Coma (1978 film)

Coma is a 1978 American mystery thriller film based on the 1977 novel of the same name by Robin Cook. The film rights were acquired by director Michael Crichton, and the movie was produced by Martin Erlichmann for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The cast includes Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Elizabeth Ashley, Richard Widmark, and Rip Torn. Among the actors in smaller roles are Tom Selleck, Lois Chiles, and Ed Harris.

Coma film poster.jpg
Directed byMichael Crichton
Screenplay byMichael Crichton
Based onComa
by Robin Cook
Produced byMartin Erlichman
CinematographyVictor J. Kemper
Edited byDavid Bretherton
Music byJerry Goldsmith
Color processMetrocolor
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • January 6, 1978 (1978-01-06)
Running time
113 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4 million[1]
Box office$50 million[2]

The story was adapted again into a two-part television miniseries broadcast in September 2012 on A&E television network.[3]


Dr. Susan Wheeler is a surgical resident at Boston Memorial Hospital. Susan is devastated when a patient, Nancy Greenly, who happens to be her best friend, is pronounced brain-dead and comatose there after a routine D & C (Dilation and Curettage) abortion and its concomitant general anesthetic. Her suspicions are aroused when another young and otherwise healthy patient, Sean Murphy, also falls comatose during knee surgery for a recent sports injury.

Susan finds that over the previous year an unusual number of other fit, young people have suffered the same fate. She discovers three similarities among the cases: they all took place in the same operating room, all patients were tissue-typed and all the comatose bodies were moved to a remote facility called the Jefferson Institute.

She offends Chief of Anesthesiology, Dr. George – a powerful figure in the hospital whose wife is also an heiress – by asking to review the relevant case patient charts. Increasingly isolated and under mounting pressure from superiors and colleagues, she wonders whether she can even trust her own boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows. She also visits the morgue where a postmortem examination is being performed on Nancy, who had since died. The pathologists are puzzled, and this leads to speculation on how to commit the perfect murder, to which one of the pathologists suggests carbon monoxide poisoning.

Susan is called into the office of Chief of Surgery, Dr. George Harris, owing to her trouble with Dr. George, and is given a weekend off to recuperate from the loss of her friend. She and Mark travel to the seaside and spend a relaxing weekend together. Driving back to Boston they see a sign for the Jefferson Institute. Following an access road, a mysterious, imposing and unmarked concrete building reveals itself. Susan wants both of them to go inside, but Mark declines, allowing her to go alone while he waits in the car. After pressing the buzzer at the entrance, she is greeted by Nurse Emerson. Susan announces herself as Dr. Susan Wheeler, and asks if she can enter, but is informed that the facility is closed, but that the next tour for physicians is Tuesday morning.

Returning to join the tour, Susan finds what is apparently an advanced, low-cost care facility for comatose patients. However, while investigating the large areas of the building that were left unvisited, she discovers that the institute is a front for black-market organ sales, where the patients' organs are sold to the highest bidder. Boston Memorial purposely induces comas in select patients whose organs match those of potential buyers. The patients are rendered brain-dead via covert carbon monoxide poisoning through a line that leads from a tank in the basement to the valve for operating room 8 which is controlled by a radio signal.

While she investigates the Jefferson Institute, Susan is caught on surveillance cameras. She manages to escape security atop the roof of an ambulance leaving to transport harvested organs to Logan Airport. Susan thinks that Dr. George is the mastermind of the scheme, and rushes to her supervisor, Dr. Harris, with whom she has been confiding, and explains what she has discovered. Dr. Harris offers her a drugged drink which begins to incapacitate Susan while also causing severe abdominal pain that mimics appendicitis. As she loses consciousness, Dr. Harris phones in an emergency from his office and offers to perform the appendectomy on Susan himself. As they are preparing for surgery, Dr. Harris is informed that his preferred operating room is not available. His vehement insistence upon using room eight arouses the suspicions of Mark, who finds the gas tank and line to room eight – disconnecting it before the carbon monoxide can permanently injure Susan. Susan awakens after surgery, much to Dr. Harris' surprise, and is wheeled out of the operating room holding Mark's hand. A defeated Dr. Harris is left back in operating room eight, while two police officers wait outside to arrest him.[4]



Michael Crichton was a friend of Cook. They met when Crichton was doing post-doctoral work in biology at La Jolla's Salk Institute and Cook was a Navy physician stationed at San Diego.[5] Crichton described the film as like a "Western... if the doctors are the bad guys they are also the good guys."[6] Crichton says that even though the lead in the book was a female the studio talked about getting Paul Newman to play it, but he fought it. "If a man had done the movie, it would be a much more conventional thing."[6] Tom Selleck was cast in the film for his appearances in Salem cigarette advertisements.[7]

Crichton, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, sought to avoid depicting graphic details of medical procedures in order to avoid frightening the audience away from seeking medical care.[7]

Filming started on June 20, 1977 in Massachusetts. Shooting took place at Boston City Hospital and the University of Southern California's dissection room.[6] The mysterious, Brutalist-style building that served as the film's "Jefferson Institute" was at the time of filming a regional headquarters of Xerox Corporation located in Lexington, Massachusetts. It currently serves as head office of Stride Rite, an American children's footwear company. Filming also took place at the MBTA subway, Rockport, Marblehead, Los Angeles City Hall, Century City, and Culver City Studios.[7]

Michael Douglas called the film "the first time I've been offered a project with a good story laid out well, a good cast, and a good director."[1] The film cost $4.1 million but this was off-set by a pre-sale to TV worth $3 million.[8]


Coma was a box-office success, earning $50 million US (about $185 million in 2016 U.S. dollars). It was well received by critics and audiences. The film holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 26 reviews.

Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote "Coma is a thriller, rotten; but it's really worse than that. It's a disgrace to the several physicians involved in it".[9]

Despite Crichton's intentions against scaring audiences from hospitals, many physicians and hospital administrators claimed this occurred. Variety claimed that organ transplant donations dropped as a result of the film and that a hospital in Tampa had to remove the number "8" from the door to an operating room because of patient complaints.[7]


  1. ^ a b "Douglas in 'Coma'". New York Times. May 12, 1977. p. 70.
  2. ^ MICHAEL OWEN (January 28, 1979). "Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist". New York Times. p. D17.
  3. ^ Munn, Patrick (June 14, 2012). "A&E Sets Premiere Date For Two Part Mini-Series 'Coma'". TV Wise. Retrieved July 16, 2012.
  4. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (February 2, 1978). "Screen: 'Coma,' Hospital Mystery:Snooping in the O.R. – The New York Times". Retrieved February 10, 2020.
  5. ^ Lee, Grant (Dec 8, 1976). "A Labor of Love for Scorsese". Los Angeles Times. p. h21.
  6. ^ a b c Daniels, Mary (Feb 10, 1978). "Dr. Crichton prescribes 'Coma' for medics". Chicago Tribune. p. b4.
  7. ^ a b c d "Coma". Retrieved 2021-12-05.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ "Working their assets off". The Guardian. Feb 9, 1980. p. 13.
  9. ^ Kauffmann, Stanley (1979). Before My Eyes Film Criticism & Comment. Harper & Row Publishers. p. 304.

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