James R. Elkins

"Adam's Rib"

[Running time of the Film: 1 hr. 40 mins.]

Beginning: Is "Adam's Rib" the right film to launch a study of lawyers and film?

An Insider's Perspective: How is your reading of the film influenced by the fact that you have set out to be a lawyer? How does your insider knowledge shape your understanding of "Adam's Rib"?

Reading the Film: Does it make any sense to talk about "reading" a film? The term—reading—evokes an image of a text (book, article, essay). Does it make any sense to talk about a film as a text?

Deep Structure of a Story: Read James Bonnet: The Hidden Story Structures in Great Screenplays See if you can find any of Bonnet's "hidden story structures" in "Adam's Rib."

A Film Tells a Story: What is the basic story premise encoded in "Adam's Rib"? Try to state the premise of the story in the most elemental terms possible.

Bill Johnson, points out that "[a]ny story . . . at its heart, must have some dramatic issue of consequence to its audience. . . ." [Bill Johnson, "Perceiving the Foundation of Storytelling," from A Story is a Promise]. The film's dramatic issue can be stated, according to Johnson, as the story's premise and its promise:

A story's core dramatic issue is the issue at the heart of a story's promise. Dramatic issues or ideas revolve around human needs. The need to be loved. To have control of one's fate. To feel needed. To be able to overcome obstacles. To be able to grow and heal from life's wounds. To understand and make sense of the events of life. To experience life in a deeply-felt way.

Johnson goes on to make a point of relevance to lawyers: "The important point is that storytellers be able to name the dramatic issue at the heart of the stories they are telling." Lawyers are storytellers--often quite good ones--and when they fail to understand Johnson's point about dramatic issues they often achieve poor results (witness the prosecution's inability to present a more coherent story in the O.J. Simpson case).

The premise of the story is not the plot. The purpose of the plot, according to Johnson, "is to make visible and concrete the dramatic movement of a story. A plot serves to make the movement of a story dramatic and potent by taking character concerns and intertwining them with what's at stake in the story itself, then compelling characters to act to resolve what's at stake in the story while plot-generated events block their actions."

Establishing the premise underlying the film is not a simple recounting of the plot. If we don't understand the premise, we are pulled toward the surface features of the film.

Johnson links the story's premise to other elements of storytelling to each element of the film: characters, plot, conflict, story movement, resolution. The premise, according to Johnson, is the foundation of storytelling. A premise could be compared to a house foundation. It supports a well-constructed story.

To visualize a premise, think of a community burned to the ground. If you looked at it before the fire, every house would be unique in some way. After the fire, when all that's left are bare foundations, the foundations all have a similar quality. They all tend to look alike.

A premise is like that. It's not meant to be different, artistic, or unique; unlike any other premise. It's meant to set out a foundation that supports the more visible aspects of a story, its characters and events, just like a house foundation supports the more visible aspects of a house, its walls, roof, windows, etc


Bill Johnson, in "Understanding What a Story Is," provides some helpful insights about film stories that we can apply to lawyer films.

 Stories have been with us for a long time and for that reason alone we might want to understand them. As Johnson puts it, "[f]rom prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience." Watching and studying lawyer films is simply a another way to gather around the fire to listen to a story.

 Johnson defines story as the use of words and images to create life-like characters and events that will capture an audience's attention. And how is this done? By presenting action that "resolv[es] some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one's life and fate, to be able to avenge wrongs, overcome obstacles, discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life."

Bill Johnson makes an important point about the relation of the characters and the world we find in a film to our real world:

Through experiencing a story's arrangement of its events, a story's audience has experiences of "life" more potent and "true" than real life. "Life" with meaning and purpose. Where people get what they want if they really believe. Wherein true love exists. Where inexplicable events are resolved. Where even pain and chaos can be ascribed meaning.

Film Stories Are Told By Way of the Film's Characters: In what sense (if any) do you come to care for Amanda Bonner and Adam Bonner? How is our ability and willingness to care for these characters dependent upon who we are, and the people we care about in our own lives?

Law as Character: It may, in some films, be interesting to think about the law itself as a character. What kind of character does Law play in "Adam's Rib"?

If Law is a character then we must describe how it acts and what it represents. One way we do this is by asking: How does Law speak? Who speaks for Law? These questions get complicated by the fact that Law rarely speaks in a single voice. If different characters represent different ways for the Law to speak, how are we to read the Law we find in a film? How is this multiplicity of legal voices represented in "Adam's Rib"?

Conflict: In what sense is the conflict between Adam Bonner and Amanda Bonner not only an expression of personal conflict but a conflict with significance beyond their personal quarrel? Would it be accurate to say that the argument between Amanda and Adam reflects an underlying fault-line in the legal profession, in a lawyer's psyche, in the law itself?

Binary Oppositions (Characters and Social Forces): You may find it instructive to track the binary oppositions represented in a film. [See generally, Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western 16-28 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)]. Screenwriters and novelists know that drama depends on conflict; lawyer films are meant to be dramatic, otherwise they would not hold our attention, but to be good drama we need something that suggests real conflict, a conflict that we already know something about.

Is it the struggle with fundamental conflict that makes the story's protagonist a character we want to observe closely, want to know more about, and come to accept?

What conflict, tension, or oppositional forces do you find in "Adam's Rib"?

How is the conflict resolved? And if it is not resolved what do you take away from the film about the conflict?

Beyond Law and Lawyers: Every lawyer film, regardless of how much it might focus on law and lawyers is always about something else. One reaction to "Adam's Rib" portrays two lawyers who happen to be married to each other and their marriage is central to the film. "Adam's Rib" is really about marriage and marital discord.

Ordinary and Unfmiliar Worlds: Christopher Vogler, in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers 15 (2nd ed., 1998) draws on Joseph Campbell's study of the hero archetype and hero journey to suggest that "the hero's story is always a journey. A hero leaves her comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world." [Vogler, at 13]

The protagonist/hero, in our case, the lawyer, must leave the ordinary, mundane world and deal with, confront, or conquer an alien or unknown world. How does "Adam's Rib" signal these two worlds? Where does law belong in these two worlds? How are the Ordinary and Special Worlds of Amanda and Adam Bonner connected? How do Adam and Amanda move between and deal with these two worlds?

The Journey of the Hero: The hero's quest begins, according to Joseph Campbell, by a "call to adventure." This is the way Vogler puts it: "The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a Call to Adventure, she can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the Ordinary World." [Vogler, at 15]. Who responds to a "call to adventure" in "Adam's Rib"? Who do you find the more adventurous, more open to the call, Adam or Amanda?

The call to adventure may be refused. Or it may be answered reluctantly. Some of us turn out to be "reluctant heroes." [Vogler, at 17)]. In what sense does Adam Bonner refuse the call to adventure initiated by his wife? Is Adam Bonner to be viewed as a reluctant hero? [Vogler notes that the hero journey structure of a film/story "should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely."] [Vogler, at 26].


The two worlds (however described) give us a sense of before (a call to adventure, fall from grace, catastrophic accident, departure of the loved one, death of the father, abandonment by the mother, personal failure) and after (however a character responds when confronted with a world for which there is no map and for which no study has been undertaken). When we leave the comforts of home (a departure which awaits each of us) we are, following Campbell's archetypal quest of the hero, going to face severe trials and enter periods of drought and darkness.

What trials do Adam and Amanda Bonner confront in "Adam's Rib"? How would you describe their descent into darkness? What are they asked to learn (in this case, not from clients, but from each other) as they attempt to restore harmony to the threats posed to their Ordinary World?


Robert McKee distinguishes stories that rely upon archetypes and those that resort to stereotypes. How does "Adam's Rib" deal with the distinction (if indeed it does)? [Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting 4 (New York: HarperCollins/ReganBooks, 1997)]. McKee points out that "[s]tereotypical stories stay at home, archetypal stories travel." [Id.] Is "Adam's Rib" a stay-at-home story or does it travel?

 On the Difference Between Men and Women

Cordelia Fine

Questioning the Science of Gender Difference: A New Perspective
[59:55 mins.] [Cordelia Fine, 2015 presentation at the Santa Fe Institute] [Cordelia Fine studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, followed by an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University. She was awarded a Ph.D in Psychology from University College London.]

Cordelia Fine at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas: Delusions of Gender
[1:03:54 mins.] [2015]

Delusions of Gender: Stefan Molyneux Interview of Cordelia Fine
[38:21 mins.]

Jordan Peterson

Gender and the Brain
[55:03 mins.] [2015] [The Agenda with Steve Paikin] [discussants include Jordan Peterson]

Jordan Peterson: The Difference Between Men and Women
[video] [13:29 mins.]

Jordan Peterson on Western Women
[video] [13:12 mins.] [commenting on working with female lawyers]

Every Young Woman Needs to See This!
[14:45 mins.] [earlier comment on women lawyers by Jordan Peterson]


Rebecca Jordan-Young: "Brainstorm: Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences"
[56:52 mins.]

Why Men and Women Think Differently?
[5:09 mins.] [Mark Gungor]

 On Watching an Old Film

Steven Spielberg on the Importance of Studying Classic Films
[1:54 mins.]

 Videos with Brief Commentary [AFI]

Amy Madigan on "Adam's Rib"
[characterizing Amanda Bonner as "formidable"]

Ed Burns on "Adam's Rib"
[commenting on the film as a romantic comedy]

 An Analytical Structure for Working with "Adam's Rib"

3 Things A Writer Has To Put Into A Romantic Comedy
[6:41 mins.] [Pamela Jaye Smith]

Amanda Bonner's Closing Argument:

Video & Audio Clips

On Closing Arguments: Web Resources

Excerpts from the Doris Attinger Trial: Trial Transcript

"Adam's Rib"| a film for students of law:

Adam's Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

Genre: "Adam's Rib" is often identified as a "romantic comedy." What does this genre label tell you about the film? What expectations and assumptions follow from characterizing "Adam's Rib" as a lawyer film? Should we think of lawyer films as constituting a genre of film? [On the lawyer film genre: see James R. Elkins, Reading/Teaching Lawyer Films, 29 Vt. L. Rev. 813, 868-876 (2004)]

 Film Basics:

Trailer: American Film Institute

American Film Institute Catalogue Feature Films

[Adam's Rib was named by AFI to romantic comedies Top 10 list.]

Turner Classic Movies Archive Materials

Silver Screen Affairs

The Blonde at the Film: "Adam's Rib" (1949)

Wikipedia: "In 1992, Adam's Rib was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'"

 Reviews: Filmsite Movie Review   Los Angeles Times Wonders in the Dark

 Sociological Perspective: "Adam's Rib" as an Historical Document: The Plight of Women Lawyers in the 1940s

 Adaptation for Television: Wikipedia


David Ray Papke, "Genre, Gender, and Jurisprudence in Adam's Rib (1949)," in Rennard Strickland, Teree E. Foster & Taunya Lovell Banks (eds.), Screening Justice—The Cinema of Law: Significant Films of Law, Order and Social Justice 69-79 (Buffalo, New York: William S. Hein & Company, 2006)

Christine Alice Corcos, We Don't Want Advantages: The Woman Lawyer Hero and Her Quest for Power in Popular Culture, 53 Syracuse L. Rev. 1225, 1253-1263 (2003)

Laura Grosshans, Accurate or Appalling: Representations of Women Lawyers in Popular Culture, 4 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol'y & Ethics J. 457 (2006)

Roger Berkowitz, The Accusers: Law, Justice and the Image of Prosecutors in Hollywood, 13 Griffith L. Rev. 131 (2004)

James Foster, et.al., Almost Too Good to Be True: Counter-Narratives in Four Films about Women Lawyers, 40 U. Toledo L. Rev. 643 (2009)

"Adam's Rib," in in Paul Bergman & Michael Asimow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies 86-93(Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, 1996)

Cynthia Lucia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film 1-2, 27-34 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)

 Notable Films of 1949: "All the King's Men" (Academy Award for Best Picture)

 Supplementary Reading: David R. shumway, Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage, 30 (4) Cinema J. 7 (1991) (discussing "Adam's Rib" along with other films) [this article is available on JSTOR, a university library database]