Some film adaptations are considered largely in their own right, not requiring major reference to the source on which they are based. Not so with To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not so much based on, but rather a translation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. I hope to goodness you’ve read it already, and if you haven’t then don’t you dare watch the film first; it won’t be nearly so beautiful without prior knowledge of the book. You see, familiarity with the ideas and sentiments of Lee’s novel make the emotions of the film that much more poignant.
On the whole, screenwriter Horton Foote stays true to Lee’s plot and emphases, cutting only that which is obvious to cut. The real test in production was how director Robert Mulligan would maintain the delicate balance between the main storyline of Tom Robinson’s legal defence (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the childish perspective of the six-year-old narrator Scout (Mary Badham). Scout is just as preoccupied with sneaking a glimpse of the local madman as with the court case that threatens her father’s reputation, demonstrating that there is more at work here than a consideration of race relations in 1930s Alabama. Of course both book and novel are known mainly for the plot and what it says about racism, but in order to capture the essence of the novel and all that it aims to do, Mulligan has to toe the line between event and perspective.
The director’s main challenge was how to stop Atticus Finch from stealing the lime light from the children. Whilst Gregory Peck is the undisputed star of the show (playing defence lawyer and all-round hero Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and role model) the children are afforded enough screen time and a moving soundtrack to boot so as to protect their prominence. This balance is crucial as with Scout as our narrator, and therefore much of the plot being filtered through her innocent and uninformed viewpoint, there is a shift in our own perspective. We approach the drama of Tom Robinson’s case ready to be re-taught about truth, about justice and about honour. Had the case of Tom Robinson been displayed plainly and simply without the influence of Scout’s narration, the plot would tell only of hate and power, becoming another political message. Instead, being shown the life of a little girl which just happens to come in extreme proximity to Tom’s moving case shifts the emphasis onto demonstrating the value of understanding and respect.
As you have probably worked out already, I’m a big fan of this film. To Kill a Mockingbird was always going to be a tearjerker, but it’s not the senseless drivel to which we’re often exposed. It’s achieved what it set out to achieve, and its aims were pretty high to start with. It’s clever without being pretentious or, God forbid, weird. Basically, get off your butt and go watch it (but read the book first!).