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To Kill A Mockingbird found two paths to masterpiece status

The cast of To Kill A Mockingbird: Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus, Phillip Alford as Jem
The cast of To Kill A Mockingbird: Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus, Phillip Alford as Jem

In Page To Screen, we compare a movie to the book that spawned it. The analysis goes into deep detail about specific plot points—in other words, you’ve been warned.

Has there ever been a novel as good as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird that was turned into a movie as good as Robert Mulligan’s To Kill A Mockingbird? Although there have been plenty of successful adaptations over the years, few can make a credible claim to being a masterpiece in both mediums. A few candidates come to mind (The Grapes Of Wrath, The Dead, David Lean adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, arguably Gone With The Wind), but even those have one version that sticks out as one preferable if forced to choose (the film of Grapes, book for the rest).

The two versions of Mockingbird, on the other hand, seem like equals in a way other adaptations don’t. While they absolutely work on their own, if you’ve experienced both they’re hard to separate. It’s impossible to read Lee’s depiction of Atticus Finch, the icon of dignity who stands as the story’s moral center, without picturing Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the character, just as Lee’s gentle prose permeates every scene of the film, and is used almost verbatim in voice-over narration. While not on the same level as The Godfather, say, Mockingbird is the gold standard for film adaptations, the instance where the least was lost in translation. Why is it successful when so many adaptations aren’t?

First, the 1962 film is incredibly faithful to its 1960 source, cutting some material but changing nothing of significance. While this isn’t a requirement for quality—and actually, many screen translations would benefit if they put a cinematic spin on the material instead of slavishly following a book—it works here because the book is packed with low-key incidents, events that not only drive the story but also reveal the characters. The scene where Atticus shoots a mad dog—shocking his children with his secret marksmanship—is a classic example of how to deepen and develop a character through action. By simply reproducing the story beats, Mulligan’s Mockingbird achieves a lot of the thematic complexity of the book.

Second, it’s crucial that thematic complexity exists. Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, which until recently looked to be her only major work, is cherished for a lot of reasons, but much of that affection surely comes because its themes carry a powerful resonance to nearly everyone. Mockingbird deals with the passing of childhood and the end of innocence, “the human dignity that unites us all,” as the cover to the paperback puts it. The focus is on good people trying to do good in a world that’s often hostile to their intentions, and that incredibly appealing idea makes the story far more lasting than any kickass action franchise, no matter how faithful those adaptations are.

Third, the film captures the book’s tone, which is the most important thing an adaptation has to do to be successful, even more so than narrative fidelity. Typically this column delves into the changes between one version and another, but since these two track each other so closely—more than even The Third Man, a film based on a book written as a trial run for the film’s script—let’s look closer at how the film matches the book’s tone.

Consider the lynch mob scene, one of the most famous moments of either version. Mockingbird turns on a white family’s blatantly false accusation of rape against a black man named Tom Robinson, and lawyer Atticus Finch’s attempt to defend the man. His efforts put the Finch family—son Jem and daughter Scout, who narrates the story as an adult looking back on her childhood—in the crosshairs of Depression-era Alabama’s racial tensions.

In this scene, Atticus is standing watch at the jail to protect his client when a mob arrives, presumably to lynch Robinson. Unbeknownst to the adults, the kids (along with their friend Dill Harris, who trivia buffs know was based on Lee’s real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote) are spying from across the street. When various threats imply that “somebody’s man would get jumped,” the action-hungry Scout makes her presence known:

I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.

Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.

“H-ey, Atticus!”

I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.

There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.…

I sought once more for a familiar face, and at the center of the semi-circle I found one.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?”

Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat.

Mr. Cunningham wore no hat, and the top half of his forehead was white in contrast to his sunscorched face, which led me to believe that he wore one most days. He shifted his feet, clad in heavy work shoes.

“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.

“He’s in my grade,” I said, “and he does right well. He’s a good boy,” I added, “a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”

Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in. Mr. Cunningham displayed no interest in his son, so I tackled his entailment once more in a last-ditch effort to make him feel at home.

“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. Atticus had stopped poking at Jem: they were standing together beside Dill. Their attention amounted to fascination. Atticus’s mouth, even, was half-open, an attitude he had once described as uncouth. Our eyes met and he shut it.

“Well Atticus, I was just sayin’ to Mr. Cunningham that entailments are bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it takes a long time sometimes... that you all’d ride it out together...” I was slowly drying up, wondering what idiocy I had committed. Entailments seemed all right enough for livingroom talk.

I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.

“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.

Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”

Here’s that scene in the film:

The first thing you’ll notice is that outside of Scout wearing shoes in the film and someone giving a 15-second ultimatum in the book, they’re almost exactly the same. Horton Foote, who wrote Mockingbird’s screenplay, barely changed any dialogue.

In this scene, the men are shamed when confronted by Scout’s innocence and reminded of their own, similarly pure children, and they’re unable to continue on their hateful mission. Both Lee and Mulligan underline this beyond what happens narratively. Lee keeps Scout’s age in view by making all the descriptive sentences short and simple, unadorned by adjectives or dictionary-busting vocabulary. It’s subtle, but “I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus. Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill,” feels like a child’s voice, as it does when Lee uses the descriptor “smelly,” an adjective that tends to fall out of one’s vocabulary with age. When broader context is needed, the narrator (who, remember, is adult Scout reflecting from a mature perspective) becomes more sophisticated. When she uses a phrase like “cheerful acquiescence,” it’s spoken by a grown-up.

Look also at how Lee gives informal dialogue to both the children and the mob, everyone except Atticus, who is the only true adult in this scene. He’s the one who doesn’t use casual words like “ain’t” our “outa,” and while you can’t see it in this excerpt, he never drops a “g” from his verbs. Pairing the kids and the mob like this becomes explicit, of course, when Scout talks them down.

Mulligan also reinforces Scout’s age, as well as the mirroring between the kids and the crowd. He opens the sequence with the camera pushing its way through the crowd, about waist-high with the men. Throughout the scene—throughout the whole movie, really—Mulligan keeps the camera at the same height as his young stars, aligning us with their point of view (Steven Spielberg would later be celebrated for doing this very thing in E.T.). Even when the camera looks down at the kids from the top of the stairs, emphasizing how they’re dwarfed by the men they suddenly find themselves challenging, it doesn’t look down at them from an excessive height. The camera isn’t taking the point of view of Atticus, whose height underlines his moral stature above everyone else in the scene.

When Scout starts talking to Cunningham, Mulligan shoots the exchange from angles that make the young girl seem taller than the man, a perspective that carries over to shots without the children. The camera placements put Scout and Cunningham on an equal footing even before she reminds him of their shared humanity.

The internal monologue Lee gives Scout in the book provides much of the scene’s tension. There’s a sense that if she stops talking, the mob will continue to close in on them. Mulligan doesn’t hint at this—and Mary Badham, who plays Scout, doesn’t reveal any kind of calculation in her very natural performance—but he finds his own ways of conveying this tension. The scene is silent except for Scout’s voice, making this the film’s only dramatic scene that isn’t accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s score, and the lighting pointedly surrounds the Finches with an encroaching darkness.

Similar choices can be seen in the final moments of the story. Scout and Jem have just been attacked by Bob Ewell, the father of the fake rape victim, who spearheaded his daughter’s charges against Tom Robinson. Though the intrinsic prejudice of the town leads to Robinson being found guilty, Atticus’ airtight case demolishes the Ewell family’s reputation, which spurs Ewell to come at Scout and Jem with a knife in the climax of the book. Jem’s arm is broken in the attack, but further injury is avoided when Boo Radley—the mysterious and purportedly violent man who lives down the street and is the obsession of Scout and Jem—comes to their aid and, it’s implied, kills Ewell.

Atticus wants to go to the police with the truth, an action that would carry the inevitable consequence of Radley becoming a local hero, but he’s talked out of this by Scout, who says that violating Radley’s desire for privacy would needlessly destroy his life. (This also alludes to the meaning of the title; Atticus says it would be a sin to kill a mockingbird as mockingbirds never bother anyone, they simply trill beautifully.)

The ending of both the book and film has Scout walking Radley back to his house and then home again, which is when the elegiac tone of the material reaches its full flowering. Here’s the book:

Neighbors bring food and death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.…

Daylight... in my mind, the night faded. It was daytime and the neighborhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. It was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk toward a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.

It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.

It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.

Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.

Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.

Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.

Here’s the film (while you don’t get a good look at him here, that’s Robert Duvall making his cinematic debut as Radley):

The book goes on a page or so past this excerpt (and ends with the same line as the film), but that’s the key passage, firmly placing the story as a memory play, one colored by Scout’s reflections as an adult. The section from “Daylight...” to “Atticus was right” is a montage in prose, and it isn’t hard to imagine a tacky director conveying those musing with a flashback compilation that establishes how the kids have matured over the story, or with a flashy sequence that merges young Scout with the adult one narrating the story.

Mulligan takes a simple approach to the end of Scout’s childhood, placing the camera at a distance, a framing that illustrates both her new big-picture awareness, as well as the distance in time between the narrator and the story she’s describing. He uses the camera to make this second point again, pointedly choosing to shoot Scout and Atticus through the window. There’s a barrier between the characters and audience, just as time is a barrier between the narrating adult Scout and the girl she used to be. The final shot, where the camera pulls back from the house, underlines that the past is only getting further away. (Some of these movements are mirrored in the first proper scene of the film, which tracks in on the story from a big establishing shot.)

As with the lynch mob scene, Mulligan makes cinematic choices that result in the same impact as the literary effect of Lee’s prose. You could do this comparison with almost any scene in To Kill A Mockingbird, which is, in a nutshell, why the film works.

Here’s a quick run-down of the material from the book that got left on the cutting-room floor: After Atticus’ defense of Robinson makes the family pariahs in much of the white part of town, the book makes it clear that they face abuse from all corners. Scout gets harassed by classmates and a cousin—both of whom she beats up—as well as Miss Dubose, a particularly vicious neighbor, whose vitriol spurs Jem (played by Phillip Alford) to destroy the woman’s garden in a fit of anger. The film shows the confrontation with the classmate, as well as Atticus telling Scout to respond with grace rather than fighting, but it drops the other scenes, both of which flesh out the moral universe of the era. After Scout beats up her cousin, she’s briefly punished by her Uncle Jack—who doesn’t appear in the film—until he learns about the racists taunts his son was making. He then apologizes to Scout and praises her for standing up on Atticus’ behalf. Jack’s a minor character in the book, but the rare white adult who joins Atticus in seeing blacks as equals.

Some smaller moments got cut, including a rare moment when it snows in Alabama, leading Jem to make a snowman caricature of an annoying neighbor (to Atticus’ amusement, though he makes Jem disguise the identity out of respect). At another point, a neighbor’s house catches on fire. While standing outside watching the blaze, Radley surreptitiously puts a blanket around Scout’s shoulders, which she doesn’t realize until later. This moment—the only other time he’s “seen” venturing out of his housepoints to his role as a protector at the end of the book.

The issue of race in the town gets shaded in one of the few big changes between the book and film. Calpurnia, the Finch family maid (played by Estelle Evans), takes Scout and Jem to her church one day for mass. While the kids are initially greeted with hostility by a parishioner who views the church as a black-only space, others welcome them and lavish praise on their father. The scene sets up how Scout and Jem will eventually watch the trial (from the “coloreds only” balcony, to which Calpurnia’s reverend escorts them), but also shows how revered Atticus is by the black community, a point made elsewhere (notably at the tear-jerking end of the trial, where the balcony spectators stand out of respect for him). In the film, the church scene is swapped for one where Scout and Jem accompany Atticus to Robinson’s house. While Atticus discusses the trial’s progress, Jem sees and waves to Robinson’s son, a child who could’ve been his friend were their communities not segregated.

After Jem destroys Miss Dubose’s garden, Atticus punishes him by making him read to her for a month, which he does, though she dies soon after. The kids learn that she had been attempting to wean herself off a morphine addiction, using Jem’s reading as a distraction. It’s implied that the dual agonies she experienced—addiction and withdrawal—contributed to her hatefulness. When Jem understands this, the insight nudges him toward maturity. It’s his first time standing in someone’s shoes and walking around a bit, as Atticus famously describes empathy.

The material with Miss Dubose subtly mirrors a brief scene later on, the moment that’s perhaps the film’s most surprising omission. During the trial, Dill (played by John Megna) gets upset at the condescending way Robinson is treated by the white prosecutor. Scout takes him outside to calm down, and the two are approached by Dolphus Raymond, a town outcast with mixed-race children and the reputation for being a drunk. Raymond confesses that he only pretends to be a drunk because it allows everyone else to leave him alone: “If I weave a little and drink out of this sack,” he says, “folks can say Dolphus Raymond’s in the clutches of whiskey—that’s why he won’t change his ways,” and abandons his children. Raymond assures Dill that he’s right to be upset, that as a child he can still see the injustice of prejudice and racism.

While Miss Dubose appears in the film, neither Jem’s vandalism nor his punishment do, and Raymond doesn’t appear at all. The omissions make sense for time and pacing, but given how much To Kill A Mockingbird finds the humanity behind hostile exteriors, they’re still missed.

Start with: You really can’t go wrong with either version, but I’d give an edge to the book. Lee’s writing is lovely, and the book holds up to repeated reads, but this isn’t an adaptation where one version should be avoided. Peck’s towering performance is heartfelt and very moving; not only was it the American Film Institute’s number-one choice for cinematic heroes, but when The A.V. Club did an AVQ&A on masculine ideals, he was off-limits as a choice, lest he run the table. It’s difficult to imagine any fan of the book being disappointed.