Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
October 18, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Everything is going swimmingly for director James Foley. He’s been entrusted by producer Brian Grazer and Universal with the $40 million necessary to turn John Grisham’s 1994 best-seller The Chamber into a movie. Gene Hackman and Faye Dunaway have found him worthy (based, one guesses, on his 1992 critical success, Glengarry Glen Ross, rather than his Marky Mark thriller, Fear) and have joined the cast. And on this muggy March day in Jackson, Miss., Foley’s leading man, Chris O’Donnell, is running up and down the steps of a Greek Revival courthouse, just as he’s supposed to. But if this is how Foley acts when all is going according to plan, pity the people around him when he’s actually tense.

Clackclackclack go his teeth, chattering with the effort he’s putting into sitting still. His legs jolt side to side, making him seem more like a kid in math class than the 42-year-old he is. His fingers yank on his short gray hair, undoing any headway made earlier with a comb. ”Grrrreeat!” He yells. ”Cutcutcutcut!” The cast and crew, more than used to his energy level after two months, don’t give him a second glance. Clackclackclack. Since the last time a razor touched his beard or an iron met his untucked shirt, Foley has unraveled to look like Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys: ready for a lunatic asylum.

Which, given how The Chamber has progressed, is understandable. There have been enough stops and starts in this tale of a young attorney (O’Donnell) trying to save his Ku Klux Klan grandfather (Hackman) from execution to set even the steadiest teeth a-grind. ”It’s like being in the army or something,” Foley exclaims at a decibel level befitting a drill sergeant. ”You know, you go, Charge! and go crashing into the fields.”

Unfortunately, Foley’s war tactics have alienated one of Hollywood’s most feared and respected players. On this afternoon, while O’Donnell takes stairs two at a time, John Grisham sits at home in Virginia, no longer involved with his own movie.

Since he came to prominence with The Firm in 1993, John Grisham has served up stories tailor-made for bountiful box office: The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Client, and A Time to Kill have earned a combined $456 million domestically. So when producer Brian Grazer first heard that Grisham’s fifth novel would interweave a murder, a death sentence, a love story, and a Hollywood-ready happy ending, he persuaded Universal to buy the story for him and his partner, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13), for a record $3.75 million — even though Grisham had yet to put pen to paper.

”I bought it before I saw any words,” says Grazer. ”I just knew it was Grisham, and I wanted to snatch it. I bought it based on what [Grisham’s late agent, Jay Garon] said. Which didn’t totally correspond with the synopsis paragraph I read. And that didn’t exactly correspond with the book.”

Grisham will no longer comment on The Chamber, but in an interview done with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in April 1995, the author regretted selling the movie rights so soon. Even before the book was finished, ”I got some unsolicited vibes on how to write,” Grisham acknowledged. ”Some of the studio people had some ideas about what should be in the book, and it was infuriating.” Grisham eventually diverged from what Grazer understood would be the twisting track of a thriller and instead took a ponderous literary path, focusing on the coming-of-age of the young attorney rather than the suspense of a murder mystery. The result: a meandering and uncinematic portrait of a Southern family (”I was continually frustrated because I couldn’t get near what Pat Conroy had done,” said the author). To the filmmakers’ surprise, the love story and happy ending that Garon had promised had evaporated, and KKK henchman Rollie Wedge, who gave O’Donnell’s character an excuse to do more than mope about his family, disappeared halfway through the novel. Says Grazer, ”It made it harder.”

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