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“A passport to the young”

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2008 - Spring


An alumnus and Harvard professor uses film to teach lessons in law and psychiatry.

Early in the 1990s, psychiatrist and law professor Alan A. Stone, M.D. ’55, noticed a change in his law and literature class. When he asked which students had read a certain lay or novel—Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for instance—not a single hand went up. Then a student would venture: “I think I saw the movie.”

“Young people are incredibly well-informed about film and incredibly ill-informed about literature,” said Stone. “And I’m talking about students at Harvard College and at Harvard Law School.”

Stone, the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School, was trying to use literature to connect students with the large themes of psychology and justice. Reading fiction, said Stone, provides “an incredible opportunity to talk about moral issues that are usually approached in law school through such arcane discussions that the moral issues disappear before your eyes.” But the approach was no longer working: few students had read Sophocles or Dostoyevsky, Austen or Flaubert. Stone needed, as he puts it, a new “passport to the young.”

He found such a passport when fellow law professor Randall L. Kennedy, J.D. ’82, asked Stone to write about white racism for the magazine Reconstruction. Stone used the 1989 film Glory to address the issue. His analysis—that the movie resorted to racial stereotyping in its depiction of the first all-black regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War—generated numerous letters to the magazine.

By then, Stone had realized that the shared stories of the new generation were not written in the pages of books but, rather, recorded on film. He created a popular course called “Law, Psychology and Morality: An Exploration Through Film.” “This allows students to grapple with issues that are the reason they came to law school in the first place: to identify and correct injustice,” said Stone. The primary texts for the class include the films Do the Right Thing, Lone Star, Crimes and Misdemeanors,The Battle of Algiers and Character.

Unexpectedly, the Glory essay proved to be a passport of sorts for Stone himself: the former president of the American Psychiatric Association and residency director at McLean Hospital entered new territory as a film critic. Since 1993, he’s written more than 100 reviews for the bimonthly Boston Review.

Stone is not drawn to movies for diversion but instead to witness the stories of people thrust into situations that test character, such as Oskar Schindler’s insight that he could save the lives of Polish Jews forced to work in his factories.

MIT Press recently published 15 of Stone’s reviews in a small volume titled Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life. Films reviewed in the book include American Beauty, The Passion of the Christ, Pulp Fiction, Antonia’s Line and Henry V.

A Los Angeles Times critic called Stone “a discovery to rejoice at.” Stone’s film analysis, wrote David Thomson in November, “is not the breathless rave on this Friday’s release, but a culmination of the process by which a picture can be seen a few times, mulled over, seen again and then at last written about—as if film writing might be as contemplative, gradual and enriched as any other scholarship.”

At 78, Stone looks forward to writing many more reviews. (He still sees a few psychotherapy patients, too.) The films he finds worth his attention, he said, are “films that challenge me and make me reflect on the moral adventure of life.”

To read reviews by Stone, visit

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