How hard can it be to turn a best-selling novel like John Grisham’s The Firm, a page-turner that has kept millions of readers up late at night, into a top-grossing movie that sold nearly $74 million worth of tickets in its first 12 days of release? Harder than it might seem.
When producers John Davis and Scott Rudin first acquired Grisham’s 1991 novel about an upwardly mobile lawyer who unwittingly signs on with a Mafia- connected law firm, they figured the story was a natural, and so did Paramount Pictures. But as Rudin and Davis watched the book climb the best- seller list, trepidation set in. ”There was a very thin line between success and failure,” says Davis. ”On one side of that line sits Bonfire of the Vanities, saying the readers of the book will destroy you if you disappoint them.”
If Paramount had pushed ahead with its original plans, The Firm might have looked dramatically different. At one point it offered the project to director Lili Fini Zanuck and actor Jason Patric (who worked together on Rush). The first version of the script, by David Rabe (Streamers, Casualties of War), called for an explosive finale in which the novel’s hero, Mitch McDeere, wreaks vengeance on the firm with a machine gun. Commercially, the movie might well have been thrown out of court.
Envisioning a more prestigious production, Rudin and Davis executed an unauthorized end run around the studio. In fall 1991 they visited Tom Cruise on the Culver City, Calif., set of A Few Good Men and offered him the chance both to star in and direct The Firm. Cruise wasn’t interested in making his feature directorial debut with such a tricky adaptation but indicated he might agree to star. With that tentative promise in hand, the producers were able to stall the studio until they could persuade director Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa, Havana) to oversee the difficult transformation of book into movie.
At first, the angst-prone director wasn’t at all confident. ”I read the book and thought it would be a miserably difficult translation. It was long and also a complicated story with a lot of characters,” he admits. ”I thought it would be hard to find filmic equivalents for things that read very, very well.” Says a source close to the production, ”Rabe’s screenplay captured the first part of the book, especially Mitch’s love for the law. But it was too dark — Mitch’s wife was raped and his brother was killed.”
Pollack set aside Rabe’s script, as well as a subsequent version commissioned by the producers and written by Dan Pyne (Doc Hollywood). With collaborator David Rayfiel (Three Days of the Condor, Havana), he began to rethink the story — beginning with the book’s ambiguous take-the-money-and-run ending. ”I didn’t want to do a film about a couple of yuppies who end up just as crooked as everybody else,” says Pollack. ”I wanted to take the character of Mitch back to what he was at the beginning — dirt poor but at least he’s got his own life back.”
As Pollack played with ideas on his computer, Rayfiel suggested further revisions. Reluctant to make the Mafia the villains, he toyed with introducing a BCCI-inspired cabal of international bankers before realizing that was ”a false lead.” Pollack and Rayfiel also toyed with changing the sex of Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman), Mitch’s mentor at the firm. ”It’s very hard to create romance between a husband and wife on film,” says Pollack. ”So we discussed making one of the lawyers a woman. That way, instead of the firm seducing him only spiritually, it would seduce him literally.” When word leaked to the press, where it was reported that Avery would be played by Meryl Streep, the uproar from the book’s loyalists convinced them to drop the idea.
”Instead,” says Pollack, ”we decided to get as much mileage out of the husband-and-wife story as we could. We decided to have Mitch confess his infidelity, which he didn’t do in the book. Once we had that estrangement, we had a little more going on.”
Filming had to begin by last fall, but Rayfiel was contending with a torn retina, and Pollack still hadn’t figured out how to get the movie to the end he wanted. When script doctor and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown), a neighbor of Pollack’s in Pacific Palisades, dropped by for a drink one afternoon, Pollack and Rayfiel poured out their frustrations. Towne found himself caught up in the challenge.
”If you were Mitch McDeere,” says Towne, ”what could you do to maintain your ability to practice law — because you wouldn’t want to give that up — and yet satisfy the FBI without betraying your clients?” He took his quandary to a couple of relatives in the business — Pasadena attorney John Gaule and Honolulu trial lawyer John Edmunds — who suggested two white-collar crimes that became central to the film: overbilling and mail fraud.
Other inspiration came from the oddest of places: Recalling how Ruth Buzzi’s old lady used to wallop Arte Johnson’s dirty old man with her handbag on TV’s Laugh-In, Towne suggested that Mitch should foil one of the villains with his briefcase. Towne and Rayfiel worked out a unique collaboration: ”We were like two taxi drivers Bob took the night shift and I handled the day shift,” laughs Rayfiel. (Nevertheless, following a Writers Guild arbitration, Rabe was awarded a cowriting credit.)
Eventually, Pollack and company arrived at their desired destination. Although Grisham’s fans may debate The Firm‘s altered third act, no one has complained that it’s a Bonfire-like desecration. Still, when Pollack first spied Grisham at the film’s Memphis premiere, it was almost as if he were reenacting the suspenseful scene in which Mitch confronts a roomful of the firm’s forbidding partners. Pollack needn’t have worried. Grisham, reports the relieved director, ”was happy as a clam.”