The Devil's In The Details: THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE 25 Years Later

The film is not particularly faithful beyond the basic premise of Neiderman's 1990 novel.

By Brian Collins · @BrianWCollins · October 17, 2022, 4:30 PM PDT

I have been a fan of 1997's "Al Pacino is the Devil" supernatural drama The Devil's Advocate for a number of years now, but it wasn't until recently that I got around to reading the source material by Andrew Neiderman that's been collecting dust on my shelf since it was purchased at a library sale years ago. And I didn't even realize until I had nearly finished reading that the film was coming up on its 25th anniversary, which is always a good excuse to revisit something and see how it holds up now that you're probably older than some of the main characters were when you first saw it.

If you've read the book, you probably know what I just discovered: the film is not particularly faithful beyond the basic premise, with even most of the names being changed. Keanu Reeves stars as Kevin Lomax (Kevin Taylor in the book), a lawyer we first meet as he is defending a schoolteacher accused of sexually assaulting a few students. This is one of the few scenes in the movie that's more or less unchanged from the book; the teacher was changed to a male character, but otherwise, it's the same deal. In both, Kevin knows his client is guilty but also that the girl is lying about some particulars, so he sells his soul and makes her admit to lying on the stand about certain things, which is enough to convince the jury to acquit his client.

This gets him the attention of an associate of John Milton (Pacino), who runs a high-powered New York law firm. He gives Kevin a card and has him come check out the office in hopes they can convince him to take a job there, and after about five minutes of weighing his options, Kevin accepts. From this point on, only the basic story remains: Kevin and his wife (Mary Ann in the movie, Miriam in the novel) move into a luxury New York apartment in the same building as Milton (who has the penthouse), Kevin is assigned a high profile case, discovers some strange things, and eventually confronts his new boss and accuses him of being the devil. However, the particulars have been modified, often drastically, resulting in a much different ending that largely revolves around a plot point the screenwriters conjured out of thin air.



If you've seen the movie even once, you probably remember the big twist reveal near the end: Reeves' character is actually the devil's illegitimate son, and he's been lured there to mate with his half-sister (Connie Nielsen as Christabella, a character with no real book counterpart) and produce the Antichrist to ensure Milton's power can grow even stronger in the new Millennium. There's nothing like this in the book; Milton has no familial connection to Kevin, but his plan for him is even more devious. Instead, he tricks Kevin into murdering him so that the young man will end up in prison, where his considerable law skills can be utilized to help all the terrible folks in there (i.e. Milton's "people") get new trials and be sprung free. As Neiderman has often had icky incest themes in his novels (he is the ghostwriter for V.C. Andrews, after all) I was quite surprised to see that the film's brother/sister stuff was a complete invention of screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Jonathan Lemkin (possibly just Gilroy; Taylor Hackford's director commentary cites him and him alone nearly every time the film's screenplay is mentioned).



Another huge change is the dynamic between Kevin and Miriam/Mary Ann, played by Charlize Theron. In the movie, she's at first thrilled by their newfound fortune but quickly becomes withdrawn and isolated, depressed over Kevin's long work hours and (later) learning she is unable to have children. Meanwhile, Kevin basically ignores her struggles until it's too late, as she is sent to an institution after attempting suicide, later succeeding in a second attempt right before his eyes. In the book, it's closer to the other way around; she's hesitant at first, but after making friends with a few of the wives of other law firm partners, she is enraptured by their new life. Meanwhile, Kevin is continually troubled by what he learns and how he is expected to do his job, seldom enjoying the luxuries he'd been handed. In the book, it's Kevin who is ultimately seen as crazy while Miriam continues to thrive, and by the time he goes to jail, she's basically ready to wash her hands clean of her marriage to him.


This is intensified by changing their origin. In the book, Kevin and his wife live in upstate New York, far enough from Manhattan for their move to be a big change but not so far that they can't visit their old town on occasion. In the movie, they come from Florida, so it makes sense that Theron's character feels isolated; had they kept their original roots, her character could have just driven back home. One wishes they chose a different locale though; whether you're a fan of the movie or not, I think we can all agree that the southern accent Reeves (mostly) sports is less than successful.

Kevin's big case is similar enough: a wealthy businessman is accused of killing his wife, though the movie adds two more victims: a maid and the wife's son from a previous marriage. But while the book's version is a pretty bland tale of a guy who wanted his invalid wife out of the way so he could inherit her family's business, the film's version (played by Craig T. Nelson) is a celebrity New York real estate developer who has a building named after him (Cullen Towers) and a gold-laced apartment building. Sound like anyone familiar? Indeed, they went so far as to use the former President's actual apartment to stand in for Cullen's and even name-drop the actual Trump in an earlier scene (to establish that the two men co-exist in this world and are definitely not the same guy, in case you were suspicious!). But... well, this traditional reference for '90s movies set in upper-class New York plays differently now than it did in 1997, let's just leave it at that.



Most of that stuff is surface level and wouldn't change much, but the key difference is the tone, as Hackford and Gilroy reshaped Neiderman's Grisham-lite beach reader into a full-on morality tale. The supernatural elements are practically non-existent for most of the film, with the trailer giving away most of them, and they're all just buildup for (spoiler again!) the end, where Keanu's character decides to kill himself to avoid spawning the Antichrist, only for the camera to then zoom out from his reflection in a mirror in the opening scene and reveal that the entire movie was a vision of sorts. With the insight of what will happen, this time, he recuses himself from the case to avoid having to defend a man he knows to be guilty, which will ruin his career but keep his soul intact.


One might wonder why Hackford and co. didn't have more fun with the "the Devil is a lawyer" concept when it was all going to be undone anyway, but it's the rare case where the "it was all a dream" type twist doesn't undo the film's strengths. Yes, it's a bit too long (even Hackford admits it's all a two-hour setup for the 17-minute showcase with Pacino revealing himself/his plan), but an epilogue shows us that it's all real in a way. On his way out of the courtroom, we learn that Pacino-Devil is still around and looking to get Keanu (presumably still his son) one way or another. It's not a sequel-style setup, but more of a victory for both of its lead characters: we know that Kevin will do the right thing when pressed, but we also know that Lucifer is still out there trying to make his case. The book lets Milton win outright, resulting in a total downer for Kevin, who has lost his wife, his life of luxury, and now his soul if he wants to keep from being murdered in prison.

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Everyone's mileage will vary, of course, but for me, I have to say that I prefer the film to the novel. As written, Neiderman's story would have been a pretty decent movie but not exactly a memorable one - certainly not anything worth commemorating on its anniversary. Even with the same cast, the novel provides little material for Pacino to eventually sink his teeth into (this version of the climax has him doing almost nothing when Kevin confronts him, whereas that's the high point of the film for the veteran scenery chewer), and since Kevin's character is suspicious almost instantly, there wouldn't be much range for Reeves either. However, we would be spared the terrible southern accents, so there's something. But Neiderman's novel is enjoyable enough on its own, so if you got the time, I say watch/read them both for an interesting look at not only how an adaptation can change so many details while keeping the same plot, but also for the novelty of realizing that the big budget Hollywood movie has deeper characterization and more to say than the 300+ page novel that inspired it.