To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Robert Mulligan)


At a certain point in Robert Mulligan and Alan Pakula’s so-prestigious-it-hurts film of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, attorney and crusader for racial equality in the 1930s South, takes his black housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) home for the evening. It’s a telling and nonchalantly presented detail that Calpurnia sits in the back — casually and unquestioningly. We can speculate on whether this is a subtle commentary about the attitudes of the times depicted or an unconscious representation of the book and film’s own still-racist era, but one thing for certain: the film offers far less to discuss about Calpurnia herself than the novel did, a result of the inevitable flattening that slavish literary adaptation of an acclaimed book must always involve. Lee could’ve controlled and delved forcefully into the actuality of Calpurnia as a human; the film has too much information to impart in too inappropriate a medium. Lee’s novel catches a lot of flack these days — I think that’s unfair; it’s vivid, passionate and moving. The movie, sadly, is as staid as they come, and that’s more than anything because this story absolutely does not lend itself to cinematic explication.

Lee’s prose, relatively simple though it may be linguistically, is full of detail and life — its words serve a purpose, and there’s no equivalent to be found, abstract or not, in the shots and sequences Mulligan tries to run parallel with her words. The semi-autobiographical novel deals with character, love, and memory, and these are concepts that this sheepishly straightforward film cannot get across in all its nailed-down telefilm-like illustration of Cliff’s Notes highlights from the book. Perhaps foremost among the problems with transporting a book like Mockingbird to the screen is that it has no serious linear story, being more than anything a portrait of a time in a child’s life and a setting in which that child, young tomboy Scout, came of age. You may say what you like about how much you loathed reading the book in high school, but its characters are well-rounded and believable, and its sense of setting is achingly strong. But the events of the novel and their cumulative effect are an abstract thing that can’t be reduced to some other event outside the words in its pages; Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote streamline and simplify so much, zeroing in specifically on the courtroom drama wherein Atticus is set to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters, giving the sole great adult performance of the picture), a black man faced with a bogus rape accusation, that there is little left to make the film or what it says truly special.

The novel’s many threads are woven intricately, and what survives the transition to cinema is only a fraction; the attempt to inject some of the key thematic material about neighborhood recluse Boo Radley is awkward at best, but does provide some of the strongest impetus for true emotion in the movie. Still, To Kill a Mockingbird fails for a head-slapping reason as simple as things that make sense verbally not making sense visually, Lee’s points and counterpoints lost in the shuffle. Could a fine film be made of this book? It’s hard to say, but one would imagine the definitive variation to be more subjective, more about and dedicated to young Scout than this movie, which ends up being pretty much the story of Atticus while attempting to maintain the cachet of being an evocation of childhood. That’s a muddy compromise, and a largely irredeemable one. A most organic and personal novel, then, is transplanted to a fragmented and workmanlike script.

After Lee’s novel absorbed me like virtually nothing else I’d been assigned to read in high school (the land of Stephen Crane and Nathaniel Hawthorne and much else that fails entirely to speak to me), we of course screened the film in class. I’d seen it before — it’s a favorite of my mom’s, as is the text — but hardly remembered it, and my two vague impressions of it were validated on this second attempt: the thing is surprisingly boring, and Gregory Peck acts as though he’s playing Batman. Indeed, at the time, pretending that Peck is Bruce Wayne considerably improved the experience for both myself and my friend Tina sitting next to me. On that same occasion the dullness of the piece rather annoyed me since I’d been so caught up in the source material, but the film still made so little impression that those two barely-recalled criticisms were my primary memory of the feature. Now they are validated again, the movie I’m sure will again quickly fade from my consciousness, and I feel compelled to add to my previous comments: this is actually a bad movie. I would in fact prefer to see The Grapes of Wrath again; it at least was cinematically exciting and covered its themes somewhat competently. Mockingbird is here made to have the moral weight of an after-school special, with the aching sense of loss and change only even addressed in its final seconds. It’s akin to reading a great romantic poem in a computer-generated monotone. Every choice made seems rote and unimaginative.

There are many Hollywood actors of the day I contend would’ve made superb Atticus Finches. What about Henry Fonda? The kind face, the liberal personification, the quiet dignity, so central to his rightness and goodness from The Grapes of Wrath to 12 Angry Men to Young Mr. Lincoln. Most importantly, I could believe him as a good if slightly distant father who genuinely loved his children, the one Mulligan and Foote try to give us wisps of in what little remains of Atticus’ relationship with his son and daughter from the novel. Peck seems to have been a genuinely beautiful man in the real world, but he was a flat and expressionless actor who only came to life as villainous Dr. Mengele in The Boys from Brazil, doubly significant as one of the only movies he ever made that was fun rather than bizarrely tortured. There are films in which his deadpan idealized romanticism is tolerable — though he’s upstaged in Gentleman’s Agreement by Celeste Holm and Roman Holiday by both Eddie Albert and Audrey Hepburn — and then there are films in which his hand-wringing, dead-eyed masculine muttering is positively fatal. This is one of them; the distant half-hearted chilliness of his performance is as bad as the one he gave in Hitchcock’s horrendous mess The Paradine Case, only now it’s worse because we’re meant to find every second he spends on screen totally profound and meaningful, or in the AFI’s exhausted phrase, “inspiring.” Paraphrasing Lewis Black: if you find this movie’s Atticus “inspirational” you probably found your high school principal “inspirational.”

Like so many Oscar-baiting Hollywood boredoms, To Kill a Mockingbird communicates not visually or even linguistically but specifically through delivery of grandstanding speeches. Nearly all of them are Peck’s, and they’re stacked uncomfortably in the courtroom sequence that occupies nearly an hour of the total running time and is slapped down awkwardly in the middle of all the more frivolous childhood-nostalgia stuff. That scene is what’s primarily remembered about the movie, but it’s by far its most irksome ingredient. We may not believe Peck as the decent father we’re meant to believe him as in the rest of the movie, but as a lawyer he appears to be everything he’s not supposed to be: dispassionate and court-appointed, his lecturing as tiresome as if the entire jury were his children. Compare the electric movements of James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder or Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, two actually great courtroom dramas, or even Spencer Tracy in the inferior Inherit the Wind — all the passion and fire these men exhibit, the very things that would’ve provided them with the prestige Finch is seemingly supposed to enjoy here, is absent from Peck’s performance, listless, meandering, and pointlessly condescending. The powerful moment is supposed to be when the black folks watching from the gallery all stand up silently as Atticus leaves; it’s laughable, made more so by the snide obliviousness Peck displays to it.

But we can argue over where “snide obliviousness” ends and the aforementioned “quiet dignity” begins, and clearly I’m the odd man out on this one. Since the generic blocking of the court sequence offers no visual excitement whatsoever, I assume it’s fondly remembered chiefly because of Brock Peters, whose testimony delivers both a devastating desperation and resignation at once — his tears are earned, his voice quivers in the right manner to deliver not a shadow of doubt in the audience’s mind that he’s an innocent man. But this too lends itself to a fault, which is not Peters’ but the script’s. In the novel, we’re given just enough detail and insight into Tom Robinson to believe and almost understand it when he essentially commits suicide; here, from our limited interaction with Peters’ Tom, it comes across as out of character, though that’s quickly overshadowed by the inappropriate anger of Peck’s reaction to the news. All in all, Pakula and Mulligan seem to have wanted to make something like a TV movie — all pure performance and marble-mouthed shouting, and the attention they bring to the Robinson court sequence is a hindrance to the rest of the film.

Which, while equally humorless and self-important, is not so embarrassing. The three child actors, John Megna (Dill), Mary Badham (Scout), and Phillip Alford (Jem), are quite wonderful, and the film draws us fully into their world as much as it can, which is sadly not nearly as much as the novel — there’s too little space here and too much distraction by the parallel adult story, so that the kids are sadly sidelined as a subplot. Though they’re watching the proceedings in the courthouse from above, the midsection removes us from the world that’s been set up: we no longer feel we’re watching through the eyes of the children, with the big blocky shadows of memory that overtake a childhood in the mind, so vividly articulated by Lee — whose Atticus was so moving and impressionistic, a hazy shadow of good and kindness made too literal and inhuman here. In the portions dealing with Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), we do get some of the flavor of the book, but that’s just the problem: what was flavor in a book becomes story information in a film. There have been a few movies made that feel sophisticated and rife with enough character detail to be novels (The Last Detail, let’s say, or A Serious Man or Margot at the Wedding), but this one is just too straight-ahead, so instead of an intimate and flavorful document of “those days” it’s like a condensation, a trailer almost. A film truly through the eyes of Scout and the other children would unquestionably have been a superior effort.

As it is, there is one moment in To Kill a Mockingbird that captures childhood — the objects, sound, idiosyncrasies, imagination — with stunning wit and delicacy. There might be few movies that achieve it so masterfully, even for a fleeting moment. Unfortunately, the scene in question is the opening title sequence. It’s beautiful, overwhelming; it’s also over in a couple of moments and we’re back to staid reality, English class, studying under florescent bulbs. As adults, I don’t know why we’d want to go back there.

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