I examined some of the reasons why legal dramas are often the basis of great films that build on the classic form. This is because legal films follow the three-act screenwriting structure in creative and imaginative ways as can be seen from the examples below.
The three-act structure is a vital part of law and therefore an excellent bedfellow.
The first act sets up the group or person, the plaintiff versus the defendant/s, both parties are usually represented by barristers to present their case. The conflict
The second act involves preparing, presenting and rebutting facts to influence the judge or jury about the evidence of culpability and its degree. The show
The finale leaves the judge to adjudicate and unite the decision behind the ratio decidendi (the reasons). The realisation
The best legal dramas present the three-act structure in a novel way which challenges taboos such as secrecy, bigotry or unjust norms in society during a set period.
Twelve Angry Men written by Reginald Rose sets the action in the jury room on a homicidal case. Usually a closed world where outsiders are not permitted.
A juror is forced to use reasonable doubt as his defence against bigotry, indifference and bullying inside a room where the jury cannot leave and the public are not allowed.
Erin Brokavich written by Sussanah Grant adapts a true story where a non-lawyer takes on the lawyers. The low expectations of others help spur this rookie.
An unemployed single mother takes on an energy corporation and prejudice when she is hired as a legal assistant after being in an accident where her legal case is lost.
A Few Good Men written by Aaron Sorkin sets the action in a military courtroom. A closed world where outsiders are not welcome with rules all of its own.
A man weighed down by the expectations of his heroic deceased lawyer father is forced to confront his usual style of justice and grow to be the man he seeks to be.
To Kill A Mockingbird, the only book written by Harper Lee is adapted by Horton Foote. A great novel in its own right is turned into a great film.
A white lawyer from the deep south defends a black man against a wrongful rape charge leaving him and his kids to experience racial prejudice and hatred from white racists.
Philadelphia written by Ron Nyswaner.
A white gay lawyer dismissed from work because of aids is forced to seek help from an ambulance chasing black lawyer who must confront his own and society’s prejudices.
The substance and form of all these films have the Aristotlean mix of specific details from a period of unified time delivering plots with flawed characters. The characters are forced to face their flaws as their inner conflicts are revealed through actions which slowly help them to understand and discover their true values through others.
Next I plan to look at how these modern heroes are often revealed through the rhythm of their speech.
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