Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.5


A Civil Action: A Lesson In Mass Media Forms

Book:  Jonathan Harr.  Random House.  1996.

Film: Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. 1999.

By Ellen W. Gorsevski

Jonathan Harr's book, A Civil Action, is a fine example of how structural violence operates. In short, the nonfiction book is the story of an elite, Boston lawyer's descent into the chaotic web of stifling local, state, and federal bureaucracy, corporate deceit and apathy, human ignorance, environmental devastation, and the tragedy of many people's deaths as the result of this complex and interwoven institutionalized violence. In contrast, the film version of the book, also of the same title, featuring John Travolta as an arrogant, self-important lawyer, is a fine example of how the media - especially major Hollywood movies - often fall short in their capacity of depicting stories of structural violence. The film also illustrates how Hollywood films often contribute to the popular myth of the successful lone hero, while they overlook the interconnectedness of people and the power of grassroots, nonviolent action.

Structural violence, or that violence which is embedded in procedures, laws, cultural norms, and bureaucratic red tape, "is as destructive and immoral as physical violence and should be avoided and loathed by those who preach nonviolence" (Mathiot 248). Therefore, in peace and conflict courses in which issues relating to structural violence are covered, using media, including books or films, can be an effective means to illustrating what structural violence is and how it operates through the layers of people, bureaucracies, and institutions in various places and times. Having students first read Harr's book, and then compare it to the film currently in theaters, would be a productive exercise in critical thinking and in spurring students to see how issues of nonviolence and structural violence are treated in popular media.

Johann Galtung maintains that nonviolence and success stories featuring nonviolent activism and activists are most often overlooked in the mass media because such stories frequently lack a central "hero" or "heroine" character, while they also lack a definitive beginning and ending. The mass media, especially popular films, thrive upon hero oriented stories and definitive endings, which fit neatly into the print media or broadcast news format requirements for specific, tidy story lengths or visual shots and prescribed durations for sound bites.

Although Harr does focus most closely upon the character of Jan Schlichtmann, Harr's book is able to surmount the problem of being overly hero-centric. Unlike the film, which exaggerates the role of Travolta's character, the book provides a compelling and detailed account of structural violence through revealing the myriad people and lives affected by flaws in the justice system, the corporate system, the class system, and the old-boy's network, to name a few. In the book, other characters come to the fore, and Jan remains the link to them all. The hapless young geologist sitting day after day on the witness stand, clutching in sweaty palms the picture of his wife and baby daughter, is just one of many images of pathos that the book features and the film version omits.

Omissions are telling. One productive discussion question one could pose to students is this: if you had been the director of the film version of A Civil Action, what would you have done differently to reveal how structural violence operates? Obviously, one cannot take a 500-page book and transform it into a 2-hour movie without paring down the story line; much must be left out. However, considering the rhetorical, directorial, and editorial choices which were taken in the making of the film, it is clear that other story telling options could have been taken. This is not an exercise to argue decisions related to financial risks, which are of vital concern to most major Hollywood productions. Clearly, the producers made the film from the screenplay they thought would sell best at the box office. Rather, this is an exercise to determine how the story could have been told in film, were money no object, and still retain the book's integrity and purpose of unmasking how structural violence occurs.

One of the most obvious ways that the issue of structural violence was avoided or greatly diluted in the movie was that the film portrays the case as being more about strong personalities of powerful men, and the illegal or unethical decisions that these men opted to take. While in the book Harr does render in detail these powerful people and their poor decisions, Harr goes to great lengths to describe the layers of bureaucracies and the minor players, those obscure people inside the bureaucracies. The film studiously avoids such minor characters. Harr explains the decisions (and deadly indecision) of the town of Woburn's water works, the red tape of the legal order, and the role that class and power play in " luck." Harr recounts with harrowing accuracy the bumbling decisions and ignorance and pettiness that is often the cornerstone of systems that are structurally violent. The film, instead, focuses nearly exclusively on the purposeful malevolence of a handful of powerful men. Whereas Harr's account reveals the intricacy and interconnectedness of all of these gridlocked systems of bureaucracy and people, the film overly simplifies these networks and nearly makes the system seem streamlined and justified.

Another obvious difference between the story line of the book and that of the film is the film's virtual exclusion of women from being players in the story. Johann Galtung maintains that because many nonviolent social movements are organized by women and people of color and people from lower socio-economic strata, these movements are often ignored in the media. Although the film does carry Anne Anderson at least visually as a central character, she is portrayed as rather bland and passive. Anne's two boldest actions in the film are (1) calling in and embarrassing the lawyer on a live radio talk show for putting her case at the bottom of the stack and (2) walking out at the end when the law firm brings in a meager financial settlement with one of the polluting firms. Compare that to her role in the book, in which Anne is fleshed out as a bona fide investigator and an "adamant" local social activist for whom it was all she could do to try "not to talk about it all the time" (Harr 25-26). The book opens with Anne as a central figure in cracking and pursuing the case about the link between the polluted water and leukemia deaths in the neighborhood. Anne, as a woman, a mere "housewife without training" becomes empowered by overcoming her grief over her child's death and doing something about it. In the film, Anne's character is reduced to a wispy haired waif, wearing heavy make up. This gross reduction of her role from the one in the story that is told in the book to that of a cardboard character in the film illustrates precisely what Galtung means when he says that nonviolent social activism does not sell well in the popular mass media: it is edited to the point of apparent impotence or deleted altogether.

The mass media, particularly the blockbuster Hollywood film genre, look for flash, for power, for position, wealth. Indeed, the character of Jan as portrayed by Travolta fits the bill for the media archetype. Whereas in the book Harr describes Jan as being young, thin, prone to panic attacks, insomnia and self doubt, in the film version Jan is Travoltafied: he is physically large and stocky, totally self-confident, smug and smarmy. Jacques Ellul argues that heroism is a key element in contemporary communications systems which are inherently structurally violent (and thus propagandistic). Ellul maintains this hero worship fosters a 'do-nothing' sensibility in masses of people:

The cult of the hero is the absolutely necessary complement of the massification of society. We see the automatic creation of this cult in connection with champion athletes, movie stars. . . . This exaltation of the hero proves that one lives in a mass society. The individual who is prevented by circumstances from becoming a real person who can no longer express himself through personal thought or action, who finds his aspirations frustrated, projects onto the hero all he would wish to be. He lives vicariously and experiences the . . . exploits of the god with whom he lives in spiritual symbiosis. . . The hero becomes model and father, power and mythical realization of all that the individual cannot be (Ellul 172).

Thus the very form of the film media with its hero worship (with Travolta, Hollywood's 'come-back kid' as hero) adds another layer to the crippling structural violence that fosters inaction and celebrates passivity on the part of the film's viewer.

In The Violence Mythos, Barbara Whitmer lays out a compelling argument that our intellectual, cultural, and linguistic traditions falsely create limitations for our world view, making us believe that we as human beings are condemned to a supposedly violent human nature. The film version of the story perpetuates such a limiting world view. Whitmer defines the " violence mythos" as "a collection of beliefs that articulates attitudes in Western culture about violence" (1). In this violence mythos, Whitmer includes the following aspects of our culture and systems of theory and belief:

. . . the war hero myth, the victimizer/victim dynamic of exploitation, the mind/body dualism, the cowboy myth, the myth of competitive individualism, the theory of innate violence, the myth of male aggression, the military-industrial complex, technological determinism. . . the subordination of women, the myth of the superiority of rationality over emotion and creativity, and the myth of the elite human species (1).

All of these aspects are deconstructed in Harr's book, but are reaffirmed in the film version of the story. Whitmer cites as the symptoms of the violence mythos many aspects of contemporary thought that can be traced to theories of rhetoric, politics, culture, and society. She writes:

The violence mythos is a matrix of cultural discourse that influences institutions, symbolic discourse, beliefs, attitudes, and social practices. The violence mythos is based upon control as exploitive force, dualism, hierarchy, detachment, and the mind/body split, all abstracted elements of trauma experience and symbolized in her mythology (4).

Through Travolta, the film reaffirms the hero mythology, while through its complexity and depth and scope, the book demythologizes the idea that power is always overt. The book reveals the structural and cultural factors that work in tandem to create violent effects: in the case of Woburn, the complex systems cause the death's of many people, including children.

Unlike Travolta's movie star of the film version of the story, in the book, Jan is an anti-hero: he is often weak, vulnerable, all too human. In the book, Harr portrays Jan in scenes that range from Jan bursting into tears when trying to get a former plant worker to serve as a witness against one of the polluting companies to, at the end of the book, dropping off the face of society to live lost in the wilderness, camping in solitude and contemplating suicide and the meaning of life. Jan is socially, philosophically, and economically a loser in the end of Harr's book. The reader finishes the book with a profound sense of the injustice of it all. The reader is invited to feel a sense of sorrow and loss, as well as a grand sense of the inane and complex structural violence of many aspects of our contemporary society. The warmest feeling one could possibly glean from the end of the book is that a human being tried to fight the structurally violent behemoth and lost.

In true nonviolent fashion, the author, via his book, creates awareness of corporate, environmental, and legal problems that we, as citizens, can work to rectify. But the film portrays Jan as a winner in the end: Jan quickly gets married, gets his finances in order, and sends the case files off to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the movie, the EPA's investigation presses on to win millions in a case against the companies. And while Harr includes the EPA's findings in the afterword of the book, the reader understands that it is too little, too late. In contrast, in the film, the viewer is set up to get the impression that Jan is in the end a champion: recovered from his debts, he gets married, and, by proxy of the EPA, he ultimately wins "his" case.

The film's winner and star is the viewer's downfall. According to Ellul, the result of the film medium's hero-worship is that the viewer " feels, thinks, and acts through the hero" and, even more, the viewer "ceases to defend his own interests" and thus gives in to the structural violence around him (173). The reasoning is that if this film, which is " based on a true story" is a success with a happy ending, then the viewer can leave the theater feeling good about the world. The real hero is somewhere out there, the real guy is hard at work beating the bad guys, so I don't have to call my Congress person. I don't need to lift a finger or think a depressing thought. The feel-good, Disney ending invites passivity. Passivity is one of the great forces for extending the crushing power of structural violence.

In conclusion, Harr's book is a fine example of how structural violence operates. The film version of the book, however, reveals the shortcomings of popular mass media forms and, in particular, of Hollywood fare. The profit-driven process of screenwriting could likewise fit into a class discussion of how Hollywood itself is structurally violent. I have drawn out a few examples of obvious differences between the book and film version of the story as possible discussion points for students in a course covering issues of structural violence and nonviolence as it is portrayed in different media. Overall, the book could be said to constitute a call to action, while the film is an inducement to inaction. Certainly many other differences and talking points could be elicited from students for a productive discussion on the issues of nonviolence and structural violence in a course in peace and conflict studies.



Works Cited

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Vintage Books,1965.

Johann Galtung, Lecture at Whitman College (videotape), April 19, 1996.

Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Elizabeth Mathiot (Moen), "Attaining Justice Through Development Organizations in India" in Justice Without Violence, Eds. P. Wehr, H. Burgess and G. Burgess, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994, 233-256.

Barbara Whitmer. The Violence Mythos. New York: State University of New York Press. 1997.





Ellen W. Gorsevski is a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State University in the Department of Speech Communication, specializing in Rhetoric and Nonviolence; she also teaches at Washington State University in the Departments of English and Communication.



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