It’s rare that the movies do justice to a great book, but not every great book is as absorbing—or disarming—as To Kill A Mockingbird. For decades, teenagers have been assigned Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel in school, and many of those students have gone in expecting some weighty sermon on the scourge of racism, only to be transported by Lee’s first-person, semi-autobiographical description of life in an Alabama small town in the 1930s, and moved by the character of Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer trying to raise his children Jem and Scout while defending a black man accused of raping a white teenager. At once genteel and gripping, To Kill A Mockingbird combines a coming-of-age story, an evocative sketch of Southern living, a mystery-thriller, and a courtroom drama, and Lee crafts each element finely, creating a popular entertainment with real literary quality. According to the movie’s producer, Alan J. Pakula, his pitch to studios relied heavily on five words: “Have you read the book?”
While Pakula, screenwriter Horton Foote, and director Robert Mulligan weren’t completely faithful with their 1962 big-screen adaptation, they were true to what mattered. Their To Kill A Mockingbird starts slow and quiet, revealing the bucolic life of Jem (played by Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) and their friend Dill (John Megna), as they spend their days swapping stories about their mysterious neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) and lamenting that Atticus (Gregory Peck) isn’t the model of swaggering, gun-toting manhood that they’ve been led to revere in Alabama. Then Atticus catches his no-win case—standing up for Tom Robinson, a kindly black laborer whose greatest crime is taking pity on a poor, battered white woman—and the children’s lives are turned upside-down. Mulligan and company made the wise choice to follow Lee’s blueprint and tell the story through the perspective of the kids, who don’t fully understand why justice can’t prevail.
To some, the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird may play as typical self-congratulatory Hollywood hokum, in which white heroes are ennobled by their selfless sacrifices on behalf of the oppressed. But that’s not really what the novel or the movie is about. Yes, To Kill A Mockingbird decries the dehumanizing insanity of racism, and yes, the white characters make the choices that drive the action, while the black characters look on, helpless but grateful. But that’s largely reflective of the world Lee inhabited, and in the movie as in the book, the madness of the segregated South is part of the larger picture of a boy and girl becoming aware of where they’re really from. If anything, what’s striking is the sense of weary resignation in To Kill A Mockingbird. Coming from a time when the Civil Rights struggle was still raging, the movie doesn’t take for granted that righteousness will be vindicated, so it steps carefully around any potential notes of triumph. Instead, it celebrates simple dignity and decency, in a story that’s more about how to live right, how to relate to people, and how to value what’s around us—good and bad. To Kill A Mockingbird is a classic example of the Hollywood prestige picture, sure. But if only every piece of Oscar-bait were this perfect.
Key features: A wonderfully detailed commentary by Mulligan and Pakula, plus archival footage of the awards and honors bestowed on the movie, along with two lengthy documentaries: one an interview with Peck and the other a comprehensive look back at the making of Mockingbird and at the time and place it captures.