Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With a new Tom Clancy movie, Without Remorse, premiering on Amazon Prime, we’re looking back on other Hollywood adaptations of mass paperback novels, a.k.a. so-called airport fiction.
The Firm wasn’t moonlighting lawyer John Grisham’s debut novel, but it was the one that got him noticed. In 1991, you could find riveted readers everywhere poring over the story of idealistic lawyer Mitch McDeere, who unknowingly goes to work for a nefarious law practice. Soon Mitch has his mob-backed colleagues after him on one side, the FBI on the other, and has to come up with his own ingenious—and improbable—escape route.
The Firm was on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year, moving 7 million copies. Such a successful Hitchcock-esque thriller was destined for the big screen; apparently, a bootleg copy of the novel led to a bidding war before the book was even published. The Firm may have been a paperback sensation available for purchase everywhere from airports to drugstores, but Paramount went all-prestige for the film adaptation, drafting veteran director Sydney Pollack and an ensemble that cast the highest-caliber actors in even the smallest roles.
By the early ’90s, Tom Cruise had settled into a series of films (The Color Of Money, Cocktail, Days Of Thunder) in which he played the hot-shot upstart who learns from a grizzled veteran mentor. The Firm upended that formula, as Mitch’s mentor (played to tragic perfection by Gene Hackman) has been completely corrupted and ruined by the law firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke, and Mitch’s only chance of survival is to escape the system that has ensnared them both. David Strathairn immediately draws sympathy as Mitch’s incarcerated brother; Gary Busey shines in his brief role as Eddie, an unconventional private eye Mitch turns to for help; and Holly Hunter scored an Oscar nomination for stealing a handful of scenes as Eddie’s savvy, moll-like assistant.
At 154 minutes, The Firm still stands as the longest film adaptation of a Grisham novel, yet it never drags. (Dave Grusin’s ominous piano-based score, which was also Oscar-nominated, helps in the momentum department). It begins as a typical suspense plot: Why is this prestigious Memphis law firm so secretive, and what are they hiding? The Firm basically draws out the adage “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” into a full narrative. Starry-eyed Mitch hilariously tells his rightly dubious wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn), “These are nice people, Abby,” so swayed is he by his new Mercedes, his near-six-figure salary, and Bendini, Lambert & Locke’s offer to wipe out his law-school debt. Much too late, he realizes that what’s being demanded in return is too high a price to pay, but since “no lawyer has ever left that law firm alive” as cantankerous FBI agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris) points out, his options are severely limited. Usually benevolent Hal Holbrook plays against type as senior partner Oliver Lambert, as does Wilford Brimley, who gleefully boots his lovable grandpa typecasting out the window as the firm’s vicious head of security.
The Firm then segues into a cloak-and-dagger plot; Mitch realizes his employer has bugged his home and is watching him at all times, so his communications are creatively crafted through messages on egg sandwich receipts and tax seminar binders. There are also the now-quaint cell-phone-less limitations of 1990s technology, with beepers, dot-matrix printers, and a crucial message that gets lost underneath a fax machine. Eventually, as Mitch goes on the run, The Firm pivots into action-movie territory, with Cruise showing off the athletic prowess he would flex into a successful franchise just a few years later, while also absorbing the weight of his character’s plight, so that his every look becomes haunted. The Firm’s box-office success would fuel the careers of both the book’s author and the movie’s star: More Grisham adaptations followed, and Cruise would soon cement his status as blockbuster hero.
Availability: The Firm is currently streaming for free on FUBO. It’s also available to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Fandango Now, Redbox, AMC On Demand, and DirecTV.