Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan
I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it. Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed. At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies). I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.
If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham). Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood. In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief. Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall). Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.
The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true. But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge. In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.
I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel. Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character. I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.
As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem. His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening. Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob. But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”
I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book. But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.