I’m unashamed to be a John Grisham fanatic.
While his work has been derided as “legal thrillers [that] are no more mentally taxing – or unpredictable – than fairy tales,” I enjoy them. Well, most of them. Some are quite bad, but there are a few that are actually very good. Most fall somewhere between the two. I usually read biographies and other works of nonfiction, but Grisham is like a reading vacation for me. I don’t have to read with a pen in my hand or work to untangle the density of the prose, and I love his pacing. Also, I listen to his audiobooks as background noise while working or doing things around the house.
As not only a Grisham superfan, but also the internet’s expert on all his books, I decided to take a look at how a live-action Grisham universe could look.
Although this came to me independently, I found out that I’m not the first person with this idea. A few years ago, there were plans for several series that would interconnect into a John Grisham universe at Hulu that ultimately faltered. Weirdly, the first series, which was “envisioned as the first chapter in a larger franchise, tentatively titled The Grisham Universe…[was] described as ‘two books, two shows, one shared storyline,'” and was going to connect one of Grisham’s best books, The Rainmaker, with one of his weakest, Rogue Lawyer.
For me, the most complicating factor in that plan is that The Rainmaker takes place in Memphis while Rogue Lawyer takes place…well, no one knows where: the city and surrounding area in the book is generic and never named. That’s a minor obstacle – the setting for both adaptations could be Memphis or elsewhere – it’s just an odd choice because the two books are so different in style and sensibility.
There have been nine films adaptations of Grisham books as well as two movies based on original material – one written by Grisham himself (Mickey), the other based on a discarded manuscript of his (The Gingerbread Man). Thus far, there have been four attempts at TV adaptations, the only truly successful one being Netflix’s The Innocent Man, based on his only work of nonfiction.
Grisham’s work is always in some stage of adaptation. His 2020 novel, A Time for Mercy, the third to feature Jake Brigance, is in the works at HBO and Matthew McConaughey is scheduled to reprise his role as Brigance from 1996’s A Time to Kill.
McConaughey won’t be the first actor to appear in a second Grisham project – Gene Hackman has actually appeared in three – but he will be the first to play the same character again, thereby connecting the two.
The birth of the Grishamverse!
The Hulu endeavor withered, but that didn’t seem to be very well-planned, so let’s do this right.
Grisham isn’t Lee Child, he doesn’t carry the same character over in novel after novel. Rather, like Stephen King and countless others, he has created a specific locale and returned to it repeatedly, with a main character in one book popping up in a cameo in another. For King, the locale is Castle Rock, Maine (which itself became a show on Hulu); for Grisham, it’s Ford County, often specifically the town of Clanton, in Mississippi.
That would be the natural jumping off point for a Grisham universe. Seven of his novels are set partially or entirely there, along with all seven of the tales in his only collection of short stories, aptly titled Ford County.
So, like King does in Castle Rock, Grisham has given us some brief glimpses of what his shared universe could look like. Jake Brigance is the star of three books – all set in Clanton – and while he’s never appeared in any others, the characters that surround him have popped up elsewhere.
Related: Ranking Every John Grisham Book
The Last Juror takes place years before Jake arrives in Clanton, but its narrator and protagonist, Willie Traynor, returns briefly in Sycamore Row to sell Jake his house. Before he was Jake’s best friend, Harry Rex Vonner was Willie’s closest confidant while Willie’s nemesis, notorious lawyer Lucien Wilbanks, would go on to become Jake’s mentor and benefactor.
Judge Reuben V. Atlee is mentioned in The Last Juror and serves as an advisor to Jake in Sycamore Row and A Time for Mercy, but it is his death that serves as the main plot point of The Summons.
In the opening pages of Sycamore Row, Jake walks around the Clanton square, passing The Ford County Times, where Willie once served as owner, and the law office of Mack Stafford, whose story of taking his clients’ money and fleeing to Belize is told in the short story collection, Ford County.
But a universe can be more than one location and there are other locales besides Clanton that Grisham has explored more than once. Four of his books take place in Florida; four others are set in Memphis. New Orleans, Arkansas, and Chicago have all played a role twice or more, while Washington D.C. has served as a setting, in some capacity, at least eight times.
Thus, it’s conceivable that Michael Brock (The Street Lawyer) and Clay Carter (The King of Torts) could team up on the board of a D.C. nonprofit or serve as professors for the law students from The Rooster Bar. Similarly, Chicago could serve host to a legal contest between the ham-and-egg team of Finley & Figg (The Litigators) and the big-money firm Kravitz & Bane (The Chamber).
Early on, Grisham carried over his FBI director, F. Denton Voyles, in a few books; later, he would repeat this tactic with the director of the CIA in the form of Teddy Maynard. In addition to this, Grisham has started to revisit other characters more in recent years. Bruce Cable was the supporting star of Camino Island but took center stage in its disappointing sequel, Camino Winds. His terrific 2021 work, The Judge’s List, marked the return of Lacy Stoltz, who redeemed herself after the plodding, simplistic The Whistler.
There are other minor crossovers. In The Rainmaker, there is reference to a black-owned furniture company called Ruffin’s and a major character in The Last Juror is Calia Ruffin, matriarch of the Ruffin clan.
In The Associate, Kyle McAvoy takes a job with Scully & Pershing, the “largest law firm the world had ever seen,” and the same firm that furloughs Samantha Kofer at the start of Gray Mountain. That book takes place in 2008, so perhaps Samantha is a descendant or relative of Stuart Kofer, the slain police officer from A Time for Mercy, which is set in 1990.
Mitch McDeere (The Firm), Adam Hall (The Chamber), Reggie Love (The Client), and Rudy Baylor (The Rainmaker) were all practicing lawyers in Memphis in the first half of the 1990s, so I can certainly imagine a scene depicting the four of them crossing paths at that time.
Speaking of McDeere, I love to imagine he, Darby Shaw (The Pelican Brief), and Malcolm Bannister (The Racketeer) sitting together at a beach bar somewhere in the Caymans, swapping stories of how they escaped to paradise. It could be the Grisham equivalent of “Almost Got ‘Im.”
We could also learn the fates of characters that don’t cross over with any others. Let’s check in with an adult version of Mark Sway, the 11-year-old overachiever from The Client. Show me Patrick Lanigan’s life after The Partner. Is Kyle McAvoy (The Associate) still practicing law with his father in York, Pennsylvania? Let me see some more of Cullen Post (The Guardians).
The possibilities abound.
Although the plan at Hulu didn’t work out, there’s more than enough material in the man’s oeuvre to create a Grishamverse.
I’ve seen far worse things on TV.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books, but is still willing to serve as a consultant on a Grisham Universe project. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.
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