Early in this movie there’s a con­ver­sa­tion between Gregory Peck, who plays a Southern small-​​town lawyer, and his young daugh­ter Jean Louise, played by Mary Badham. She asks to see his watch, then men­tions that accord­ing to her brother Jem, the watch will one day belong to him.

What are you gonna give me?” she asks — and the rest of the film stands as an answer to the question.

The answer: A sense of dig­nity; a pres­ence of quiet, unwa­ver­ing accep­tance; a liv­ing illus­tra­tion of courage; a will­ing­ness to do what is right regard­less of what oth­ers may think.

The daughter’s pre­ferred name — rather than Jean Louise — is Scout.

The father, Atticus Finch, is charged with defend­ing a black man in the 1930s in Alabama against a rape charge lev­eled by a white woman.

The movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, earned Peck an Oscar — and the novel of the same name earned its author, Harper Lee, a Pulitzer when it was published.

Discussing this movie is a delight to me from the point of view of film appre­ci­a­tion and as an author, edi­tor and pub­lisher, because it’s not very often you get to see a film that has taken such tremen­dous care to be respect­ful of its source mate­r­ial. Too fre­quently we end up with a hack­job onscreen — not because of the lim­i­ta­tions of film as a medium, but because an ape with a word proces­sor thinks he’s a bet­ter writer than an authen­tic wordsmith.

Whole pas­sages of dia­logue in the movie of To Kill a Mockingbird were lifted, unal­tered, from Lee’s novel; and so pitch-​​perfect was her under­stand­ing of spo­ken English (which is very dif­fer­ent from the writ­ten kind), so bril­liant was the act­ing and direc­tion, that none of the dia­logues or mono­logues are remotely stilted. Even Atticus’s sum­ma­tion in court, long as it is, is riv­et­ing. Some char­ac­ters from the novel have been excised, but pain­lessly; some scenes have been elided, com­bined or sim­pli­fied — but the trans­la­tion from page to cel­lu­loid was done with care, with crafts­man­ship, and with finesse. If you love the novel, the film will be a delight; if you love the film, by all means, read the book.

The time­less­ness of both the novel and the film is accom­plished by the sim­plic­ity of the prose and telling the tale from the more or less uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive of child­hood. It was this deci­sion on the part of Lee — to relate her tale from Scout’s point of view — that makes the story bear­able. There is no preach­i­ness here; there is no high moral dud­geon. There is sim­ply the impos­si­ble task of explain­ing big­otry to an eight-​​year-​​old girl, which nat­u­rally indicts the very pre­cepts of bigotry.

While the filmed ver­sion is not rated, there will almost cer­tainly be some who become squea­mish at the lan­guage, because we’ve trained our­selves to hate the word nig­ger even more than the word fuck (unless we’re drunk, sur­rounded by white friends, or both). The novel and the movie both use the word. I would humbly sug­gest that this is not con­tro­ver­sial — how­ever, moun­tainiz­ing the mole­hill, inevitable though it might be, is stu­pid. If you have chil­dren, do not pre­vent them watch­ing this movie or read­ing the book because of the pres­ence of the word nig­ger. Simply explain to them — much as Atticus does for his daugh­ter — that it’s a low word, a word that doesn’t describe a given indi­vid­ual so much as it says a lot about the per­son who utters it, just as your response to the use of the word says quite a lot about you.

Beyond the issues of eth­nic­ity there is a gen­tle touch on the mys­tique of child­hood, a time that many of us might recall — the neigh­bor­hood, the peo­ple nearby, and espe­cially the one house, on the cor­ner or down the way a bit, that has weeds in the yard, or peel­ing paint, or a boarded-​​up win­dow — the house of mys­tery, the house your par­ents didn’t want you stray­ing close to, the house where Something Happened or Someone Bad lived.

And through Scout’s adven­tures she learns a les­son about judg­ing some­one unmet, about fear­ing the worst of a per­son sight unseen — a gen­tle cau­tion given with such a del­i­cate stroke that we don’t even know how deep the teach­ing is we’re being granted by Lee. We are sim­ply left it, a hid­den gift, some­thing we don’t real­ize the impor­tance of until years later — much as Scout, only as an adult (whom I like to imag­ine being an active fem­i­nist with a very good sense of humor), would have fully rec­og­nized the pro­fun­dity of the gift left her by her father, some­thing so deep and res­o­nant that it never has to be explic­itly named, as it suf­fuses every moment of our expe­ri­ence in this engross­ing tale.

Although color film was avail­able — and quite good — in the early 1960s, To Kill a Mockingbird was shot mono­chrome. This allowed direc­tor Robert Mulligan to use stark light­ing where it was nec­es­sary for effect, and serves to add an air of authen­tic­ity to the story. After all, in the 1930s every­thing was mono­chrome — well, almost every­thing — but the lack of color tone might also help insu­late us, the audi­ence, from the bare, ter­ri­ble real­ity exposed with­out com­ment or cush­ion to our eyes. We are allowed to feel just a lit­tle dis­con­nected, just a lit­tle dis­pas­sion­ate, which pre­vents the movie from becom­ing a two-​​hour ser­mon on the obvi­ous evils it assails.

And we are spared the hor­ror of the specu­lum — per­haps, if the men and women in the Maycomb County cour­t­house had a more nat­ural Caucasian hue, if they were pre­sented to us in liv­ing warm shades rather than as grey, pale ghosts, we’d find it much more dif­fi­cult to face the mir­ror that is held up before us.

The movie is superb, as is the novel; they both res­onate with a clar­ity that is as vital and sig­nif­i­cant today as it was when they were fresh, untried mate­r­ial. To Kill a Mockingbird stands as a tes­ta­ment to how far this nation has come in heal­ing the hor­rors of its past — and serves to remind us that it’s far too easy to slide back.


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