The difference between the book and movie versions of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ comes down to this: The book is about a city where a killing takes place; the movie is about a killing that takes place in a city.
The Clint Eastwood-directed adaptation of John Berendt’s book captures the characters of Berendt’s story, but it can’t quite capture the essence of Savannah, Ga., which is the spirit of the story.
Movies based on books shouldn’t be slavish reiterations. But John Lee Hancock’s screenplay makes changes - such as condensing the murder trial that is central to the story and adding a love interest for the New York journalist who visits Savannah - that are bound to upset its legions of fans.
It is up to the characters to bring Savannah to life; fortunately, they are lively, eccentric characters and the movie is brilliantly cast. Kevin Spacey is perfect as Jim Williams, the antiques dealer who is accused of killing a hotheaded young lover; Spacey has just the right mixture of aloofness, bemusement and imperiousness for a guy who’s convinced of his innocence, if only because it seemed as if pulling the trigger was the right thing to do at the time.
John Cusack is another wise choice as John Kelso, the journalist; Cusack’s air of intelligent detachment is a good fit for a character who is supposed to be a neutral observer. Supposed to be, and that’s where the book’s fans will have a major complaint.
Kelso becomes a player in the murder trial, helping the defense with strategy and rounding up witnesses, unlike Berendt, who acted as a dispassionate narrator in the book.
The other changes would be less noteworthy if they weren’t so contrived. Reducing the book’s four murder trials to one was probably necessary for time’s sake, but the movie still winds up spending more time in court. And as Williams’ attorney Sonny Seiler, Jack Thompson doesn’t pack enough punch to justify the courtroom scenes’ length.
The love-story subplot is even more bothersome; it adds nothing to an already intriguing story. It doesn’t matter that Eastwood cast his daughter, Alison, as Mandy; she is actually quite sweet, so nepotism isn’t the issue. It’s just that the subplot is unnecessary, and any other actress wouldn’t have changed that fact.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the book, you’ll probably still pick up on these contrivances for what they are. Eastwood’s touch isn’t really noticeable; he tries to maintain an objective eye, but the result looks more like something from an accomplished journeyman, not from one of America’s best directors.
The performances - which include a foreboding turn by Dallas’ Irma P. Hall as Minerva, the voodoo queen with her own idea of defense strategy, and a funny one by The Lady Chablis, the drag queen who plays herself with even more elegance and sass than Berendt attributed to her - make the movie worth seeing.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t disappoint half of its audience, or that the other half won’t wonder what all the fuss was about.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” Location: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jude Law, Jack Thompson, Paul Hipp, Alison Eastwood, Irma P. Hall, The Lady Chablis Running time: 1:37 Rating: R