The Runaway Jury, by John Grisham, was one of the top ten best-selling novels of the decade in the 1990's. However, when one examines the reviews for the novel when it was published in 1996, it is unclear why it achieved the status it did. Almost no critic found the book to be flawless. Several reviews find that the novel was suspenseful, yet lacked in characterization. Others found that the novel had poor subject matter in that it followed the course of a lawsuit against big tobacco companies and was not as exciting as Grisham's previous novels. Despite these criticisms, the novel spent twenty-three weeks on the top ten bestsellers list in Publishers Weekly in 1996, seven during which it held the number one spot. (Publisher's Weekly, 1996) The reasons for this are many, but primarily, the novel is so successful because its format allows it to exist prominently in the time period in which it was published as well as be altered to deal with other subject matter.
Of course Runaway Jury does owe a significant amount of its popularity to its author's reputation. As John Grisham's seventh novel, Grisham had already captivated audiences with his bestsellers, The Firm and A Time To Kill. These legal thrillers had even been made into successful blockbuster movies. But Jury is not so cut and dry as these previous novels. Not only does it deal with a lawsuit, a good against evil match-up between corporate Big Tobacco and a plaintiff suing over her husband's death to lung cancer, but it also deals with the existence of jury tampering. Thus while Grisham's previous novels deal with such serious issues as firm malpractice in The Firm and questioning the existence of racial justice in A Time to Kill, The Runaway Jury has another dimension besides tobacco in its addition of jury tampering. This makes the novel even more interesting. The reader is not only captivated with whether or not the tobacco industry will be held responsible for selling addictive products, but is also intrigued by how the jury is being manipulated by the novel's main character, Nicholas Easter.
While the novel is successful because of its author and its multiple angles of intrigue, the novel does owe much of its success to its subject matter. While readers may not be as interested in the subject of big tobacco today, the question of whether or not tobacco companies should have been held responsible for the illnesses developed by their consumers was the subject of great debate at the time the novel was published. Before 1996, there had only been one case in which a plaintiff who sued a tobacco company had won. (New Republic) This case, however, had been small in scale and was reversed after an appeal. (New Republic). In August of 1996, just a few months after The Runaway Jury was published, however, a 65 year old ex-smoker with lung cancer sued the third largest tobacco company and won. The plaintiff was awarded 750,000 dollars in damages. (New Republic) It was the first time a jury had come back with a verdict against the tobacco industry and the tobacco company's stock plummeted 15 percent. (New Republic). Of course Grisham's book can not be credited with causing such a verdict, but it is clear that the novel was dealing with a very prominent issue of the time. Other books were coming out about the tobacco industry's manipulation of the amount of nicotine they placed in cigarettes. Philip Hilts came out with a book of just this sort entitled Smokescreen. (New Republic) Also, following the case, advertising restrictions were placed on the tobacco industry, prohibiting it from publishing ads that were particularly appealing to a younger generation of children and teens. One might remember the disappearance of Joe Camel, the cartoon camel that promoted Camel cigarettes. After the FDA restricted advertising and began regulating the amount of nicotine that tobacco companies used in cigarettes, the impact of the tobacco issue began to diminish. After all, only persons who had begun smoking before 1966, as this is the year in which the surgeon general began placing warning on cigarette packages, had any valid case against tobacco companies. (New Republic) Thus any other cases against the tobacco companies were futile. Smokers now have plenty of warning about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. Even Grisham himself agrees with the notion that persons should not be able to sue tobacco companies when they know smoking causes illness. He stated in an interview with USA Today that:
Juries have always said, ?everybody knows smoking is dangerous, so if you do it for thirty-five or forty years and you die, don't run to us and expect us to make you rich.'? We all know somebody who has quit smoking.(USA Today)
This is not to say that smoking is not an issue to this day. However, it is a different kind of issue than it was in 1996. In fact, as of 2000, some restaurants were attempting to ban smoking from their premises and being sued for it. (MPR News.) But these cases deal with the civil liberty of smoking. They involve smokers exhibiting their right to smoke, not suing the companies who sell them their cigarettes. It would appear then, that to readers of this day and age, the issue of tobacco would be an old one, and not as interesting as say the race issue in A Time to Kill
. Then why is there a movie version of The Runaway Jury
currently in the making? In 2003, The Runaway Jury
will be released into theaters starring Actress Rachel Weisz, (Enemy at the Gates
), and Actor John Cusak, (High Fidelity.
) The movie, however, will replace the concept of Big Tobacco with the more current and controversial issue of gun control and gun manufacturing. With recent events involving guns in the news; such as the school shootings at Columbine and the sniper shootings in the D.C. area, the issue of whether citizens should be allowed to own guns has become a serious one. In the movie, a widow of a man shot in an office shooting sues the gun manufacturer of the weapon used. In the movie she claims the manufacturer sold the weapon illegally. (Yahoo movies) The fact that Grisham's novel could be manipulated to focus on a different issue illustrates another reason for why Grisham's novel was so popular. The issue discussed originally in the novel may have been one that gradually grew out of significance over time, but gun control certainly takes the place of tobacco quite nicely in the plot; as would drug or alcohol manufacturers if these entities were controversially in the public forefront. Ultimately the novel addresses the responsibility of corporate America for actions they take which put the American public at risk. Thus Grisham's novel sets good against evil, and this combination has always been popular for bestsellers and for the entertainment industry at large.
The way in which The Runaway Jury
is alterable to fit the current times is characteristic of other bestsellers as well. For instance, Mickey Spillane's novel, Kiss Me Deadly
, was originally a novel in which the protagonist took it upon himself to discover the reason behind why he was involved in the killing of an unknown woman and why he was beaten by the mob. In the novel, he discovers that the mob is hiding a two million dollar stash of dope. (Spillane) However, in the movie version, which appeared later, the stash of dope ended up being a nuclear weapon, and the mob was a faction of the government. ( Saville) In the same way, The Runaway Jury
is manipulated to reflect issues of the time in which it is performed in other media. The fact that these two novels can be manipulated in other ways and still be effective in terms of the plot is undoubtedly another reason for their great popularity.
What makes The Runaway Jury
even more brilliant is that Grisham includes the other dimension of jury tampering in the novel. It is almost as if Grisham foresaw that the issue of Big Tobacco would eventually become irrelevant and if that issue had been the only one focused on in the novel, certainly the novel would not continue to sell so greatly. Even if Grisham's name were printed on the cover, people would gradually grow disinterested in an issue that had already been resolved in the public sphere. This is where the jury tampering side of the plot comes in. Much of the suspense of the novel is based on how the main character of Nicholas Easter will convince the Jury to side with him, and what exactly his motive is behind convincing the jury to produce the verdict that they eventually do. Regardless of what issue is being debated, the idea of runaway juries is intriguing in any case. For this reason, Grisham's novel has been able to survive and will be able to survive in the years to come. The novel's title is, The Runaway Jury
and the caption in the front of the novel reads,
Every Jury has a leader and the verdict belongs to him.(Grisham)
This caption is what lures the reader in, it is not the tobacco plot.
Thus The Runaway Jury
, while not considered one of John Grisham's greatest novels, is popular for several different reasons; from the inclusion of John Grisham's name on the cover, to being included as a legal thriller which dealt with a controversial issue prevalent in the public sphere at the time of its publishing. But greatly essential to that popularity is Grisham's two-dimensional plot line. It is this format that greatly contributed to its popularity in its first publishing, and which allows the novel to remain popular to this day.
Grisham, John, The Runaway Jury
, Doubleday Publishers, New York. Copyright 1996
Saville, Victor, Kiss Me Deadly
, movie version 1955
Publishers Weekly, Vol.243. No.23-40 1996. Alderman Stacks. Z 1219.p98 1996- Number of weeks
Gladwell, Malcolm. Book Review, New Republic
magazine. The New Republic Inc. Copyright
Nov. 4, 1996
USA Today interview, People Weekly Magazine. "Smoke and Mirrors," Time Inc. May 20,1996
Accessed off Info Trac One File Plus. Search for Runaway Jury
MPR News, Stephanie Hemphill, New Front opens Anti-Tobacco War
,April 6th, 2000
Yahoo Movies, www.movies.yahoo.com, Greg Scmitz. Copyright, 2002 Yahoo Inc. Search for Runaway
Spillane, Mickey, Kiss Me Deadly
, New American Library. Copyright 1951. The Mike Hammer
Collection Vol.II, Copyright 2001.