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Countdown to Savannah: The Book and the Movie (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)

Kathy Wood (kaydee)

In early 2007, we started our official Countdown to Savannah. Each Sunday, we posted a different topic about this special city where we met for our first Great Slow Travel Gathering in Spring 2008.

With 63 posts over 14+ months, we learned a lot about the many facets of this historic, hospitable and intriguing American city. Our weekly posts touched on Savannah's history, famous people, architecture, food, culture, surrounding area and much more. We hope this information acquaints you with Savannah, entices you to visit this historic city, and prepares you for a very memorable trip.

The Book Became The Movie

It’s been 13 years since the publication of “The Book” and 10 years since the release of “The Movie,” two events of the mid-1990's that introduced millions of people around the world to the beauty and culture of Savannah, Georgia. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (The Book)—a somewhat loose non-fiction account by John Berendt—became the basis for “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (The Movie), a slightly different story produced and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Berendt, a writer with Esquire Magazine and former editor of New York Magazine, was a frequent visitor to Savannah and framed his book around the story of a sensational murder trial involving one of Savannah’s leading citizens, Jim Williams. Williams was an antique dealer who restored historic homes and gave elaborate parties. His most significant restoration was the famous Mercer House (built by the great-grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer), which he made his home and where the murder described in The Book took place. “The book contains one beguiling and outrageous story after another--all true--in which Berendt offers up a rogue's gallery of true-life rascals, eccentrics and proper society folk who live behind the stately facades of Savannah's grandest houses.” (Random House website) The Book is an appealing blend of southern fiction, gossip, murder mystery, and travelogue.

It took Berendt seven years to write The Book and then another three years to get it published. His years of work paid off, as “Midnight” became a commercial success that was well-respected by critics and described by some as “a phenomenon.” The Book was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, was on the bestseller list for over four years, sold over three million copies, and was translated into 23 languages. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” became one of the biggest bestsellers of the modern day and a Southern classic—and it definitely heightened the interest in Savannah as an intriguing destination for tourists.

The Book became The Movie under the guidance of actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood. The cast featured Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams and John Cusack as writer John Kelso (representing the author John Berendt), but also included many Savannah residents, some of whom played themselves—most notably the memorable female impersonator, The Lady Chablis. Savannah’s Sonny Seiler—Jim Williams’ lawyer in real life—ended up playing the trial judge. And even Seiler's waddling bulldog Uga—the famous mascot of the University of Georgia—had a part in The Movie.

Perhaps the biggest star of the movie was Savannah itself. Several scenes were filmed in Savannah in various locations including Monterey Square, the Mercer House, Forsyth Park, Armstrong House, Clary’s Café and Bonaventure Cemetery. The party scenes were filmed inside the Mercer House, with Jim Williams’ family and friends serving as extras. And, of course, the movie’s music was Johnny Mercer music.

Learn more about "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil":

Random House website - publisher's overview of The Book
New Georgia Encyclopedia - The Book and the Movie
Simulacrum Savannah (Literature Film Quarterly) - detailed article about Savannah, the book and the movie
Stoking the Star Maker Machinery (New York Times) - John Berendt and the book
Random House Reader's Guide
Reading Group Guide

Buy The Book, The Movie and The Music (Amazon links):

The Movie - DVD
The Book - paperback
The Music - movie soundtrack featuring the music of Johnny Mercer


All About Savannah: Links to many information pages about Savannah (where to eat, where to stay, places of interest, getting around town, and more)

Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2007

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