A Time to Kill is not a streamlined novel, as are Grisham's later efforts in the thriller genre. In addition to vivid characterization, Grisham lingers over many specifics of place. A fine scene in which Jake takes Ellen to a restaurant leads to a humorous and succulent discussion of Southern food. All the details offer the reader a total immersion into a highly particularized place populated by extremely well-drawn characters.
For a first novel, the book reveals highly accomplished techniques. Grisham deftly juggles his large cast. He demonstrates the suspense that will fuel his later career as he sends trouble after trouble to beset Jake. As he does in other novels, he grabs readers with a tense, violent start: He describes the rape of the girl without being pathetic yet still conveying the horror and while making odd fun of the attackers (one complains that the little girl dripped her blood in the beer cooler). He adopts a flat, understating style that makes the events disturbing: As the men throw their beer cans at the girl, Grisham writes, "Willard had trouble with the target, but Cobb was fairly accurate." Grisham also shows his flair for dialog, another skill that will become a trademark. Especially when he narrates a courtroom exchange, the dialog snaps and seems authentic. The blistering cross-examinations Jake and Rufus inflict upon each other's experts show both Grisham's achievement at dialog and his adeptness at narrating technical legal processes.
Grisham employs a wry humor, unexpected with such downbeat material as rape, vigilantism, and capital murder. A Time to Kill is a surprisingly funny book. He throws in asides such as this description of Norman Reinfeld as he and Jake are about to meet: "Reinfeld was no pushover when it came to arrogance . . . He was arrogant and insolent by nature. Jake had to work at it," Ozzie threatens the white rapists, who endure the menacing stares of the black inmates in the nearby jail cells: "stay quiet, or he would integrate his jail." In scenes that could be unrelievedly horrible, Grisham finds a source of mirth. Having left the tortured bomber alone to dismantle his device, Ozzie, Jake, and another officer debate who should go check on the bomber. The officer suggests Jake, as, after all, it is Jake's house that is being threatened. When a cross burns on Jake's yard, the officers wonder what to do, as they had never seen a burning cross before, and ask whether it will flame itself out. After being intimidated by Jake in court, one of the rapists' mothers howls theatrically as she is led from the courtroom. A Time to Kill encourages sober reflection on the state of law and race relations and also encourages smiles and guffaws from readers. Perhaps this mix of techniques accounts for Grisham's success: swiftly-paced stories, thoughtful and complex treatments of issues, and a dry, satiric tone.
This novel fits comfortably in discussion groups and classes devoted to law and literature, crime and literature, and Southern writing. The book challenges readers to re-examine their overall trust in the justice system: in trials as mechanisms for finding truth, in prosecutors, in expert witnesses, in juries. Asking for reactions to this portrait of the system can initiate a lively debate, as will asking readers to evaluate Jake. Grisham endows the characters with such colorful traits that many of them can spark a good discussion: is Ozzie just in tormenting the bomber, is Ellen an admirable woman, would you hire Harry Rex to handle your divorce?
Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird offers a strong contrast to Jake,...
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and invoking Harper Lee's novel relates not only to legal matters but to the Southern setting. Readers could discuss how the South of this novel matches the progressive reputation of the contemporary South. Many books that highlight race and violence in the South, especially those by William Faulkner, can be compared toA Time to Kill as a means of asking how the South has or has not changed.
1. This novel describes in detail the judicial proceedings of a capital murder case. How do the proceedings relate to the issue of justice? Do the proceedings produce justice? How does skill at law figure the accomplishment of justice? How does the book impact your beliefs in the American system of criminal justice?
2. What does "justice" mean in this novel? How often and in what contexts do the characters use the term?
3. Who are the "good" lawyers in the book? What does "good" mean in this context — adept at legal tactics, or morally upstanding, or both?
4. If you were in legal trouble, would you hire Jake Brigance? (If you needed a lawyer for a divorce proceeding, would you retain Harry Rex Vonner?)
5. How comfortable are you with the resolution of Carl Lee's case?
6. Why do so many lawyers want to defend Carl Lee? Jake turns down the chance to defend Pete Willard, but fights off others to keep Carl Lee as a client. Why?
7. If Jake did lose the case to Norman Reinfeld of the NAACP, would the basic defense strategy have been different? If Carl Lee is to insist upon his right of trial, what possible strategic options does an attorney have in defending him? (Here you might consider the Nesler case from California in 1993-1994 as a real-life analogue.)
8. What aspects of the book do you think you will recall when you read about or discuss other court cases?
9. Is Ozzie a good sheriff? Is his interrogation of the bomber just?
10. Consider the book as a portrait of the contemporary South, and look at Grisham's attention to matters of social class, race, the status of women, small town life, even food. How does the region seem alike and different compared to your own home place? How is book like or unlike other literary portraits of the South?
11. How would you define race relations in Clanton?
12. How do you react to the characters' frequent, even constant use of the racial epithet? What does its use mean to these characters?
13. What is the status of women in Clanton? What does Grisham accomplish by inserting Ellen Roark into this environment?
14. This book is not in the thriller genre, yet matched the sales of Grisham's thrillers. How can you explain this book's best-selling appeal? What is your reaction to Grisham's assessment that this is his best book?
The plot skeleton of A Time to Kill recalls that of the legal classic Anatomy of a Murder (1958) by Robert Traver. Both novels concern cases of revenge killings that follow sexual assaults: In Traver's book, a military officer avenges an offense against his wife. In both cases the legal strategy is the same — argue not guilty by reason of insanity. The lawyers in both novels take the cases as a means to further their careers. And each lawyer gets valuable help from an often besotted older attorney. The machinations of the trials comprise the heart of both books. Yet Grisham approaches his material with much more ambition; Grisham's book is a deeply-thought-out social tapestry. For Grisham, the northern Mississippi setting is integral; for Traver the locale of the upper peninsula of Michigan is quaint.
Grisham's works are the most popular examples of the groundswell of fiction about the law that seemed to begin in 1987 with Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent. Both Grisham and Turow linger over the technicalities of trial procedures, and both portray how the network of relationships among those in the justice system — defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges, all who know each other well previous to the cases at hand — impact on the trial. Grisham and Turow also both challenge the reader by presenting protagonists who are often not heroic, indeed, who cross moral lines. And both authors use the trials to expose a network of corruption. Turow's setting is a northern city, and the corruption infests the city's legal and political institutions. Turow writes a mystery, and so appeals to the dark urban world of hard-boiled fiction, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. In this aspect, Turow and Grisham diverge. Grisham takes a broader approach, disclosing the faults embedded in the entire society, taking on issues of race, sex, class, and the pitfalls of the entire judicial process.
As a social commentary on the South, A Time to Kill bears comparison with the two recognized masterpieces of Southern writing about the law: Sanctuary (1931) by William Faulkner and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. In addition to devoting considerable space to trial proceedings, these Southern novels address how the defense attorneys bond with their clients, and how the cases become for each lawyer a sacred duty. The three lawyers, however, contrast sharply. Faulkner's Horace Benbow and Lee's Atticus Finch are idealistic patricians who take difficult cases because their principles demand that they do so. In court, each is dignified and respectful of the rules. Jake, a product of the middle class, is ruthlessly practical in the conduct of his case. The trio of lawyers provides significant contrasts in views of law, opinions about their towns, resilience when faced with courtroom setbacks, and appeals to the jury. In each novel, the decision of the jury reflects profound, deeply-ingrained attitudes. Each book offers a probing and critical portrait of Southern society. Faulkner and Grisham both charge that their settings — both novels use northern Mississippi — suffer from vast corruption, from a network of evil that probably encompasses the district attorney. Pondering why the outcomes of the cases in the three novels differ opens up questions about how the South has changed over the fifty-eight years between the publications of Sanctuary and A Time to Kill.
Grisham's open emotional attachment to his first novel rendered him shy about selling the film rights even as Hollywood's appetite for his books led in 1993 to the record setting $3.75 million sale of the rights to a book he had not yet completed (The Chamber). Finally in August 1994, Grisham allowed purchase of the rights for A Time to Kill by the team that made a version of The Client which respected the text and which earned financial success. Grisham received a staggeringly $6 million, plus some approval over casting and the script, plus the role of co-producer (along with Arnon Milchan, whose New Regency Productions would make the film for Warner Bros.), Michael Nathan, and Hunt Lovvry.
During summer 1995, director Joel Schumacher shot the film in a very cooperative Canton (obviously close in name to the fictional Clanton), Mississippi, using locals as extras. Canton happily boasted the Mississippi feature crucial to the plot: a distinctive looking courthouse situated on a square that serves as a focal point of town life. The CBS news show 48 Hours produced an hour long program on the filming, highlighting the unsettling atmosphere of shooting scenes about contemporary Southern racial strife in a real Southern town.
The film premiered in July 1996 to great success, competing well for an audience amidst more special effects-driven summer fare. The film had been heralded by numerous articles about the production and many approving profiles of Matthew McConaughey, the 25-year-old unknown who plays Jake. (The movie alerts non-Southerners that Jake's surname should be pronounced as "bri-GANCE," an example of the Southern tendency to accent second syllables.) Schumacher and Grisham reportedly clashed repeatedly over who should play the lead, finally agreeing on McConaughey, who had been cast in a supporting role and who looks a lot like Grisham. McConaughey seems to inhabit the role, and the strong acting by the entire cast is the film's greatest asset. The players include the versatile Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee; Sandra Bullock, who nicely underplays Ellen Roark even though she lacks the right hair color; and previous Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey (as Rufus Buckley) and Brenda Fricker (as Jake's secretary).
Yet Schumacher and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman vary significantly from the novel even as they respect the book's basic plot. A key change involves Jake: as occurred with the muting of Mitch McDeere's ethical lapses in the film of The Firm, this movie presents Jake as an earnest greenhorn instead of a wily, self-assured gladiator. The film's Jake takes the case out of guilt for not telling Ozzie about Carl Lee's implied threats; the Jake of the novel had told Ozzie and has lots of motives to take the case, including fellow-feeling for Carl Lee and not excluding lust for fame. The film's Jake seems over-matched in court. Carl Lee has to tell him what to ask Deputy Looney; in the book Jake rehearses the testimony with the Deputy. The film's Jake desperately needs Ellen to deliver information on how to demolish the state's psychiatrist; the Jake of the book already knows how, just desires some specific research from Ellen. In the film, Jake needs pep talks from four different characters (Ellen, Lucien, his wife, and Carl Lee) before he can deliver his summation. And in that summation he delivers an apology for his rookie performance followed by the story of the rape with the races reversed. In the novel, a juror tells this story at a pivotal point in deliberations, but having already described the attack at the book's opening, Grisham resists giving her full speech. He resisted being sentimental; the movie does not resist.
The movie seeks for a wholly emotional impact whereas the novel deftly avoids becoming maudlin The movie seeks more to satisfy than to unsettle. Thus the film eschews the book's odd humor, the pounding and constant use of "nigger" by almost everybody, the shading of the "good" characters. Gone are Ozzie's legally dubious extortion of the rapist's confession, Harry Rex's procurement of the jury list, Lucien's serious consideration of bribing a juror, Carl Lee's dismissive treatment of his wife when she asks about money. Instead the film offers good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are very bad. The book's Klanners are self-important figures of dark comedy; Grisham describes the swearing-in: "Sweat dripped from their faces as they prayed fervently for the dragon to shut up with his nonsense and finish the ceremony." The film aggrandizes the Klan into a serious-minded, malevolent force. (In Delaware, local Klanners actually protested outside a theater that was showing the film.) As for the good guys, the film depicts them as hard-working and sincere. The film adds audience-pleasing scenes such as Jake's dog appearing safe amidst the ashes of Jake's house and the ending sequence of a racially inclusive picnic By rendering Jake and his friends as near paragons of virtue, the filmmakers lull the audience into forgetting that this story is about vigilantism. Indeed, the film places at the final picnic the black youth who dropped the fire bomb that killed the Klan leader; this youth is a deliberate killer, but the film seems to give him approbation by finessing the whole issue of what constitutes a murder.
More than the expected alterations and compressions inherent in any screen translation, these changes seem to reflect the film industry's notorious timidity in presenting hard-edged material for mass consumption. The good acting and strong sense of place rescue the movie; it is a superior translation than, say, the amazingly wrong-headed effort to film Tom Wolfe's scathing satire The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984-1985). Yet nor is A Time to Kill in league with the film versions of Dead Man Walking or the obvious touchstone To Kill a Mockingbird, movies which retain the disturbing and challenging spirits of their sources movies which people talk about.