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No. 7: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

“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.

11 Responses

  1. Loved this movie, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is probably the best dad ever seen on film.

  2. Great review of a truly great film!

    • Thanks, Fandango — I wish I’d kept count of how many people (all English major-types) I’ve argued down over the years that this movie is as good as the book.

      • I wouldn’t even bother arguing. They are two different mediums and are near impossible to compare all that matters is that they are good in their own right. I have a certain bias towards the film as I had seen it many times before reading the book.

        Having said that I am often an argumentative type and find the best way of confusing people like that is to ask how could the film be better? While they are scratching around for an answer more original than saying “be more faithful to the book” you tell them a way the book could have been better. If you can come up with a good point you can argue an average film is better than a classic book. It annoys the hell out of people.

  3. I love this movie, and actually watched it when I was about 14 for the first time. As read the book in English for GCSEs.

    The more I have watched the movie over the years, I really do think both pieces are fantastic in their own right and related so much together. At one point we used to read a few chapters and then watch it in the movie.

    • You read this for English GCSE, I can’t remember what we read but I’m sure it wasn’t as interesting as this. I read the book just because I like the film so much.

      • Yeah the top two classes had read TKAMB, as we had to look into racism for coursework and exams. The other classes had to read “Of Mice and Men”.

        Its the one of the only things that I have actually really enjoyed that I had to read for School or A Level’s after that, only other thing I enjoyed had to be “A Street Car Named Desire”.

    • Great idea for a grad school thesis: comparison of the book and the movie. Though that idea’s hardly original enough not to have been done already!

      • You could do a comparison of a few great books to compare them to the movies, as I bet that has not been done in great depth (with books that could be compared to each other).

  4. […] took a look back at one of my all time favorites this week. Here’s her thoughts on the classic, TO KILL A […]

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