'A Time to Kill' – the Play

What’s being bill as the “Pre-Broadway World Premiere” of the play, “A Time To Kill, ” based on John Grisham’s  first novel, begins May 6 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C . Adopted for the stage by Tony Award winner Rupert Holmes, the 1989 book (and the 1996 film) and the new play deal with a Vietnam veteran’s reaction a horrific crime perpetrated on his daughter and the racially charged aftermath, played out in a Mississippi courtroom. The Arena Stage production runs through June 19.

Here’s our brief review of the heavily promoted movie (which featured a slew of stars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Ashley Judd, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Spacey and Patrick McGoohan), which appeared in the in-print “Arts of War” column in the September 1996 issue of The Veteran. (Spoiler alert: read no further if you don’t want to know details of the crime.)

As all viewers of summertime TV movie trailers know, the Hollywood version of John Grisham’s first novel A Time to Kill (1989), deals with the racially charged trial of a black man in Mississippi. In the novel Grisham makes it plain that the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey, is a Vietnam veteran. Hailey even uses an M-16 to shoot and kill the two evil white men who had brutally raped his 12-year-old daughter.

In the movie, written by Akiva Goldsman, the word “Vietnam” is not mentioned, and it isn’t until well into the trial that we hear of Carl Lee Hailey’s “service during the war.” The movie, which opened July 24, stayed faithful to Grisham’s sympathetic portrait of Carl Lee (played supremely well by Samuel L. Jackson, above, right ) as a family man with a steady job who is driven to act in extreme anguish after the horror that befalls his daughter.

Despite his one act of violent vigilantism, Carl Lee can be put into the positive category in Hollywood’s not-so-hot history of portraying Vietnam vets on the screen. On the other hand, it’s a good bet that the movie’s one phrase relating to Carl Lee’s military service will not even register with many viewers.

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