A Painted House

A Painted House is a book which takes place in Arkansas and was written by bestselling author John Grisham. It was based on his childhood in Arkansas, and when the book was made into a television movie, it was filmed in Arkansas.

Born in Jonesboro (Craighead County) on February 8, 1955, and raised in northeast Arkansas near Black Oak (Craighead County), Grisham created an evocative portrait of the time and place of his childhood in A Painted House. Set in 1952 Arkansas, it is a departure from his usual legal thriller style, with Grisham writing, “There is not a single lawyer, dead or alive, in this story. Nor are there judges, trials, courtrooms, conspiracies or nagging social issues.”

In 2000, John Grisham published a serialized version of A Painted House in the Oxford American magazine, of which he was publisher at the time. After its serialization, the book was published in 2001. It was his twelfth novel, and almost every review included the phrase, “not your typical Grisham.” Known for his legal thrillers, most people expected a follow-up similar to his previous works, such as The Firm and The Pelican Brief, rather than a tale of struggling Arkansas farmers in 1952.

The book is narrated by farm boy Luke Chandler who lives with his parents and grandparents in a small, shabby, unpainted house. The family rents the eighty acres of cotton they farm, living what Grisham called a “harsh lifestyle.” The symbol of having a painted house becomes the recurring theme of the book. It expresses the desire to rise above life in the unpainted shack of a tenant farmer whose constant struggle to survive and bring in a crop provides the novel’s background.

Stories involving mystery and romance are woven together in the book, including murder and a forbidden love affair between migrant workers. Grisham said the story included “local lore from the Arkansas Delta” that was handed down from his grandfather to his father, including clashes between rival groups of migrant workers, details of everyday life, and sketches of local characters.

For five weeks in the fall of 2002, Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions came to Arkansas to film a television movie version of A Painted House, which aired on the CBS network on the evening of Sunday, April 27, 2003. A major part of the movie was shot in Lepanto (Poinsett County) for the town settings and Clarkedale (Crittenden County) for the rural scenes. Grisham visited the movie set twice, and his father spent a great deal of time on location to ensure its accuracy. This production brought income, excitement, and the chance to appear as movie extras to the people of northeast Arkansas.

In its promotion, the movie was given the tagline, “Desperate times, hard truths, unexpected dangers. One extraordinary summer will change a young boy and his family… forever.” The screenplay for the film was written by Patrick Sheane Duncan (Mr. Holland’s Opus, Courage under Fire) and directed by Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate, A Walk in the Clouds). In the lead role of the grandfather, Eli “Pappy” Chandler, the film starred Scott Glenn, whose screen debut as an actor was in the 1970 film, The Babymaker, written by Arkansan James Bridges. A Painted House also starred Arijia Bareikis (Kathleen Chandler), Robert Sean Leonard (Jesse Chandler), Melinda Dillon (Gran Chandler), and Logan Lerman (Luke Chandler). It received warm reviews, with some stating that it contained elements of the film classic To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as Places in the Heart.

Prior to its national television broadcast on April 27, the film of A Painted House had its world premiere on April 14, 2003, at Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro, at the request of John Grisham himself. Proceeds from the event went to an endowment fund for the Heritage Studies PhD program at ASU.

For the house in the title, set designer Edward Pisoni had used sample sketches drawn by Grisham, and the movie crew built the five-room, 30′ by 60′ house from the ground up. After filming, the house was dismantled, rebuilt, and used as a promotional display at Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, prior to its television broadcast. In May 2003, it was returned to Arkansas when a local group called Citizens for a Progressive Lepanto raised several thousand dollars to have the house brought back to Lepanto in pieces, reassembled, and opened as a museum. It was stocked with many of the movie set items that were auctioned to local citizens when the filming ended. The “Painted House” museum is located on Arkansas Highway 135, south of downtown Lepanto. The building suffered damage in strong storms on April 13, 2022.

For additional information:
Grisham, John. A Painted House. New York: Dell, 2001.

A Painted House.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362001 (accessed April 14, 2022).

Snider, Nan. Lepanto Goes to Hollywood, with the Making of ‘A Painted House.’ Lepanto, AR: 2004.  



Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University


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