Final Word: The Constant Gardner Meets the China Syndrome

Published on: 
BioPharm International, BioPharm International-03-01-2006, Volume 19, Issue 3

A powerful film will have a hundred times the impact of a touchy-feely commercial.

Chief executive officers (CEOs) of big pharma have lots of concerns these days, and they probably don't need me to add to their woes. But if they really want something to worry about, they might head to the video store, pick up some popcorn and a copy of "The Constant Gardner," and settle down for a pretty miserable evening.

K. John Morrow, Jr.

This film, based on John Le Carre's novel of the same name, does for big pharma what "The China Syndrome" did for the nuclear power industry more than two decades ago. "The Constant Gardner" is skillfully filmed and directed and stars two well known and engaging performers, Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. Through a complex and somewhat disjointed plot line, the movie tells the story of a minor British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered and his attempts to uncover the killers and their motives.


It doesn't give away the story to let you know that big pharma is involved. As this horrific tale unfolds, we see that clinical trials of an anti-tuberculosis drug conducted in Africa have gone horribly awry, resulting in many deaths, concealed by hiding bodies in unmarked graves. The offending company intends to cover this up and move the drug forward into production and distribution—the Dracula-like CEO feels he has too large a financial stake in the product to back off, even in the face of horrendous consequences. The diplomat's wife knew too much and had to be eliminated.

Hollywood is constantly lambasted by conservatives for its supposedly liberal agenda, but I think this criticism is misplaced. The media can't shape public opinion—they reflect it. "The Constant Gardner" never would have been produced if executives didn't believe there was an audience that would accept the premise of big pharma CEOs as monsters, willing to produce flawed drugs that kill millions and cover up their mendacity with hit squads.

Sometimes films and current events collide in a way that resonates with the public. That happened with "The China Syndrome," a 1979 film about a nuclear power plant accident, released two weeks before the Three Mile Island disaster. The film received worldwide attention and galvanized public opinion. It also influenced the way the public responded to the Chernobyl incident seven years later, which ultimately finished off the nuclear power industry in the United States.

The public constantly confuses fiction with reality, which is hardly surprising in an era of "reality TV" and "docudramas." A visually and emotionally powerful film will have a hundred times the impact of a touchy-feely commercial about big pharma scientists working to cure your Mom's breast cancer. The public perceives that drugs are overpriced and that companies conspire with the government to drive prices through the roof. If big pharma hopes to change those receptive to the message of "The Constant Gardner," it needs to evaluate its image and look for ways to alter those perceptions.

If pharmaceutical corporations don't manage a change, we may witness the dismantling of pharma giants through massive lawsuits, which would, like the loss of the nuclear power industry 20 years ago, demonstrate the "law of unintended consequences," with grievous repercussions for consumers and the economy.

K. John Morrow, Jr., President, Newport Biotech Consultants, 625 Washington Avenue, Newport, KY 41071, Ph 513.237.3303,