If a novel has an edge — something in the story or in a character that goes against the grain of popular opinion — I typically balk when that element is softened or eliminated entirely in the adaptation. The Firm, directed by Sydney Pollack, is an exception. That it falls into this category cannot be doubted: both the hero, Mitch McDeere, and the story lack the hard edges they had in the book. But, this time, it works. Avoiding the usual Biblical prescription — if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out — screenwriters David Rabe, Robert Towne, and David Rayfiel instead change its shape and color, then remodel the whole face to suit the new configuration.
And yet, on one level, the story is very much the same. Bright, young Mitch McDeere gets an offer he can’t refuse from a small Memphis law firm and is shocked to discover that it’s all too good to be true. The partners (and most of the associates) are criminals and the whole firm has been targeted by the FBI. Either he cooperates with the FBI and discloses confidential client information (which will result in his disbarment) or he does nothing and gets swept up in the inevitable raid (and goes to jail with the rest of them). Or, he begins to wonder, is there a third option? Go any deeper, however, and the stories aren’t at all the same.
I’m tempted to say the book is more realistic and the movie more satisfying (although “realism,” in the thriller genre, is never less than equivocal and “satisfaction” depends, I suppose, on what you like). Perhaps it would be better to say that the book’s grit becomes the movie’s compassion. The book tells us that bad things happen to ambitious people; the movie tells us that bad things happen to good people. In any case, the movie is exceptional.
Tom Cruise plays Mitch, Jeanne Tripplehorn his wife, Abby, and Gene Hackman plays Avery Tolar, Mitch’s mentor in the firm. Their relationship forms a weird triangle (with Abby at the apex) that was not a part of the book, but which is integral to the film’s good guy approach. It was kind of fun to watch book-Mitch sink into the bowels of Bendini, Lambert & Locke; movie-Mitch is more human and easier to identify with, making his plight more dreadful. The triangle — it forms naturally from differences in the plot and the characters — heightens the suspense.
The cast is excellent, and it needed to be. A completely faithful adaptation could have gotten away with character types rather than characters, but this movie needed more. And it gets it, even in the smaller roles: Ed Harris as FBI agent Tarrance, Gary Busey as a private investigator and Holly Hunter as his secretary/assistant/lover, and Hal Holbrook and Wilford Brimley trying to hold down the fort at the firm. These are veteran actors, and they give their roles weight and nuance, bringing the characters to life.
And that’s the big difference here, the way the movie shifts emphasis from plot to people. (Don’t expect the same ending. Like most everything else, it’s similar but different. Both are right — for the stories they’re telling — and neither would have worked if shoehorned into the other.) This is why, though I thoroughly enjoyed the book, that I like the movie better. I like Mitch more, and Abbey, and Avery. But I can see it going the other way for other readers and other viewers. Either way, The Firm is one of the best book/movie tandems out there.