To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of those classic novels that has a lasting an impact on the way that you view the world; it stays with you and remains a part of your consciousness long after you have finished reading.
In the league of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Catcher in the Rye – mention the novel n a crowded room and you are sure to find at least one person who is proud to announce it as their very dear favourite.
It is so well known and so revered, that some may be surprised to learn that the novel was published not so long ago, in 1960. Two years later, in 1962, a film version by the same name was released to critical acclaim.
I had heard that the film was a faithful and respected adaptation, which – like the book upon which it was based – became a cult classic. I was surprised then, when I found it so difficult to find a copy.
Despite the assurances of the friendly staff at my local JB Hi-Fi – who assured me that, even though they do not have any copies in store, it is kept alive by “so many” DVD distribution companies – I had to re-order the title FOUR TIMES before I successfully secured my copy for $2.95.
And the trendy twenty-something with the purple hair extensions behind the counter… She felt compelled to tell me that she “LOVED” To Kill a Mockingbird, and it was her favourite book of all time.
I can certainly understand the attraction. I was truly and utterly endeared by this novel – the story is heartfelt and considered; the characters are lively and imaginative; and the message is moral and timeless.
The novel is based on the childhood experiences of the young protagonist Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, and it is Scout’s unique voice and boisterous behaviour that really pulls you in. She is independent, tough, strong-willed and determined, and her colourful language is as hilarious as it is engaging.
Atticus, too, is a character that every reader could look up to for his calm and considered demeanour; his high moral standpoint; and his caring, thoughtful and often enigmatic ways.
Again, in league with some of the greatest literary characters of all time – Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cathy and Heathcliff, and Holden Caulfield – Atticus, Scout, and even her older brother Jem, are all truly memorable characters.
Harper Lee’s novel centres on Scout and the ways that she passes the time with Jem and their neighbour Dill in the fictional town of Maycomb in America’s deep South. The story begins with their childhood antics, and shared fascination with Boo Radley, their elusive neighbour who never steps outside of his home.
Scout’s own personal dilemmas, such as her playground brawls; her personal clashes with her teacher, neighbours and peers; her difficulty in understanding the social etiquettes between the social classes; and her resistance to becoming a proper lady, all provide interesting and humorous asides to what soon becomes the main crux of the story – the trial of Tom Robinson.
Atticus’ defence of poor Tom Robinson is the epicentre from which all of the drama of the story revolves. It is understandable then, that the filmmakers chose to also make it the focal point of the adaptation.
In the film, Scout’s own story, and the personal growth that she eventually achieves in the book, plays second fiddle to the Tom Robinson plot.
While the story within the book is told from Scout’s childlike perspective, the film begins with a voice-over from her grown-up self, reflecting back, with the benefit of hindsight, over these important events in her life. The benefit of this smooth, velvet-voice narration was that many of the most memorable lines of prose within the book were spoken and therefore not lost in the adaptation process.
The film has a number of significant changes that are worth noting:
- In the novel, the children must speculate at who cemented the hole in the tree, whereas in the film, Jem and Scout witness Nathan Radley filling in the hole.
- In the film, Calpurnia does not make an appearance at Tom Robinson’s trial and the children do not get in trouble for sitting up in the galley.
- In the film there is no Finch's Landing scene, and Miss Maudie's house does not burn down. The subplot of Mrs Dubose’s opiate addiction is also completely absent.
- In the novel, Scout notices the man, who turns out to be Boo Radley, standing quietly in Jem’s room against the wall. In the film, he is hidden behind the door. Boo Radley also has no lines in the film, but in the book he asks Scout to take him home.
- In the novel, Dill is Mrs Rachel's nephew, while in the film he is Mrs Stephanie Crawford's nephew. The characters of Mrs Rachel and Mrs Stephanie Crawford are combined into one character. The childish romance between Dill and Scout, and Dill’s marriage proposals, are left out of the film.
- A number of the characters are either unmentioned or missing, including Aunt Alexandra, Uncle Jack and Little Chuck Little.
- Zeebo and Miss Caroline are only mentioned by name, and Scout’s dilemmas at School are also only mentioned in passing.
- Tom Robinson's father appeared in the film, but was not a character in the novel.
The film is perhaps best known for the outstanding performance of its lead actor, Gregory Peck. To Kill a Mockingbird is widely renowned as Peck’s best work and for many fans his face became synonymous with the character Atticus Finch.
Although Peck is brilliant, for me, the biggest inconsistency between the novel and the film was in his physical portrayal of Atticus. Through the eyes of Scout, her father is described in the novel as considerably old. While his age is mentioned in a similar vein in the film, Peck’s handsome, wrinkleless features do not match the withered face that I had conjured in my imagination.
In all, the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird is a complementary, affectionate tribute to the novel. The performance by Brock Peters, who played the role of Tom Robinson, is also superb, as are the child actors – with Phillip Alford as Jem another stand-out.
If any story is worthy of a new, modern adaptation, it’s this one. Hopefully, with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby being released late this year, Hollywood will see the benefits of reinvigorating more literary classics.
Book or Big Screen? Book
The film is: 4. A fine adaptation that maintains the original’s exceptional qualities
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What’s coming next? A review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close