By Glenn Kenny
Updated December 23, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

What would air travel be like without John Grisham? His books are such fine plane reading-fast-paced legal thrillers, not too much to digest over a cross-country flight. And once finished, they leave no icky residue on the sensibility of the reader.

If his frequent-flyer audience were Grisham’s sole readership, the guardians of Literature would have nothing to lose sleep over. But he seems to have fans who are truly passionate about his work and hold that it has something to say about the way we live today, beyond the neo-yuppie moral observations that leaven his carrot-and-stick plot machinations. What else could explain the fact that some moviegoers complained that Hollywood messed up its adaptation of The Firm — the first Grisham blockbuster to hit the big screen — by modifying its ending? As gripping as Grisham’s tomes are, his prose rarely gets past Expository 101, and his attempts at characterization are on the level of a ”Special Interests and Abilities” section on a resume. It’s not as if Hollywood is desecrating the work of a real writer — someone like oh…I don’t know, Anne Rice?

In any event, Hollywood’s adulteration of the 100-proof Grisham worldview certainly hasn’t kept people away from his movies. The first two filmed Grishams, The Firm and The Pelican Brief, were box office and video hits, and the latest to arrive on tape, The Client, did well theatrically even though it starred two actors usually better loved by critics than by the larger public. Clearly, Grisham’s the draw no matter whose names are above the title.

As put forth in The Firm and The Client, Grisham’s great theme is that both organized crime and the law-enforcement groups that battle it can be equally hazardous to the health of anyone caught between them. In The Firm, it’s bright, ambitious young lawyer Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise, who’s hired by a firm that launders money for the Mob (unbeknownst to him, of course, at first) and is then, unluckily, buttonholed by the FBI, which wants him to help bring the company down. Add to that the fact that the firm has been known to off some of its too-inquisitive employees, and you’ve got both rock and hard place immovably established.

What’s most interesting about Sydney Pollack’s version of The Firm is how the often competent director manages to botch every opportunity for suspense Grisham’s story offers. The film’s climax, in which McDeere flees from the firm’s security goons, is amazing in its failure to show any spatial relationship between the pursuers and the pursued — you can’t much care that the bad guys are closing in when you don’t know where anyone is. Whatever watchability The Firm has derives from its supporting cast — a nice turn by Gene Hackman as a dissolute partner, against-type casting of Wilfred Brimley as a heavy, and so on.

The Pelican Brief isn’t much better, and this time it is partly Grisham’s fault. Working on a grander scale that appraises corruption in very high places (the book starts off with the assassinations of two Supreme Court Justices), he concocts a mystery that anybody who follows the court reporting in The New York Times could solve, then creates a world in which only brilliant law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) has the brains to suss it out. While the casting of Denzel Washington represented a substantial departure from the way Grisham envisioned investigative reporter Gray Grantham, having Roberts play Shaw was certainly an ace in the hole. Problem: In the book, Grantham and Shaw end up a couple, but since Hollywood isn’t terribly comfortable with interracial couples, what should have been the movie’s central relationship remains tentative at best. With no emotional core, the plot turns seem even more ridiculous than they are, and Alan J. Pakula’s humorless, heavy-handed direction provides the ash icing on this 16-ton concrete cake.

Given Hollywood’s 0-for-2 Grisham record, it’s a shock that The Client is a pleasure, which is something I never expected to say about a movie directed by Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Falling Down). Certainly the lead performances by Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones help, but they’re not all The Client has to offer; it is solid all the way through. The client is a poor preteen (Brad Renfro) who, having witnessed the suicide of a Mob lawyer who spilled his guts before blowing his brains out, seeks the help, protection, and eventually the friendship of lawyer Reggie Love (Sarandon). The writing and pacing are brisk, the relationships are thoroughly and even movingly developed, and the acting is uniformly excellent, except for Mary-Louise Parker’s showy turn as the boy’s put-upon-nouveau-white-trash mother. Yes, this film, too, takes liberties with the book — the first thing Grisham mentions about Love is her solid gray hair, while Sarandon’s mane retains its trademark blaze — but so what? At least it delivers the cinematic analog of a Grisham book-delivers more, actually, since the performances make the characters resonate in a way that Grisham’s flat prose (”with tired eyes, no makeup, and wet hair, she was beautiful”) can never quite manage. Unlike The Pelican Brief and The Firm, The Client offers an improvement on the original rather than a series of lame compromises on a work that comes with plenty of its own included. The Firm and The Pelican Brief: C- The Client: B+