Tuesday, October 5, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird

Year: 1962
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 25
Writer: Horton Foote
Director: Robert Mulligan
Star: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford

“To Kill A Mockingbird” is my favorite novel of all time. It’s the special kind of literature that evolves with the reader, and every time I revisit it every few years I find something new that speaks to me on a deep, personal level I had never noticed before. It’s the closest thing to perfection I’ve ever found in art. I say this before discussing the film version because thus far on this blog I’ve made a point of separating the films I discuss completely from their histories, legacies and source material. Here, it is impossible for me.

The film tells the story of a young brother and sister living small-town southern life in 1932. They spend their days fantasizing about the creepy house at the end of their street and making friends with a fantasy-prone visitor from up north. As the summer wanes to fall their lawyer father is assigned to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, and he realizes that his case might be already lost despite there being no evidence the man could have committed the deed.

In this case, I think it’s important to discuss the novel in comparison to the film because the strength of the novel becomes the weakness of the movie. Though the book is told completely from Scout’s point-of-view, as you mature and re-explore the material you identify with other characters. When I first read the book I identified most with Scout’s brother Jem (played in the film by Phillip Alford), then Scout (Mary Badham in the movie). I haven’t yet switched over to Atticus yet, but as the years progress I can feel myself inching ever so close to him, knowing very soon I will find myself in his shoes.

In his adaptation, screenwriter Horton Foote has tried his best to appeal to everyone by splitting the film’s point of view between the three main characters. Despite giving Scout a voice-over narration, she gets the least attention of the main characters. I’ll talk more about Atticus later, but for the most part Foote hands the movie to Jem. We see his reaction to things first and foremost, and he’s the one that witnesses the most important actions in the film that he is not directly involved in. More than anything else, the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” has become a story about a young boy trying to mature into a man without fully comprehending what that means yet.

That’s all well and good, but if Foote decided to switch the narrative viewpoint from Scout to Jem for the film adaptation, he should have taken it all the way. He shouldn’t have put in the useless voice-overs by Scout that add nothing but some colorful lines from the novel. But instead he pandered to readers of the book and seemed to be insisting he was telling Scout’s story while his heart rested with Jem.

More problematic is when the film switches to Atticus’ point-of-view. Foote and director Robert Mulligan do this less often (early while Atticus sits on his porch and a few times in the courtroom), but in doing so opened up an ugly can of worms. In the book the black characters weren’t given much characterization simply because Scout did not interact with them as much as she did the white characters. Here, when the movie switches to an adult point-of-view, it no longer has an excuse to keep them in the background. To open the door means that the viewer deserves to learn about Tom, his wife and his friends and how they interact with Atticus. By leaving them (mostly) speechless, they become more props than anything else, and that is a big problem for the movie that wants nothing more than spread tolerance.

I’m having such trouble with the switching point-of-view because so much else in the movie is so perfect. Foote really captures the language of young people, and Mulligan stages and shoots their world with a fresh beauty that makes it transcendent. It makes the viewer long for a time that probably never existed as pictured here.

The three main characters are perfectly cast. Peck has an entirely different screen presence here than any other movie he would ever make—just as strong and yet in a different way. There’s a moment where his character removes his glasses just long enough for us to remember it is the handsome Peck playing a character, and you gasp because you had completely forgotten this was an actor. His closing remarks in court might be some of the best acted moments ever committed to celluloid.

That closing might be one of the best acted moment ever, but there is a quiet moment that, for me, rivals the “girl remembered” speech from “Citizen Kane” as the best-written scene in all of film. Atticus has left his family to protect Tom through the night. Tom’s been transferred to the local prison and there’s talk of a mob coming and beating him in the night. The children follow their father, and when the mob comes they break through, creating one big slice of awkwardness. The men won’t attack until the children are gone, and the children won’t leave no matter how much Atticus begs. Then Scout turns to one of the (until-now) faceless mob and recognizes a man. Scout smiles, asking about the man’s son and reminding him who she is. She has brought humanity to the situation in a way only a child could, and the mob leaves moments later. There are hundreds of ways Foote could have written the scene and every other way would have been wrong or melodramatic. The way it was done was perfection.

And therein lies the endlessly frustrating thing about “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Some of it is perfect, a lot of it is great…but there are major issues with the movie that prevent it from being a masterpiece, and those often come from the creative team being afraid of straying from the book. In addition to the murky point-of-view, the film needlessly includes the character of Dill, who was great in the book but superfluous here. A lot of this comes from a film adaptation needing to cement ideas and morals that a book only needs to hint at to get its point across. It’s a simple movie with a good message and nowhere near the depth of the book, and perhaps that’s all we could have asked for.

My Score (out of 5): ****


Hugh said...

Decent flick, but both it and the book traumatized me in high school. And yes, that's enough for me to hold it accountable.

Kathleen Wagner said...

It's a wonderful book. But aren't you at all curious about your namesake, mentioned as being the author Judge Taylor is reading when he hears a noise outside his house?