Carl Lee.
There are also a variety of differences throughout the characters from the film to the book. Ellen plays a much more pivotal role throughout the movie than was originally written. She takes over much more than she initially assisted. Carl Lee’s character is also significantly different between the two versions. In the film, he remains solemn throughout the case, knowing the magnitude of his situation. His actions in the book are much less thought through and his faith in Jake openly wavers as well. He is not as content to sit there while his fate is being determined by strangers in a court room.
There are always going to be details from books that have to be withheld for the sake of the practicality of the movie. Some aspects of a novel just can not be translated into a film. The viewpoint, for one, switches from person to person allowing for more insight and significance to be shed on some of the lesser characters throughout the book. This especially emphasizes the importance of the judges and jurors that is not relayed through the film’s viewpoint. It also allocates for more light hearted moments, which were rather rare throughout this story, permitting the focus to abscond from the trial at times. These fine points allow the book to pertain more around the lives of the vital characters, instead of being solely focused on the trial as it is in the movie.
No matter what, there will always be differences between books and movies, just as there will always be people comparing literature to and films. The never ending battle between these two genres makes comparing the two all the more interesting. Despite their differences, both versions do the tragic story justice in A Time to Kill.
“A Time to Kill.” Canton Movie Museums. Canton Convention and Visitors Bureau, n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2012.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson. Warner Bros., 1996. Videocassette.
“Arnon Milchan Biography (1944-).” Film Reference. Advameg, Inc., n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2012.
“Bio.” John Grisham. Doubleday, Random House, Inc., n.d. Web. 03 Sept. 2012.
Grisham, John. A Time to Kill. New York: Wynwood, 1988. Print.