Approved, but despite its fairly light tone, it definitely isn't for kids. Like, I really want my daughter to read this book and watch this movie. I even think that she would understand the majority of the content. But would I want to introduce her to rape charges in the light of institutionalized racism? I've been working to instill my daughter with anti-racist philosophy, but the rape thing might go a little too far. Even though the film doesn't show too many graphic things, it's still a heavy discussion for a nine-year-old. Also, there is a decent amount of off-screen death and violence, not to mention hateful uses of racial slurs.
DIRECTOR: Robert Mulligan
This is an intimidating one. Since I teach both English and a film class, I often talk about the literary and cinematic canons. It's my belief that there are very few books in the literary canon that also have a movie counterpart in the cinematic canon. The one exception that always comes to my mind is To Kill a Mockingbird. I've seen this movie so many times. When I taught eighth grade, I would teach To Kill a Mockingbird and show the movie while it was going on. Then I found out that one of my older classes never got to the novel, so I taught it again. But I realistically don't see myself teaching this book again for a while. But even without being a teacher, I had seen this movie a dozen or so times. It's one of those absolutely life-changing films. But I can't deny, part of me is going to talk about the novel and maybe even Go Set a Watchman.
There was a time, heck even recently, when I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird as a cautionary tale of what we were and a reminder of how far we've come. That was a thing that was always, "Don't rest on your laurels or we could return to this rotten time in history." My bleak outlook is that we're not very far from this moment anymore. It was way more haunting this time. I mean, I have always viewed To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the greatest criticisms of white power. But in retrospect, it would probably be pretty dangerous to watch the film in today's society without thinking that this could and still would happen. The tale of Tom Robinson is one of those stories that is so clear cut that I'm floored that Harper Lee decided to make the jury give a guilty verdict for the crime of sexual assault. I mean, it's the ending that works. Perhaps that's the part of me that loves bleak storytelling, but it only really works with Tom still being convicted of rape. (I know, Go Set a Watchman had Tom acquitted and I think the real Atticus might have actually gotten Tom off, but it works as a narrative structure pretty darned well.)
But maybe it is my brain playing tricks on me. When you watch a billion movies and read a billion books, stories sometimes get mixed together. I've read the book multiple times, so I hope my brain isn't failing me. But one of the major differences is how Tom dies in the movie versus the book. In the movie, almost immediately after Tom is convicted and transported to the county jail, he is shot by a police officer while trying to escape. The same thing happens in the novel, but the movie stresses that the officer shoots him once, trying to injure him but accidentally killing him. It's very sad, but it is a tale of how Tom finds there to be no hope in a white dominated society. Sure. That's a message that is central to Lee's story. But the book, I'm fairly certain, has him riddled with bullets. There's no pretense of him trying to escape. It's punishment for the questioning of a white man's integrity.
I think I wanted my daughter to watch this (which I have yet to do!) because the story is from a child's perspective (kind of. It's Adult Scout looking back on her childhood). The film doesn't cheat and give Scout any great knowledge about what is going on. She knows things are terrible, but she also sees things as a six-year-old would. Boo is a ghost story until he's not. Walter Cunningham never stops being a bad guy because he brought a bushel of hickory nuts over one time. Mrs. Dubose is this wicked old racist because she yells at Atticus and the kids all the time. (That part is never resolved in the movie. She's introduced as an awful old bat and is never seen again.) There's something absolutely brilliant about how this was the summer that didn't change Scout in the moment, outside of the fact that she views it as the summer that Jem had his arm broken, but instead formed her adult life. She learns these life lessons that never really come into play during the course of the story, but rather for who she is going to be in the long haul. There is this one moment where she has this epiphany about what Atticus was trying to teach her and it is the titular line. Her realization that Boo Radley is kind of like a mockingbird is a sentiment wise beyond her years, but that's okay. The movie needed her to restate the theme and since it is the end of the film, it's implying that she's growing up with that line.
But Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch might be one of the all time great performances. It's a little unfair because this happens a lot. I always picture Anthony Hopkins when I'm reading a Thomas Harris novel. I always picture Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. But I know that Harper Lee thought of Gregory Peck as her father. (For those not in the know, while To Kill a Mockingbird is technically a work of fiction, it is semi-autobiographical.) Peck was one of those all time great actors. We were watching Staged (on Hulu right now, if you are curious) and Tennant and Sheen refer to Judi Dench as ethereal. She's one of those next level actors that just becomes a presence in everything that they do. Peck was one of those people. He was famous, but I don't even think he was as prolific as Dench was. But I know that because of To Kill a Mockingbird, anything I saw Peck in I thought of Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, that includes the first Omen film, but I don't even care. Both of those movies own.
To Kill a Mockingbird kind of cements Atticus Finch as the ideal father. He becomes the archetype, but even more so, we want Atticus Finch to be our own dad. It's funny, because Jem, in his early teenage years, often resents what his father can't do rather than what he can. I had an older dad. I can imagine yelling at my dad for not playing football for the Methodists (if I was into football or was Protestant). But there's one moment that is such a weird staple for the film. I have seen this scene referenced in all kinds of places, but my brain is flashing to a page from a Goon comic, where Atticus has to put down the dog. There's a concept here that only my adult brain can really grasp onto. It is what Lee was going for in Go Set a Watchman (admittedly, an insanely polarizing novel). We never really know our parents, do we? We know a lot about them, but they are always our parents to us. Mrs. Maudie knows that Jem is being an idiot complaining about playing football. But when Heck Tate comes over with a rifle and asks Atticus to shoot the dog, Atticus might have just as well flown away and Jem would have been just as shocked. The dark side of that, of course, is Go Set a Watchman's revelation that Atticus had been a member of the Klan. Just writing that sentence bums me out to no end, but it also is about the fact that we tend to form ideas of who people are without understanding that people have both talents and flaws that we could never possibly understand.
I never think of Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. He does a fine job. Sure, he's barely in the movie. (I don't really want to write too much about Boo because that's the job of my eighth grade class, who always finds Boo to be the most fascinating part of the book.) But Gregory Peck becomes Atticus Finch and, it should be noticed, that Brock Peters is always Tom Robinson for me. He's in a bunch of Star Trek movies. It doesn't matter. I see Admiral Tom Robinson at the Khitomer Accords every time. Do you know why? It's when Tom is giving his testimony. Like Boo Radley, you hear a lot more about Tom Robinson than you actually see of Tom Robinson. But he sits there with this dignity. He has trust that Atticus is going to do everything he can to ensure his freedom. But when he gets up on that stand and tears get in his eyes, that is a performance. It gets me. (Again, I can't cry unless it's a Christmas film, but that doesn't meant that I don't get moved.) He's crying because he's on trial, but he's also crying --for a really messed up reason --because of what Mayella Ewell did to him. Because one thing that is odd to think about is that Tom is the real victim of sexual assault here. Robinson still pities Mayella (which is what ultimately seals the deal for the jury), but he also thinks that he was just there to help do something that our society should see as basic. But this woman starts kissing all over him and he knows that, socially, he can't do anything about it. It's not like he's a single man. It looks like he was in a happy marriage with a bunch of kids. But because society understands that a good Black man is worth less than an evil white family, he just had to take it. And Brock Peters got that so much in that moment. It's insane to think of how powerful that moment was.
There is one line that I really wish made a bigger splash in the movie. It's the concept of doing the right thing, despite the fact that you know that you are going to lose. That's what the last administration did to me. I knew that I was going to annoy people when I called out Trump on his evils. I'm in a place where I'm alone in these beliefs. We're surrounded with Trump flags still and I know that people give me the side-eye when they're being polite. But that's kind of what it is. I think of that line. The line I have a harder time with, unfortunately, is the walking around in people's shoes for a while. Maybe it was because I did walk around their shoes and still made judgements or maybe we've just gone too far as a society, but that's something I still need to work on. Regardless, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those powerhouse films. While I'll probably never have it in my Top 5, it really deserves to be there in some regards. It really is a fantastic film.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.