Science in Film: the Evil Doctor

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Filmmakers present the image of “the doctor” as a character audiences would love to trust, but sometimes can’t. In the hilarious 1917 silent movie, Oh Doctor from legendary Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the doctor takes unethical behavior to extremes. He plays both the fool and the villain in his dealings with money, women, and the practice of medicine, warping it to create profit. Watch films online from comedian Roscoe Arbuckle here:


Trusting the knowledge and wisdom of the doctor is deeply rooted in society. William Hurt stars in the touching drama from director Randa Haines, The Doctor (1991) as a highly competent, but personally callous surgeon. The Doctor is one of the most entertaining movies to seriously address healthcare ethics to date. The central character is a not-so-good doctor, until he becomes a patient himself, suffering from cancer. He transforms his personality radically after a dose of his own medicine. The doctor has to endure insensitive treatment of workers in a monolithic healthcare system, all the time calling out: “I’m a doctor!” to no effect. He begins to experience the practice of medicine as a patient does. Through this patient lens, he sees medical practice in a completely different light.


A new, patient-centered focus in healthcare is one sweeping change called for in the revolutionary film, Escape Fire .   This 2012 documentary from award-winning filmmakers Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke asks us to change the way we do business in healthcare. Doctors expose their rushed, demanding and insensitive work environment. They show how the hospitals and insurance policies  constrain them. The film calls for changes in practice, like making alternative, free treatments of yoga and meditation more available to patients. At the film screening of Escape Fire in New York City that I attended, the magnetic Dr. Oz joined the directors live onstage to take questions from the audience. The discussion with the screenings’ viewers  - patients, hospital administrators, doctors, philanthropists - was heated and fascinating. A change in healthcare is definitely coming.


The horrific film The Good Doctor (2011) shows Orlando Bloom playing an evil doctor. A narcissist and a criminal, his performance adds a new role in the film archetype of “doctor”. The drama implies we need to empower women who are young and vulnerable patients, to protect them from cases of predators who happen to also be doctors. In the US, people who become patients facing medical treatment now have the “Patient's Bill of Rights” to invoke - if they know about it. How well are these rights protected in real life varies in different healthcare settings.

Here’s Orlando Bloom, diplomat artist, speaking out as part of the Online Film Network about a most basic right to clean water. Without clean water, what can any doctor accomplish for a patient?

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  • Who do you think best personifies the archetype of “the good doctor” in film? The evil doctor?
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Jennifer J Brown, PhD

About the author


Author, scientist, editor, and health care educator Jennifer J. Brown lives in New York City. She writes novels, short stories and poems and she blogs on science in film at Film Annex. J.J.Brown worked in research before turning to fiction writing. She has a PhD in genetics from her work…

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