Grisham shifts narrative focus back-and-forth between Mitch and the firm. While not completely giving away the firm's background, Grisham lets the reader know more than Mitch knows. Thus the reader does not so much figure out the mystery as Mitch does, but instead watches Mitch catch up. At the midway point, in a scene that uses as a striking backdrop the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the FBI Director explains to Mitch (and to readers) the origins of the firm. Thereafter, Grisham continues to shuttle scenes between the hero and the villains, letting readers experience how the threat against Mitch mounts within the firm. The chief result of this dual tracking of scenes is the build-up of suspense: How will Mitch learn what the firm really is? Then, how will Mitch escape what the firm plans for him? The technique establishes the difference between a mystery and a thriller. In the former, the hero would grow suspicious, gradually unravel the secrets of the firm, and then expose them at the novel's climax. In contrast, in the thriller, what we have here, the hero may also detect the answer to a mystery, but mostly he must evade grave danger.
Grisham retains the wiseacre narrative style evident in the earlier novel A Time to Kill. He describes the people of Grand Cayman as "twenty percent white, twenty percent black, and the other sixty percent wasn't sure and didn't care." An FBI agent reads a warrant that automatically includes mail fraud...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
While an obvious context for discussing the novel is fiction about the law, a less obvious but equally interesting context is the treatment of success in American literature. In his life through law school, Mitch could be a classic example of the Protestant ethic. How does the American Dream relate to the trait of acquisitiveness, and how does this character with a Ben Franklin-style work ethic become seduced by the firm, are questions that can open up discussion of The Firm into a debate on what Americans consider to be personal success. Readers could consider whether the initial tempting offerings of the firm seem worth the price of long hours and reduced private life (aside from the firm's illegal purpose).
1. How do you like Mitch? How would you define his personality? As he decides how to resolve his conflict, what matters the most to him? What is his hierarchy of priorities? Where does money fit in the hierarchy? Does he or his hierarchy change as the novel progresses?
2. What does Grisham accomplish by including Ray McDeere as a character? What does Ray add to the book's presentation of Mitch and its presentation of crime?
3. How does Grisham portray the government? Does the FBI seem trustworthy, honorable, reliable?
4. How malevolent are the members of the firm? The key partners have debates with DeVasher on how to deal with problems, especially with Mitch. They often recoil from DeVasher's ideas....
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As his first success and as a title with over eleven million copies in print, Grisham's The Firm merits special consideration. A good overview for Grisham's work appears in the comments by Stanley Fish of Duke University's English Department and Law School that appeared in Adrienne Drell's 1994 article on lawyer-authors for the ABA Journal. Referring to the popularity of legal thrillers, Fish states, "I think people are fascinated by the law and welcome sex and courtroom drama ... or the opportunity to learn something about a technical corner of the law." Drell quotes Fish again later in the article: "By the end of these novels, the reader gets a sense of double satisfaction by finding an answer to the legal puzzle and also by participating in the solution of the protagonist's private puzzle." That is, the genre works by combining the portrayal of a special realm (the law) with a personal and involving crisis for the main character.
Although the characters never go to court, The Firm gives readers an insider's view of how law firms hire and treat their staff and associates, how nonlitigators fill their time, how work in tax law consists of looking for loopholes, how lawyers think. The Memphis law firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke is not typical in its hiring nor in its practice, yet the novel still gives readers the idea of the day-to-day drudge work and expectations that young lawyers endure. Of course, because this firm exists to...
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Doubleday's design for the novel's dust jacket, a man in a suit suspended by guide-wires against a marblelike background, recalls the symbol of the hand on the puppet strings used for the book covers and film posters for Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969). Yet while Puzo crafts an inside narrative of the Mafia, Grisham leaves readers largely on the outside, only seeing the mob members through the tangential figures of DeVasher and others in the firm. The best precedents and comparisons for The Firm are other examples of the thriller genre — such as books by Stuart Woods or Ken Follett or even Tom Clancy — to evaluate how Grisham embraces yet stretches the generic limitations.
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As different as this novel is from A Time to Kill, a potentially fruitful discussion question is what does unite the two books, how can readers see that the same author produced both. Here are of the key aspects of the Grisham style: an insider's insight into the legal profession, the wry style, the sharp dialogues, and most significantly the characters' inability to embrace absolute moral standards.
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Paramount's 1993 film version of The Firm, directed by Sydney Pollock and scripted by David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel, met with considerable box office success. Among the film's key strengths are the ways the supporting players flesh out their characters. Especially the women, Abby portrayed by Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tammy by Holly Hunter, gain depth and have meatier scenes than the portraits of them that appear in the novel. Hunter earned an Academy Award nomination for her work. Gene Hack-man adds strength and presence to his portrayal of Avery Tolar, a character who could have been played as a forgettable weakling. And Wilford Brimley, who appeared in his earlier work as a benign grandfather-type, provides considerable menace by underplaying DeVasher.
The film's deviations from the book, however, disturbed Grisham's most loyal fans. Typical of Hollywood treatment, the movie mutes the troubling and darker aspects of the book. As played by Tom Cruise, Mitch retains a sense of ethics and ultimately rejects the temptation of money. In the film adaptation, Mitch resolves the dilemma not by fleeing to the islands with the firm's money, but by devising a method to snare the firm that removes the Mafia's threat against him and Abby. The script whitewashes Mitch by removing his acquisitiveness, essentially watering down the book's edge. The film also ignores the scene in the book in which Ray must kill someone to effect their escape. The film...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Grisham, John. “The Rise of the Legal Thriller: Why Lawyers Are Throwing the Books at Us.” The New York Times Book Review 97 (October 18, 1992): 33. Grisham analyzes the rise of the “lawyer novel,” a phenomenon to which he has contributed as much as any author. He discusses the abiding fascination with the law of the reading public and how lawyers have turned to fiction in order to satisfy this interest. In addition to his own work, he considers that of other lawyers turned writers and their varying approaches.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Law’s Labors Lost.” New Republic 210 (March 14, 1994): 32-38. Klinkenborg reviews five books that deal with legal themes. In the latter part of the essay, Klinkenborg focuses on The Firm, citing it as a “notorious” example of portraying the culture of lawyers as opposed to the “nature of the law.”
Landner, M. “An Overnight Success—After Six Years.” Business Week (April 19, 1992): 52. That a magazine such as Business Week, aimed at the commercial community, should include an article on an adventure novelist indicates clearly the extent to which Grisham has been a financial success and how that success has drawn the attention of people other than his readers. Landner traces Grisham’s remarkable career as a writer who struggled for years to write a successful...
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