When I was in 10th grade, my third period English class was assigned to read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a roman a clef based on the author’s childhood years in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression.
Shortly before the – dreaded – test which was to be given after we had finished reading the book, the English department screened director Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation, which stars Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Frank Overton and William Windom, for all the sophomores assigned to read Lee’s novel that semester in my high school’s auditorium.
As adapted by playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird is, like its literary source, a semiautobiographical story of a young Alabama girl’s early years in the fictitious town of Maycomb, centering on the events that take place over a three-year time-span.
Standing in for Harper Lee is her alter ego, the tomboyish Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Badham), who lives in a nice house with her older brother Jem (Alford) and their widowed father, Atticus Finch (Peck), who is a well-respected (if not financially well-off) attorney.
The film begins in 1932 (more on this later). It is summer, and the Finch kids are enjoying the lazy, hot and hazy days of the season in Depression-era Maycomb. In these pre-television, pre-Internet days, Scout and Jem spend their time outdoors, playing games and speculating about the mysterious Boo Radley, who is rumored to be very disturbed, ugly and potentially dangerous.
The kids have been given plenty of latitude by their dad; they both call him Atticus instead of Dad or Pop, and they are encouraged to explore their little corner of the world almost without bounds. They adore their father, a (literally) towering paragon of decency, kindness and moral rectitude who, despite being financially poor himself, takes on anyone as a client and willingly accepts such things as vegetables and other commodities from poor farmers like Mr. Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Crahan Denton)
They are joined in this summertime idyll by Dill (John Megna), the nephew of their neighbor, Mrs. Crawford (Alice Ghostley). Dill’s parents are apparently divorced, and his mother apparently dumps him on his Aunt Stephanie during summer vacation. Though small in stature, Dill (who is based on Harper Lee’s childhood chum Truman Capote) is spunky and eloquent, and he is quickly befriended by both Jem and Scout.
At first, the movie appears to be merely the recollections of an idyllic period of Scout’s life between the ages of six and nine, but when Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) shows up on the Finches’ front porch to ask Atticus to take on a trial case, the shadows of American racism loom over the small town of Maycomb and open Scout and Jem’s eyes to the uglier sides of their small and close-knit community.
Judge Taylor importunes Atticus to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a Negro who has been accused of raping Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), a white girl who lives with her father Bob (James Anderson).
Atticus agrees to take on the case, knowing fully well that most of his fellow whites expect him to put up a weak defense of his black client and let Mr. Gilmer (William Windom) win a conviction.
Bob Ewell: I'm real sorry they picked you to defend that n——r that raped my Mayella. I don't know why I didn't kill him myself instead of goin' to the sheriff. That would have saved you and the sheriff and the taxpayers lots of trouble...
But Atticus has no intention of merely putting on a good show to appease the racist feelings of Ewell and others who hate blacks. He believes that Tom Robinson is innocent and that he has a moral obligation as a lawyer and a man to see that justice is not miscarried.
My Take: Like many adaptations of literary works, To Kill a Mockingbird takes some liberties with the story’s plot and characters, both for practical reasons (such as overall budget and running time) as well as for the sake of clarity and dramatic impact.
Nevertheless, this Academy Award-winning film (it earned three Oscars for Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay and got nods – but did not win – for Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music and Best Picture) manages to be so thematically and emotionally close to Lee’s novel that it’s hard to tell that differences exist.
As in the novel, the towering presence of Atticus dominates To Kill a Mockingbird not because Gregory Peck is physically tall or because he’s such a renowned lawyer, but because of the quiet and unassuming manner in which he teaches his young children The Right Way to Do Things without being harsh or didactic.
There’s a scene early on in the film’s first act when Scout unwittingly embarrasses Mr. Cunningham, a farmer who once hired Atticus to handle a legal case. Mr. Cunningham has no money to pay Atticus with, so he usually drops off a bag of freshly-picked produce from his farm in lieu of cash or check.
Scout is unaware of this arrangement, so on one occasion when Mr. Cunningham comes over with a bag of hickory nuts for the Finches, she asks Atticus to come out and thank him. Mr. Cunningham is visibly uncomfortable and clearly wishes to leave, but he is too polite to walk away or tell the girl to mind her own business.
For his part, Atticus is also uncomfortable, but he comes out and thanks Mr. Cunningham not just for the hickory nuts, but also for the previous week’s collards. He waits until the farmer has left to answer a question Scout has asked him about why Mr. Cunningham was so embarrassed.
Atticus Finch: 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.
No harsh words. No stern looks. No “go to your room and don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong” parental command. Atticus simply imparts a life lesson in the same unassuming manner in which he comports himself.
Director Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42) gets top-notch performances from the entire cast. Mary Badham is simply terrific as the bright and spirited Scout, and Phillip Alford – who retired from acting in 1972 after only a decade on TV shows and movies – is very believable as Scout’s brother Jem. Both were cast because they were from the South and would need no dialogue coaching. And though Alford and Badham are not related, they have physical similarities that make them look like siblings.
Gregory Peck’s performance, naturally, is the best-remembered one in the movie, which is fitting because Atticus Finch is the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. He is the epitome of the progressive Southern gentleman; he’s kind and courteous to everyone in Maycomb regardless of skin color, he doesn’t brag about his legal prowess or his other skills, he refuses to back down when confronted by Bob Ewell and a lynch mob, yet even when one thinks he is going to finally lose his temper and use physical force, Atticus exercises his self-control and simply walks away.
Brock Peters, who would later play Darth Vader in the radio adaptation of the Star Wars Trilogy and two different characters in the Star Trek franchise, is riveting as the tall, strong, but quiet black man who is on trial for the alleged rape of Bob Ewell’s daughter. His performance is restrained but powerful, which gives his character a certain amount of nobility that echoes that of Atticus.
The rest of the adult cast, including Frank Overton, Alice Ghostley, Estelle Evans, Ruth White (who plays the crotchety Mrs. Dubose) and Robert Duvall – whose film debut this was – perfectly complements the quartet formed by Peck, Badham, Alford and John Megna, whose Dill is also a fine example of juvenile acting at its best.
The movie is nicely photographed in black-and-white and, for the most part, is evocative of life in the U.S., particularly the Deep South, in the 1930s. The cinematography by Russell Harlan is excellent; the viewer\is whisked back in time to Maycomb by the craftsmanship of Harlan’s camera work without noticing the film was not shot in Alabama but in the Universal Pictures back lot in California.
Horton Foote’s script is also adept at telling the story from the point of view of the kids, especially that of Scout. He follows Harper Lee’s technique of using first-person narration, interspersing brief passages of voiceovers by a now-adult Jean Louise Finch (an uncredited Kim Stanley) with scenes which focus primarily on the kids.
Like many films, To Kill a Mockingbird has its fair share of little goofs caused by the peculiar business of filmmaking. There are several glaring anachronisms; if you look at the pennies in the title sequence closely, you’ll see that the pennies in the treasure box are from 1962, and the older Scout tells us – in the introductory voiceover – that Maycomb residents had been told that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself in 1932; it sounds nice but it is historically inaccurate, since the Franklin D. Roosevelt speech Foote is alluding to was made on March 4, 1933.
There are also a few continuity errors, accidental appearances of film crew on screen and even inconsistent license plate numbers on Atticus’ car. These are hard to spot unless you have a sharp eye and notice them right away, but they are there nonetheless.
No matter. To Kill a Mockingbird has far more strengths than it has weaknesses, and its powerful message of tolerance, understanding and plain human decency is just as relevant today as it was in 1962.
Like this review? You can read it (and many others) in my new book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, available for the Kindle at Amazon.
(c) 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados. All rights reserved.