“The Book was Better”
– reader proverb
“The Book was Better” is a feature where I look at a television or film adaptation and the book it was based on and talk about what worked and what didn’t for me in each medium.
Twelve Angry Men is a play written by Reginald Rose about the deliberations of the jury of a homicide trial. Although the jury initially seems close to a guilty verdict, with only a single dissenter voting not guilty, the 8th juror sows a seed of reasonable doubt over the course of the play.
I read very few plays, so this was an interesting reading experience for me. My one quibble is that I found it difficult to keep track of the different characters, who are identified only as Juror 2, Juror 3, etc. and not given names. Without having a visual reference or a proper name for each individual, it often took until the characters had spoken multiple times for me to get a sense of who they were. This was particularly true of the characters who are less forceful presences in the play. Until well into the play I found myself flipping back and forth to remember what each person had said before. This is an issue unique to the print version of the play though and I found it easier to keep track of each character when actors were involved.
Aside from this minor drawback, I found Twelve Angry Men completely captivating. The play is a masterclass in maintaining tension, and it is well paced to peak at the end of the first act, lessen at the beginning of the second act as the characters are given some breathing room, and then to build again as the jury grows closer to a verdict and tempers flare from the opposing jurors. The dialogue is well crafted to reveal pieces of each character’s background, sometimes rapidly and sometimes as a slow reveal, and the characters speak distinctly from one another, even when no actors are involved.
Playwright Reginald Rose also wrote the screenplay for the 1957 black & white film version of Twelve Angry Men, so it’s no surprise that this is an excellent adaptation. Starring Henry Fonda as the dissenting Juror 8, the film sticks to the play in situating the characters almost entirely within one set, the jury room of a New York Court of Law on a hot afternoon. The visual medium allows for the claustrophobic nature of the jury room to be felt as the deliberations go on, and the stifling heat as the characters, many of whom begin wearing full suits, open windows, remove their jackets, mop their brows, and stare at the broken fan.
Part of what makes the play so interesting is that the reader/audience never does get the closure of knowing whether the jury’s verdict is correct or not. In both the 1957 movie adaptation and the original play, Juror 8 does an expert job of building a case as he plants seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of his fellow jurors, and in the end I was convinced by his argument, but there is no way to know for certain if the defendant is guilty or innocent of the crime.
I do think the movie, although still subtle, is less ambiguous than the play though in a few ways. The film makes it obvious that Juror 8 is the person we’re supposed to sympathize with and find ourselves in agreement with, from his reasonable manner and treatment of his fellow jurors to visual cues in the form of his white suit. The film also begins in the courtroom, making the choice to give include a brief shot of the defendant, a scared looking teenager with watering eyes. The play omits the courtroom and the defendant entirely and the judge’s instructions to the jury are given as a voice-over while the curtain opens on the empty jury room.
In both the play and the film it’s easy to spot the belligerent Juror 3, impatient Juror 7, and bigoted Juror 10 early on and to recognize them as people that we have all encountered before, the impatient man making light of the situation because he wants to get to the ballgame he has tickets for, and the man prejudiced against people from the slum, believing violence is in their nature. I think the most pleasant surprise for me watching the film was the earnest nature of Juror 2, who came across as a non-entity on the page but is obviously easily swayed and excited, but well-meaning in this adaptation.
Twelve Angry Men is a classic, and rightly so. It depicts the clash between men of different backgrounds and personalities who hold a boy’s life in their hands and must reach a decision, putting aside their differences and their prejudices, and is a fascinating look at the way the judicial system works.
Verdict: Draw. The film is an excellent adaptation (screenplay written by the original playwright) of a classic play. Worth reading and watching.