Saturday, April 19, 2008

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Thanks to the good folks at Netflix I saw this movie recently. In reading about it on the web, it became apparent that the book which the film was based on was quite an important book. I see now that it was on the NY Times bestseller list for 4 years.

So, after watching the film, I got the book from the library and read it. I know it sounds like a cliche to compare a film unfavorably to the book it is based on, but this reality really hit me like a ton of bricks in reading the book. There is *so* much more in the book than the film was able to portray!

The book is really about the city of Savannah, not about the murder case, which only appears in the last half of the book. The author, whose home is in New York City, started spending more and more time in Savannah and wrote about the eccentric characters he found there. A few of these are found in the film, though, for example, we don't learn in the film why a certain man walks an imaginary dog every day. This is explained in the book.

But it is the city itself, not the eccentric characters, which is at the center of the book. The author explains that Savannah folks do not welcome new industry, preferring they locate elsewhere and allow Savannah to remain unchanged from its colonial past. This is not depicted at all in the film. Some old houses are depicted, but this is no substitute for the detailed descriptions found in the book .

The book describes how Jim Williams was tried 4 times for the murder of his gay lover, surely one of the few times in the history of American jurisprudence that a criminal defendant was tried 4 times for the same crime. The first 2 times resulted in guilty verdicts, but were overturned on appeal due to errors by the trial judge. The 3rd time resulted in a hung jury, when one juror held out for acquittal. Then the decisive 4th trial came around. This time a change of venue was ordered, and a jury in a different town agreed on acquittal in 15 minutes!

The film depicts only the 4th trial, centering on the failure of the police to "bag the hands" of the victim, as testified to by the hospital worker who had to bag the hands after the victim had been brought to the hospital. This meant that the lack of gunpowder residue on the victim's hands,. which the DA made such a bid deal of in the earlier trials, was explained away as it could have been inadvertently wiped off during the process of getting him to the hospital. In fact, the defense brought in a nationally recognized expert who testified that he would have been surprised if there *had* been any gunpowder residue, given the shoddy police work involved. This gave credence to Jim Williams' self-defense argument, which had been shot down at the earlier trials due to the lack of residue on the victim.

The book is part of a genre known as the "journalistic novel". This means it is a true story but is told in fictionalized form. I once asserted that this literary genre was invented by Norman Mailer, but my girlfriend correctly pointed out that it was really Truman Capote with "In Cold Blood" who first used this style.

The Wikipedia entry for "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" pints out some ways in which the book is fictionalized. For example, the author actually came to Savannah a year after the murder, unlike the account in the book. In the film the reporter character is given a love interest, alluringly played by the daughter of director Clint Eastwood, which is not in the book. So, we see that the book takes liberties with the actual events, and the film in turn takes liberties with the events as depicted in the book. But Edward Albee's famous line is apropos here: "fiction is fact distorted into truth".

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