There's no question that, a la Stephen King, John Grisham writes books that read like movies. You can actually see the scenes in your mind as you turn the pages — and sometimes even imagine who will be cast, as with Tom Cruise in "The Firm" and Julia Roberts in "The Pelican Brief."

So, it's no surprise that "The Client" is a slick Hollywood thriller. What is surprising is that while the book focuses directly on a young boy, the movie gives him less emphasis. Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising, though, since Brad Renfro, who plays Mark Sway, the book's central character, seems less like a real boy than a petulant child actor who is being coached.

Still, it's hard to dislike a movie that offers two knockout performances at its core — and Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones both deliver the goods.

The movie is quite faithful to the book in its storyline, which is both good and bad. The ending for example, as with "The Firm" and "The Pelican Brief," feels more like the story has simply run out of gas than that it has come to a conclusion. On the other hand, if you go in wanting your book-implanted expectations met, for the most part you won't be disappointed.

The film begins as young Mark Sway (Renfro) and his little brother are in the woods near their trailer park home, smoking cigarettes they've stolen from their fragile, hard-working single mother (Mary-Louise Parker). A car drives up and they watch from a hiding place as the driver attempts to commit suicide. Mark intervenes and the man gives him a startling piece of information before blowing his own brains out. Mark gets away in time to save himself, but Mark's brother goes into a coma.

Mark is an independent, street-smart character, and as he tries to decide how much to tell the police, he finds himself hounded by the FBI and threatened by mobsters. The FBI investigation is led by a charismatic, egotistical federal prosecutor named Roy Foltrigg (Jones), who attempts to manipulate the child for his own purposes.

But smart Mark hires himself an attorney, Reggie Love (Sarandon), who tries her best to help him — despite the fact that he repeatedly lies to her. Reggie, who has had her own share of hard knocks, recognizes that Mark is a troubled child, so she swallows her pride, tries to balance her love of the law with her innate sense of right and wrong and dedicates herself to protecting Mark as well as defending him.

Director Joel Schumacher ("Falling Down," "Dying Young," the upcoming "Batman Forever"), working from a simplistic screenplay by Akiva Goldsman ("Batman Forever") and Robert Getchell ("Bound for Glory," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"), does a perfunctory job of moving things along but he is unable to bring a sympathetic performance from newcomer Renfro. When he's called upon to be emotional he's over the top and when he's supposed to be thoughtful he seems sullen. As a result, he seems to have built up Sarandon's character . . . which wasn't a bad idea, though it muddles the film's point of view.

Sarandon is fabulous, carefully developing the character's painful back story and carrying much of the film with her own brand of fiery charisma and fierce intelligence. Jones, in a smaller role, is nothing less than stunning as the egotistical district attorney labeled "Reverend" by the media because he's constantly spouting scripture. Ossie Davis is also quite good as the judge who rules on whether Mark must be compelled to answer the FBI's questions. But even worse than Renfro is Anthony LaPaglia as Barry "The Blade" Muldanno, a stereotypical Italian mobster who seems like a cartoon in this company.

All in all, it's a mixed bag — but enjoyable enough to please Grisham fans. And it's certainly a step up from "The Pelican Brief."

"The Client" is rated PG-13, though it's a bit rough for young children, with considerable violence, and profanity, as well as some vulgarity and drug abuse.