Saturday, January 7, 2012

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: the Movie

After finishing the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt I had to watch the movie again. I saw it a long time ago but only vaguely remembered it so on to the Netflix queue it went. I was bitterly disappointed. The book is SOOOOO much better; how John Berendt could allow his wonderful book to be so mangled by John Lee Hancock, who wrote the screenplay, is beyond me. (To give credit where it's due, John Lee Hancock has improved- he also wrote the screenplay for The Blind Side, which was great.) The book was loosely factual; Berendt apparently took some artistic license here and there. The screenplay then took that and mixed everything up even more. People who didn't know each other at all in the book were all of a sudden bosom buddies in the movie. According to IMDB, both the book and the movie also made gay characters straight. They even gave the writer in the movie, John Kelso, who was played by John Cusack and is loosely based on John Berendt, a female love interest. John Berendt is gay too but he doesn’t have any sort of love interest in the book so I didn’t know that until I read it on IMDB. (There are too many Johns involved in this movie!!!)

I can understand why the characters were all mushed together- there were so many quirky, colorful people in the book and they all needed to be tied in to make one cohesive story, but it was not well done. They also shortened the trials that took place from four to one and left out the political aspects of the vendetta against Jim Williams by his neighbor and major supporter of a largely incompetent DA. Williams, the main focus of part two in the book and the focus of the entire movie, was found guilty of murder twice in Savannah. He also had one mistrial before the fourth and final trial, which took place in a different city, ended in a not guilty verdict. The real life trials took 10 years and Williams spent a good amount of that time in jail, which made it all the more tragic when he died just a few months after his acquittal. Of course they had to shorten that up to get the movie down to a reasonable time, but they lost some important aspects of what happened by doing that. In addition to leaving out the political vendetta, they lost the implications that the Savannah juries found Williams guilty in large part because he was gay, not because the evidence was there. The gay aspect was touched on, but it wasn’t central.

The casting was good for the most part, but I think Jude Law as Billy Hanson, the murder victim, was a mistake. Jude Law is a good looking guy but he's not drop dead gorgeous and that's what they needed for that role. I couldn't find any pictures of the actual Billy Hanson on-line but he was described as being "the finest piece of *** in Savannah", and I'm sorry, but Jude Law just didn't cut it. Somebody buff, too- there was a need for muscles and a six pack, and they dressed Jude Law in baggy, baggy jeans that did nothing for him. He’s talented enough that he carried the acting part convincingly, but visually it didn’t work for me.

The Lady Chablis played herself and she was hilarious. In the book she's in Part 1 and I don't think she knew Jim Williams or Billy Hanson in real life. (I could be remembering that incorrectly- maybe she knew of them but didn't interact with them?) There was one of her scenes they included that should have hit the cutting room floor because it made no sense in the context of the movie, but it was funny. In the book Berendt makes friends with a wide variety of people in Savannah and is invited to all sorts of social events. One of these events is a cotillion hosted by a black fraternity for their chosen debutantes. This has nothing to do with his association with Jim Williams and the trial, it's just another thing that happens as Berendt is in Savannah.

Well, the motivations for this are not made clear in the movie at all so it makes no sense. The movie isn't about an author's adventures in Savannah, the movie is about a murder and the subsequent trial. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, John Kelso is going to this cotillion for no clear reason. He mentions it to the Lady Chablis, why I have no idea, and they have a conversation about how she wants to go and he's trying to talk her out of it. In the book he tries to convince her that she would be bored by telling her that the girls are all goody two shoes types, they've never done drugs or had abortions or stolen things or gotten into any trouble whatsoever, and he gives this whole list of criteria the girls have to meet to be chosen as debutantes. In the movie, he says something like "most of the girls have never shoplifted". Huh what? Going from these girls are sweet innocent goody-goodies to "most" of them haven't shoplifted? What the heck? Anyway, in the book Berendt thinks he's convinced her that she would be bored to tears, but she shows up anyway, as she does in the movie. It's probably the funniest story in the book, and it's pretty funny in the movie too so I understand why they wanted to put it in, but it doesn't fit. If I were part of the black community in Savannah I would be upset about the way Kelso described the girls, too- "most" of them haven't shoplifted. These are upstanding, decent girls who deserve better than that. Sheese.

I could go on nit-picking about the things that bugged me in the screenplay, but I'll move on to the positives. John Cusack and Kevin Spacey were, of course, amazing. They are both really talented guys and gave great performances. This is definitely a case of watch the movie first and save the book for afterwards. Or skip the movie and just read the book- it's a treat.

My linky thing still isn't working, so here are some links for you:
The book:
The movie on IMDB:
John Lee Hancock, who wrote the screenplay:
A picture of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey captured his look perfectly):

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