Depp v Heard: Is Film and Television Damaging our Perception of the Legal World?


Callum Willey examines the latest celebrity court case and how it's Hollywood adaptation may be harmful to the legal process

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By Callum Willey

In the last decade, true crime and legal dramas have boomed in popularity on our screens. From Making a Murderer to Suits, there is an undeniable fascination amongst the public with what goes on inside the courtroom, real or fictional. Legal storylines and settings have bled rapidly into a range of genres - this year alone from Netflix thriller Dahmer to Marvel’s action-comedy She-Hulk - but do they come at a cost for perceptions of the legal world?

Most recently the release of the lesser known adaptation of the Depp v Heard trial, Hot Take: The Depp/Heard Trial, has received heavy criticism from audiences and critics alike. Over the past year, it will have been difficult to miss clips circulating on social media of the live broadcasting of the trial, as if it were a legal drama of its own, with the parties involved and their legal teams almost becoming celebrities.

Yet it seems even this wasn’t enough of a depiction and engagement of the case, as director Sara Lohman has capitalised on this popularity and rushed, merely four months after the verdict, to create a film dramatising the defamation case Johnny Depp brought against his ex-wife Amber Heard after a damaging Washington Post op-ed in 2018, claiming he had subjected Heard to domestic abuse during their marriage.

The film's production has been met with an overwhelming negative reception, as audience reviews criticise the poor level of acting; the confusing flippant and overlapping perspectives; and the overall rushed and cheap production. As well as the poor filmmaking, it fails to depict an accurate portrayal of the legal proceedings surrounding the case.

This inaccurate portrayal of the law is common throughout the genre (disappointing news for new law students wanting to be the next Harvey Specter), causing a rift between the cinematic aesthetic of the legal profession and its reality.

But so what? These stories are meant to entertain, not serve as a tool of education. But presenting an inaccurate image of the law in film and television contributes to wider social and legal issues resulting from a lack of public understanding of the law. These issues (such as desensitisation and misinformation) disrupt the process of achieving justice, especially considering the public play such an active role in our legal system; from sitting as the jury deciding case verdicts, to answering opinion polls on criminal justice that drive government policy on law and order.

But does the responsibility to reform the inaccurate portrayal of the law belong to the entertainment industry? Looking forward, amid the increasing live broadcasts of Crown Court cases and the sitcom-like portrayal of the Depp v Heard case grasping public attention worldwide, perhaps our desire for legal-based entertainment will surpass mere cinematic adaptations. With quotable one-liners and cameo-like celebrity testimonies, a turn to engaging with legal sources more directly may reconcile the current inaccurate portrayal of the law in film and television.