Grisham Kranks: Socko opening weekend defies critics


John Grisham got an early Christmas present. Christmas with the Kranks, the movie based on his bestseller Skipping Christmas, seized the number-three spot in the crowded pool of Thanksgiving releases.

A comedy, Kranks delivered $32 million over the five-day weekend to edge out another holiday film, The Polar Express, and trounce Alexander, an epic by Oliver Stone, the director with whom Grisham has publicly sparred.

"It's good news and bad news," says Grisham. "It's always good news to open like that."

On the other hand, there are the reviews. "I don't read reviews," he says. "I've been told they're horrendously bad."

Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis star as Luther and Norah Krank, who decide to forego Christmas for a cruise, much to the dismay of their neighbors, led by Dan Aykroyd.

Grisham, who has over 60 million books in print, broke out of the legal thriller genre in 2001 with Painted House and Skipping Christmas. Now number two on this week's New York Times list of fiction paperback bestsellers, the holiday fantasy about getting away from it all proves it has perennial legs.

With seven other novels adapted for the big screen, the release of Christmas with the Kranks is almost business as usual for Grisham.

"To be honest," Grisham says, "January 2005 will be the 15th consecutive year I've published a book a year– and in some years I've done two."

The author of 17 bestsellers sits down with the Hook in his huge, minimalist office space on the Downtown Mall and talks about why he doesn't read reviews, the mystery of what works at the box office, and what people on his Christmas list won't be getting this year.

What's the difference between releasing a best-selling novel and having a hit movie release?

 I have nothing to do with the movies. With the Kranks, we did go to New York for the premiere, and that was the first time in a while. I did no interviews– this is the first one. We never went to the set. They built one in L.A. with 13 houses and invited us out. We talked about it, but we couldn't get out there.

What inspired Skipping Christmas ?

 I woke up on December 26 four years ago. I was tired and bloated. I was stuffing plastic bags with wrapping paper and debris and taking them outside. The pile got bigger and bigger.

I went through the kitchen, and the counters were full of fruitcakes and bad wine that nobody would ever drink. I thought, what a waste of money.

I made a list of all the things you'd have to give up if you skipped Christmas– Christmas cards, gifts, the tree, parties– the list got pretty long.

What inspired the title Christmas with the Kranks?

That's a typical Hollywood story. Another movie, Surviving Christmas with Ben Affleck, was so bad, they didn't release it last year. It was a dog. But it cost $30 million, and it was released this October. There's a rule in Hollywood that two movies released within six weeks can't have titles that sound alike like Skipping Christmas and Surviving Christmas.

How'd you like the movie?

I enjoyed it a lot. It's really odd when you see something you've written up on the screen. When you write it, you're having to visualize it, and it's odd to see how someone else filmed it.

I tried to make the book as funny as possible. In the legal thrillers, they make me take the humor out, even the one-liners. I put them in now just to irritate them.

Chris Columbus wrote the script, and they stuck in more slapstick. But it's a very faithful adaptation. That's all you can ask for.

Your contempt of critics is pretty well known, and the critics have slammed Christmas with the Kranks. So when Roger Ebert calls it "a holiday movie of stunning awfulness," does that bother you– or is the real story in the number of people who saw it over the weekend and the $32 million it brought in?

After awhile, you just tune it out. I used to read reviews in the early days. Now I just take it with a grain of salt. My goal is to write high-quality popular fiction. When it comes to the movies, I don't make the movies. Life's too short to worry about what Roger Ebert says.

You've called the movie of The Chamber a "train wreck." Why did you hate it so much?

It was a perfectly dreadful movie based on a dreadful screenplay. It just didn't work. They messed the story up.

What's your favorite movie made from one of your books?

The Rainmaker. Francis Ford Coppola directed it in '96 or maybe '97. It had a very young Matt Damon, Jon Voight, and Danny DeVito. I spent more time on that set. Coppola is a writer, and he really wanted me to read the script and make suggestions.

The movie opened the weekend before The Titanic and made about $50 million. It's doing okay on home video. That's the big thing now: movies are like the previews for video.

How can a movie like The Kranks rake it in while a movie like Mickey– with a moral message and lots of father-son bonding– can't even find a distributor?

I'm way beyond answers on that one. Hugh Wilson and I made the movie here in 2001. We used local people, and we made a good kids' baseball movie. That's when the fun stopped.

Disney was anxious for us to make it– but they didn't take it. As we worked our way down through the distributors, everybody said no.

It's a hard movie to pigeonhole. It's not a Bad News Bears. It's a father-son story, and there's the cheating element. We thought it was a good PG movie to take your family to.

When we said we'd distribute it, we released it in 18 markets. We spent more money promoting it, and I went to all those openings and did a lot of interviews. I saw it 30 times. I still think it's a good movie. Moms, dads, and kids love it, but the buzz never caught on. It'll come out on DVD in February. Four or five years down the road, we'll break even.

I'm not able to answer why some movies make it. Some of mine haven't. Runaway Jury had Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Gene Hackman. That did $50 million. It kind of bothers me when a good movie like Runaway Jury doesn't make back its money. It will eventually.

Is everyone on your Christmas list getting a Mickey DVD this year?

The people on my list are pretty much sick of Mickey. They're Mickey-ed out.

You do a cameo in Mickey. Any desire to appear in any more movies?

That was the first and last time. I did it to save the $10,000 we were going to pay someone to do what I do every year as Little League baseball commissioner.

What's your favorite Christmas movie?

A Christmas Story, the one about the kid who wants a BB gun. I love The Grinch– the cartoon, not the movie. And there have been some great variations on A Christmas Carol.

Do you have a friendly rivalry with J.K. Rowling over the number-one-writer-in-the-world slot?

[He laughs.] There's no doubt who's number one. I was number one for a long time. I tried to act like it was no big deal, but I kind of miss it.

You've done something pretty unusual: You've skipped genres, but readers haven't skipped you. What's next– a tragic love story? Romantic comedy? Children's fantasy?

The next one is called The Broker, and comes out January 11. I can't look 10 years down the road, but I can see a legal thriller for the next five years. I can see a smaller book, like Skipping Christmas.

But I can't write romance or sci-fi or horror stories. When you write about lawyers and the law, the material is endless. As long as legal thrillers are popular, I'll keep writing 'em.

img src="/images/issues/2004/0348/cover-allen">
Tim "Santa Clause" Allen is on a holiday roll with the

img src="/images/issues/2004/0348/cover-curtis">
Jamie Lee Curtis moves from
Halloween to Christmas, keeping her look of terror intact.

img src="/images/issues/2004/0348/cover-akyroyd">
Dan Akyroyd demands a Frosty on every roof in Grisham's new flick.


In his gallery-like office on the Downtown Mall, John Grisham chalks up a good opening weekend with
Christmas with the Kranks, and ponders the mysteries of why Mickey didn't find a distributor.