An attorney, an activist, a politician, and the undisputed master of legal thrillers, John Grisham has authored several capers that were marketable enough to be made into movies. After Stephen King, he’s probably the most popular writer to have his novels adapted into a wide variety of films.
Updated on July 10th, 2021 by Mark Birrell: John Grisham movies can be a little hit or miss, with some being considered masterpieces by fans of legal thrillers and others often being lost to time despite amazing casts and stories proven to be successful. Many of the best (and worst) movies made from John Grisham novels are luckily available on lots of the most popular streaming services like Netflix, so fans can decide for themselves which are truly worth remembering and which deserve to be forgotten.
10 Worst: The Chamber (1996)
● Available on Starz
Paired opposite Gene Hackman, Chris O’Donnell plays a fresh-out-of-law-school attorney who tries to his grandfather, a death row convict, released.
The movie failed to leave a mark on audiences despite the pedigree of its cast and critics like Roger Ebert from problematic elements within the story to be overwhelming. According to Film Stories, John Grisham himself was very disappointed in the film, saying that Gene Hackman’s performance was the only positive thing about it.
9 Worst: The Gingerbread Man (1998)
The Gingerbread Man is not a bad film but it just didn’t break any new ground in terms of Grisham movies even though the film was based on an unpublished John Grisham manuscript.
The story is about a lawyer who helps his lover put her father behind bars. But then the father, played by Robert Duvall, breaks out of prison and all hell breaks loose. It’s undeniably interesting to see how John Grisham places a somewhat typical lawyer character at the heart of most of his thrillers but adds a new touch every time, though it’s rarely brought up in discussions about adaptations of the author’s work mostly because it’s far less memorable than most other examples. Its lack of streaming options in the present day also doesn’t help this aspect.
8 Worst: Christmas With The Kranks (2004)
● Available on Starz
Grisham has also authored non-fiction books and children’s literature apart from his usual crime novels. A lesser-known entry in his bibliography is the Christmas comedy novel Skipping Christmas. When the festive story received its cinematic adaptation, it ended up being a resounding flop with critics. The movie follows an aging couple who decide to not spend any money on Christmas one year as their daughter has left home to travel to South America.
It was written by Chris Columbus and stars Tim Allen who, with the Santa Clause and Home Alone movies between them (amongst many others), brought a lot of Christmas movie pedigree to the table. However, a Rotten Tomatoes score of 5% demonstrates how much Christmas With The Kranks failed to bring any of the requisite seasonal magic.
7 Best: The Client (1994)
● Available for purchase on Prime Video
The Client isn’t usually remembered as much as the other famous thrillers in the John Grisham canon but it is an overlooked gem. The focus in this legal thriller is a young boy who discovers crucial information regarding a prominent disappearance. Needless to say, a lot of corrupt forces try to influence them and must seek help from a strong-willed lawyer.
Susan Sarandon plays the lawyer with great conviction in one of her career-best performances earning her an Oscar nomination. But the real star of the film is the client himself. Brad Renfro gained a fanbase as the ‘tough kid’ in the film, eventually earning prominent roles in films like Sleepers and Apt Pupil.
6 Best: The Rainmaker (1997)
● Available on Starz
Francis Ford Coppola has a knack for adaptations, as is evident from The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This legal drama stars Matt Damon and Danny DeVito as an unlikely duo of lawyers fighting an insurance company after they deny coverage to a sick child.
The two actors are in their element with Damon portraying the freshness of a new law school graduate, and DeVito capturing the middle-aged angst of a struggling man in the practice. Jon Voight also was praised for playing one of the antagonizing insurance bigwigs and earned award nominations, like the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, for his performance. Coppola’s tight script based on Grisham’s sixth novel focuses on the little details of all the people involved, including the clients and not just the lawyers.
5 Best: Runaway Jury (2003)
● Available on Starz
This is another Grisham story that involves suing a bigshot company. Vicksburg Firearms gets sued by a widow whose husband died by one of the company’s guns but the jury is up for sale and can be manipulated and it becomes a deadly race between several parties to gain the upper hand. The fast-paced thriller has several unpredictable twists and turns to make for a thoroughly entertaining watch, even if it doesn’t stand out as one of the most memorable Grisham adaptations.
The cast of Runaway Jury is an impressive ensemble, including John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman and they really make the material sizzle.
4 Best: The Pelican Brief (1993)
● Available on HBO Max and Netflix
Julia Roberts plays a law student who writes a college dissertation about the potential reasons behind an assassin killing two Supreme Court judges. Denzel Washington, who plays a reporter for the Washington Herald, realizes how true her conspiracy theory might be. The FBI and a couple of thugs realize the same and then what follows is a Grisham-style chase for survival and uncovering the truth.
The film is one of the weaker John Grisham movies but its star cast ensured helped make it one of the more famous adaptations of the author’s work and has developed the film a loyal fanbase. Alan Pakula’s direction and screenwriting made it a thriller that Hitchcock would’ve been proud of and The Pelican Brief remains a very engaging thriller if perhaps a little dated.
3 Best: A Time To Kill (1996)
● Available on HBO Max
A Time To Kill, a dark legal tale of revenge, was John Grisham’s first published novel. Obviously, Grisham’s debut had to be adapted to the big screen. Again, it was The Client director Joel Schumacher who helmed this thriller which stars Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L Jackson. The basic plot deals with lawyers representing a man who killed two men after they brutally attacked his young daughter.
A Time To Kill still stands out from other John Grisham movies thanks to the incredible performances, resulting in some memorable speeches from all those involved. Matthew McConaughey was great in the lead role and has been recently attached to a developing sequel TV show.
2 Best: A Painted House (2003)
● Available on Hallmark Movies Now
A Painted House was one of Grisham’s most unconventional works. It’s an account of a family of cotton farmers in 1952 inspired by Grisham’s own childhood in Arkansas and was adapted into a heartwarming Hallmark TV movie starring Scott Glenn and a very young Logan Lerman, who serves as the film’s narrator.
The Emmy-nominated film deserves praise for its earnestness and accurate depiction of its time period. It makes for a relatively feel-good experience that drifts away from the intense and often morally troubling stories of other John Grisham movies and should be considered a must-see for the author’s most die-hard fans.
1 Best: The Firm (1993)
● Available on Showtime
Not only did this movie show the potential of John Grisham’s stories to be translated to the big screen, but it also gave star Tom Cruise one of his best dramatic roles ever. The multi-layered story starts off with Cruise’s Mitch McDeree joining a law firm with dark secrets.
It’s not only Cruise but the character actors in the supporting cast who shine with stars Holly Hunter, Gene Hackman, and Ed Harris rounding out the ensemble. The Firm still stands out amongst Grisham adaptations to this day and even spawned a television series in 2012.
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