Sunday, October 10, 2010

Twelve Angry Men by Sherman L. Sergei

I had a bit of a crisis moment in deciding whom to call the author of this play: The name associated with Twelve Angry Men is Reginald Rose, but Rose's script was for the original television show. This adaptation, which I believe would later become the basis of the final script for the film, is Sergei's--yet Rose's name gets top billing on the book.

So yes, this is a script based on a television show that would later become a movie. That hasn't stopped the school where I work from ordering 400 copies of it and calling it literature, of course, and it rankles me a little bit that we continue to send the message to our students that literary quality doesn't matter.

The good news is that, if you're a student, you miss exactly nothing by watching the film instead of reading the book. You have probably seen it: Twelve jurors are tasked with deciding if a young man from the slums has committed murder by stabbing his father. Eleven of them think it's an open-and-shut case, but the boy's future is spared because the heroic, noble Juror No. Eight insists on pausing to consider the facts again. One by one, he convinces each juror that there is enough "reasonable doubt" to set the boy free.

Really, it's a fairly grim picture not only of the American justice system, but of human nature. What if Eight hadn't been there? Twelve Angry Men has very little faith in the common man's ability to engage in the kind of civic participation that we'd like to believe is a hallmark of the American body politic. These eleven jurors begin the play beholden to their own flawed natures--their impatience, bigotry, pride, cowardice, etc.--and need to be cajoled into doing the right thing. Yet Twelve Angry Men asks us: How many among us are an Eight? One of twelve?

If there is value in teaching this book, I hope it will be that it forces my students to imagine themselves in this situation. Though I love them all, there are not so many Eights among them as they imagine; far too many may see themselves in the prejudice of Juror No. Ten, or the self-defeating meekness of Juror No. Five.

Still, they could probably do that by watching the movie.


Brent Waggoner said...

I really like the movie from the 50's. That's all I have to add.

Christopher said...

The movie's great. The book adds nothing to the experience.

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