John Berendt’s popular nonfiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a very difficult book to adapt. Clint Eastwood’s film version might be as good an adaptation of the book as you could hope, but it is far from perfect.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil follows freelance journalist John Kelso (John Cusack), who is sent by Town and Country magazine to Savannah, Georgia, in order to cover the lavish Christmas party given by Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Once there, Kelso is immediately struck by the laid back atmosphere and the city’s idiosyncratic characters.
However, Kelso’s fluff piece soon becomes much more serious after a murder occurs in the Williams household. Soon the whole town is abroil, with a sensational trial looming and crackpot theories everywhere. Kelso decides to stay in town, and attempts to capture the atmosphere in a book.
One of the strengths of John Berendt’s book is its many intriguing characters. Most of them make the transition to film. However, very few of the characters in the film are very interesting beyond their introduction. The film captures their idiosyncratic traits, and very little else. The film makes the assumption that all of its characters are instantly endearing on the basis of their eccentric characteristics…and though that may be the case for some of the characters, it certainly isn’t true for all of them.
The biggest exception to this rule is Kevin Spacey’s showy role as Jim Williams. He delivers yet another wonderful performance as the nouveau riche antiques dealer at the heart of the matter. Another good character is Minerva (Irma P. Hall), the voodoo priestess who uses her powers with the dead to influence the trial.
Unfortunately, some of the film’s central characters don’t make the grade. John Cusack is a bland narrator who, all too often, is put in an inappropriately active role. Alison Eastwood is rather uninteresting as Mandy, his love interest. And, unfortunately, The Lady Chablis (playing herself) is too self-conscious for her own good.
As for the trial itself, it, thankfully, is interesting enough to sustain interest throughout the lengthy movie. Compressed from the four trials in real life, the movie’s version has plenty of twists and turns. It’s only misstep is in focusing all the film’s characters and events in some way around the trial. The trial is something that should happen in Savannah…Savannah isn’t something that should happen in the trial.
Under Clint Eastwood’s solid direction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is definitely a watchable film, but not as good of a film as fans of the book might like.