A Civil Action Legal Drama Movie Analysis

It is impossible to take a 500-page book and turn it into a film without losing some of the important details in the storyline.  The premise of both the book and the movie hold every element of what makes a drama great, including tragedy and a great heroic character.

Central to the theme of the book is the role of the legal system in society.  The book spends pages upon pages emphasizing time spent in court focusing on the trial in order to paint a picture for the reader about the methodology involved in the judicial system.  In 1999, director Steven Zaillian turned the book A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr, was turned into a movie.  However, there are also many differences between the book and the movie that deserve close examination.

The most significant difference between the book and the movie is the movie’s emphasis on the character of Jan Schlichtmann.  The movie tells the story mainly from Jan’s perspective, as he takes on a new case, which could potentially be the biggest case of his life (Zaillian, 1999).  In the movie, Schlichtmann is self-confident. In the book, it is evident that Schlichtmann is the main character.

However, Harr describes him as being a man filled with doubt and suffering from mental problems to include insomnia (Harr, 1996).  However, the author portrays the same character with having very real life characteristics, that the reader can relate to.  However, in the movie, the viewer sees Schlichtmann as being more of a hero and a champion, and, as a result, the viewer is not able to personally identify with Schlichtmann.

The book spends time developing several characters with complex backgrounds including female characters.  This enables the reader to learn all sides of the story and paints a clear definition of what side thinks what.  The book spends a lot of time developing the case so that the reader understands all aspects of the case in detail.

Another major difference between the book and the movie is that the movie does not get into the details of the case itself.  The movie focuses more on the dramatic, Hollywood-esque relationships held between the characters and less on the significance of the case.  Because of this, the viewer of the movie does not get the inside look into the underlings of the legal structure that are experienced when reading the book.  The book, in contrast, is very successful in revealing the lives of the people affected by the case as a result of the flaws in the legal system.

Another difference between the book and the film is the portrayal of the character Anne Anderson.  In the book, Anne Anderson’s character possesses fervent qualities.  She is capable of thought, seeks perseverance and she is central to plot development. In the book, she overcomes her role in as a housewife and conducts research essential to the outcome of the case. In the movie, on the other hand, she is portrayed as being passive and transient.  This is best shown in the early scenes of the movie, where she is dramatized with wearing heavy makeup.

Overall, in comparing the book A Civil Action to the movie, it is evident that there are several exclusions in the movie that keep the movie from achieving the level of greatness that the book holds.  The movie avoids the decision making processes of the minor characters, and, thus lacks the powerful, dramatic feel captured in the book.  In the book, Harr describes the red tape of the legal order as well as the power held by the connectives of the various bureaucracies.  The film, on the other hand, lacks the ability to portray these details.   Readers who watch the movie may experience disappointment.  However, those who view only the movie would greatly benefit from reading the book.


Harr, J. (1996). A Civil Action. New York: First Vintage Books.

Zaillian, S. (1999). A Civil Action. Los Angeles: Walt