The big-screen version of The Firm, the first of John Grisham’s novels to be adapted for film, was released 20 years ago this week. The movie was a major success both critically and commercially, and its popularity not only made John Grisham a household name, it also ushered in the era of legal thrillers. Grisham was the king of the genre, and his first seven novels were all made into movies before the legal thriller went out of fashion. To celebrate, here’s a ranking of the eight films adapted from Grisham’s books (minus the TV adaptation of A Painted House, a coming-of-age drama, and Christmas With the Kranks — for obvious reasons).
8. The Chamber (1996)
John Grisham, having already hit it big in the movie adaptation business with The Firm, The Pelican Brief, and The Client, didn’t even bother to finish writing The Chamber before selling the film rights. The result? A pandering dud of a movie that hardly resembles the book on which it is based.
7. The Gingerbread Man (1998)
Based on an unpublished manuscript (already we’ve got a bad sign), The Gingerbread Man boasts an impressive cast (Kenneth Branagh, Robert Duvall, Daryl Hannah, and Tom Berenger) and an even more important director: film legend Robert Altman. The result, however, is a mixed bag, especially since the producers re-cut the film against Altman’s wishes.
6. Runaway Jury (2003)
Gene Hackman returned for his second dose of Grisham, this time joining John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz for a thriller in which con artists try to sell a verdict in a high-profile case (in the novel, the case centered around the tobacco industry; here, it’s a suit against a firearms manufacturer).
5. A Time to Kill (1996)
John Grisham’s first novel caught Hollywood’s attention after the success of The Firm, and its populist, To Kill a Mockingbird-borrowing take on race relations in the modern South made it a box office hit. Of course, while it includes the great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson, it’s also as uncomfortably supportive of vigilante justice as it’s a pretty sophomoric treatise about race.
4. The Pelican Brief (1993)
Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington star in this thriller about a young law student who cracks open a government conspiracy that led to the murders of two Supreme Court justices. It’s pretty light fare, but as far as legal thrillers it offers a realistic, yet surprising, plot and great performances from its two stars.
3. The Client (1994)
Susan Sarandon nabbed an Oscar nomination for her role as a tough-as-nails Louisiana lawyer (as if there were any kind) named Reggie Love who takes on a young boy sought after by the mob after learning the whereabouts of a murdered senator’s body. It’s also features Mary-Louise Parker, who basically should have trademarked her shitty Southern mother character.
2. The Firm (1993)
The one that started it all: Tom Cruise plays the newest member of an exclusive law firm that, as it turns out, is run by crooked lawyers. Surprise! Holly Hunter delivers the standout performance here, with Gary Busey thrown in for good measure.
1. The Rainmaker (1997)
Francis Ford Coppola directed this ensemble piece about a young pro-bono lawyer (Matt Damon) who takes on a major case against a corrupt health insurance company while managing to rescue a young woman (Claire Danes) from her abusive husband. It’s a heart-warming underdog story that, thanks to the direction and affecting performances, never feels sloppily patronizing.