John Grisham is ranked as one of the top-earning authors in the world. Last month his newest novel, Camino Island, was the best-selling title in the United States, moving an incredible 95,990 copies in only one week. His most well-known titles include A Time To Kill, The Firm, The Client and The Pelican Brief. Overall, he’s sold over 300 million copies of his books.
Grisham has also had a long-time relationship with Hollywood, which has turned several of his books into movies, including A Time to Kill, starring Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock, The Pelican Brief, featuring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, and The Firm, with Tom Cruise and perennial Grisham actor Gene Hackman. Not all of the film adaptations have been successful; The Chamber, starring Hackman and Chris O’Donnell, and Runaway Jury, with John Cusack and yes, Hackman, performed poorly at the box office.
But Hollywood appears to have soured on Grisham of late; there hasn’t been an adaptation of a Grisham novel on the big screen in over fifteen years. When asked about this dry spell, Grisham said it was “nearly impossible to adapt a book into a movie if it’s not a superhero franchise.”
Is he right? Not really. Every year since 2003 there have been box office successes based on novels that didn’t involve superheroes. In 2017 alone we’ve seen books such as Hidden Figures, The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Lost City of Z, The Circle, Before I Fall, and Live by Night made into movies, albeit with varying levels of box-office success.
Then again, if you look at all 2017 movies by revenue thus far, it’s a fairly dismal tale: only one of the top twenty movies listed, Fifty Shades Darker, is based on a book, and three of the top five are indeed part of existing superhero franchises.
Is it that we’re burned out on the kind of fast-paced legal drama that Grisham specializes in writing? Possibly. It’s telling that when the UK Telegraph compiled its list of the Twenty Best Courtroom Films, most were decades old.
Another possible explanation is American movie studios’ increasing reliance on overseas box office revenue, both in Europe and particular in China, to stay financially sound. China is now bailing out big American summer blockbusters such as the ghastly Transformers: The Last Knight, which opened to $69 million in sales domestically but a franchise-high of $123 million in China. Fate of the Furious did well in the United States, pulling in $225 million, but China crushed that result with its $393 million in revenue for the long-running franchise. Chinese audiences expect explosions and action sequences from their American movies; there appears to be little appetite for courtroom dramas.
Grisham has forged relationships with TV networks; his novel The Rainmaker is set to become a series on CBS. As producer Michael Seitzman said of the project, “I’ve always loved Grisham’s book . . . One of the things that always struck me about it is that the story has a wonderful character for a TV show.” Rather than complain about comic book movies, or pine for big-screen treatments of his work, Grisham should do more of what so many smart writers and filmmakers have done in recent years: turn his attention to the small screen, where companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, are producing creative, original films and television series, some of which, like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, are based on popular novels. He might not be able to crush The Transformers with courtroom drama at the movies any longer, but Grisham can still do on television what he does best in his books: tell a great story.