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Friday, February 07, 2014

A Time to Kill: Which Do You Prefer—Book? Movie? Both? Neither?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Many moons ago, while a student at BYU, I watched an edited version of A Time to Kill, the 1996 film based on the book by John Grisham.  I remember being blown away by the movie—it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me swoon, it made my blood boil ... in other words, it touched me.  So much so that when Grisham published a sequel to the book (Sycamore Row, 2013), I thought, "Hm, I should read A Time to Kill and re-watch the movie, just to see if the story is as powerful as I remember it being."  It was an interesting little experiment and I'll tell you what I learned ... in a minute.  

First, a plot summary:

Relations between the black and white residents of Ford County, Mississippi, have never been what you might call peaceful.  The only black sheriff in the state works there, it's true, but that hardly makes the county progressive.  Or sympathetic toward those with brown skin and woolly hair.  This fact becomes increasingly apparent when Carl Lee Hailey, a 37-year-old black mill worker, kills the men accused of raping his 10-year-old daughter.  The murdered "boys" are white rednecks, the kind of dumb, lazy oxen who will be mourned only by the clients of their flourishing drug-dealing business.  Still, it's a shocking turn of events.  As deserving of a lynching as the pair might have been, most folks in the small town of Clanton are horrified by the commission of such a violent act of vigilante justice on their own soil.  Especially by a black man against two white men.      
When Carl Lee asks Jake Brigance, a local white lawyer, to defend him, things get even more interesting.  Jake knows it's the kind of case that could make his whole career, so despite some misgivings, he takes it.  It's not long before he's receiving death threats, burning crosses on his lawn, and pleas from his wife to hand the whole mess off to someone else.  The more heated the situation becomes, however, the more determined Jake is to keep Carl Lee out of prison.  No matter what the cost.  Which is becoming dearer and dearer.  With the help of his ragtag legal team, Jake might just be able to pull it off.  But, with the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt court officials, and the deep-seated racism which has defined Ford County for more than a century all standing in his way, it's going to be a long, perilous journey—one which just might end at the electric chair.  

The book, as you can probably tell, is an intense, action-packed drama filled with colorful characters forced to wrangle with a whole host of sticky moral dilemmas.  It's a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat page turner, for sure.  If you've read Grisham, you know he writes what I call "guy books," meaning fiction that focuses more on action than on character development, emotional reaction, or relationships between characters.  Because of this, A Time to Kill—like most "guy books"—feels a little stiff to me.  I still enjoyed the story, I just had trouble empathizing and identifying with most of the characters (with the exception of Carl Lee).  Even Brigance, whose devotion and determination—not just to his client, but also to his family, his friends, and his town—comes through so palpably on-screen, falls flat in the novel.  In fact, book Brigance is a grouchy, sexist media whore who's almost as slimy as the rest of his comrades.  This disappointed me since I found his movie character so appealing (and not just because of McConaughey's pretty face).  Now, I do have to say that the film version skips over some of the humor and subtlety that makes the novel stand out and yet, I like the former so much more than the latter.  Is it because I'm a girl?  Maybe so, but the movie has a whole lot more heart than the book, mostly because it shows Brigance experiencing a wide range of emotions—we see him feeling confident, conflicted, remorseful, sad, guilty, nervous, proud, scared, etc.  This makes him seem empathetic and human in a way the book does not.  For this and other reasons, I much prefer the film version of A Time to Kill.  Which isn't to say it's a sweet, heart-warming family flick.  It's not.  At all.  It's depressing and difficult to watch, but powerful all the same.  The book has its moments, of course—overall, though, the movie tells a better story.

(Readalikes:  Sycamore Row; also reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)


If this were a movie (and it is!), it would be rated:

for language (no F-bombs), including frequent use of racial epithets; violence (including a fairly graphic rape scene), and depictions of excessive drinking and illegal activity

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of A Time to Kill from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.  


  1. This makes me want to watch the movie again. Remember when I read the tattered old library paperback before reading the sequel and kept seeing McConaughey's face? I saw it again when I read the spanking new library hardback of Sycamore Row. Do you think McConaughey is still young enough to be in that movie as it is just a few months later in time?

    1. I actually bought the movie since it was the cheapest way to watch it (where's a Blockbuster when I need one??), so you can borrow it if you'd like. It's not an easy movie to watch, but I think it's a pretty powerful one. I don't know about McConaughey playing Brigance in SYCAMORE ROW -- he looks SO young in A TIME TO KILL. I'm not sure all the makeup in the world could make him look that youthful again!

  2. I never read A Time to Kill, but there are definitely movies that I have preferred to their books.

    1. As a general rule, I prefer the books over the movies made from them, but there are definitely exceptions.

  3. I think I'd probably prefer the movie as well. Excellent review and comparison.

    1. The movie's just more dramatic and heart-felt. More impactful. It is for me, anyway.

  4. I usually like books better than movies but occasionally you find a movie that's better than the book.

    1. I'm always surprised when I like the movie better than the book, but it definitely happens.

  5. Replies
    1. That's very diplomatic of you, Sheila! I enjoyed both, too, I just enjoyed the movie MORE. It's very well cast and acted, IMHO.


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