“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~~Atticus Finch
There’s a thematic undercurrent running through “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Mulligan’s brilliant, poignant adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel, that reveals itself in the form of a blunt question. “What kind of man are you?” Bob Ewell (James Anderson) spits at Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), the Alabama lawyer who dares to defend a black man in the Depression-era Deep South. A simple question, really, but it cuts a straight line to the heart of Mulligan’s purpose: showing us who a man is and what (or who) made him that way.
This is a complex and engaging issue in any film, but it pushes “To Kill a Mockingbird” on an entirely different path than the one Lee walked us down in her novel. Mulligan and Horton Foote, with his rich screenplay, slightly shift the focus from the inquisitive tomboy Scout (Mary Badham) and her practical older brother Jem (Phillip Alfrod) to their widowed father Atticus. This is a risky choice — Lee’s book, after all, explores how Scout’s childish views change — but one that deepens the story and shows us how Atticus, too, grows and changes. In this way Mulligan preserves the spirit of the novel and expands the focus. So “To Kill a Mockingbird” becomes a multi-layered exploration of the factors that shape human values in addition to a coming-of-age tale.
Much of the events and characters exist relatively unchanged. The narrator (Kim Stanley), the grown-up Scout, recalls a summer of her childhood in dusty Monroeville, Ala., where her father took on a court case that upended her world and the town’s sense of order. Atticus is the only man willing to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of beating and raping a local white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox Patton). Atticus’ decision to do the right thing makes him a target for the townspeople’s rage, which Scout and Jem watch him weather with quiet wisdom. This subtle approach tends to anger Jem, who wants a rougher-edged father figure, and it fools everyone into thinking Atticus is a soft touch. (Not a chance — this is Gregory Peck.) Woven into this story is a spooky neighborhor named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), who looms large in Scout and Jem’s imagination but eventually comes to play a much larger part in their summer. Yet even this does not encapsulate all that occurs in this richly textured story.
“Enough cannot be said.” That’s how my ninth-grade English teacher described “To Kill a Mockingbird” the novel, and I think his review applies to the film. There are so many elements deserving of praise, starting with the look of the film (shot in black and white) and the way the appearance captures the lazy-but-tense atmosphere of the small-town South. There is the pivotal courtroom scene, one of the finest and tensest and most dramatic ever filmed. And then there is the acting, good all the way from Badham, who gives Scout an impish innocence that’s irresistible, to Duvall, who has just minutes on screen but gives Boo Radley the kind of trembling presence he couldn’t manage on the page. Peck brings a kind of rumpled, world-weary bravery to Atticus that seems perfect for the character. He was born to be Atticus. There is no other choice.
In the end, tough “To Kill a Mockingbird” deserves to be called one of the all-time great book-to-film translations, this movie is more than that. Mulligan does not lean too heavily on his source material, using it as a crutch to prop up an unoriginal copy. Nor does the director ignore the film’s inspiration altogether. What Mulligan does is create a timeless, captivating, touching motion picture that is a work of art in its own right. And that’s the kind of beautiful, rare achievement we must celebrate not once, but again and again.