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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