By People Staff
December 08, 1997 12:00 PM

>John Berendt


DELIGHTED AT SEEING HIS BESTSELLING book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil turned into a movie, author John Berendt nonetheless decided to skip the birthing classes. “I didn’t want to see the dailies,” says Berendt. “That was [director Clint Eastwood’s] first draft. No one asked to see my first draft.”

Being hands-off was easy for Berendt, 58, whose nonfiction murder mystery, set in Savannah, was published in 1994, sold more than 2 million copies and has spent 176 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “If I had written the screenplay,” he admits, “the movie would be 25 hours long.”

A movie wasn’t what Berendt, whose precocious talent landed him an editing job at Esquire at 21, had in mind when he visited the sleepy southern town on a whim in 1982. Fascinated by the lore and the locals (particularly Jim Williams, an antiques dealer accused of murdering his gay lover, and the Lady Chablis, a drag queen who plays herself in the film), he moved there to write his book.

At work on “a tale of ambition and duplicity,” set in the high society of Venice in the late 1980s, Berendt says he’s pleased with the film. Despite tepid reviews and a paltry $5.2 million box office take during its first weekend, the movie, he says, was always “going to be a different entity and succeed on its own terms.”