Some books and movies stick with you throughout your entire life. I remember reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee in 10th grade, and I’m willing to bet this was on everyone else’s scholastic reading list at some point, too. It’s a timeless tale about community, growing up, the Depression-era South and, of course, prejudice. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and isn’t afraid to tackle any subject, and it handles very difficult and touchy material in the best way I could hope to think of: telling it through the eyes of a child.
With a book as successful and popular as thing, it only seemed fitting a movie would soon follow. Universal didn’t hold any punches with this adaptation. The film, released in 1962, two years after the book’s publication, was nominated for eight Oscars and won three, including Best Actor with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Peck’s portrayal of the ultimate moralistic father was so good, it got Atticus the No. 1 spot on the AFI 100 Heroes list.
Both of these works qualify as classics. The movie stayed true to the source material, and whatever is omitted from the book isn’t missed much. Jem’s enraged encounter with the grouchy Mrs. Dubose, Miss Maudie’s house catching fire and Aunt Alexandra’s attempts to get Scout to be a lady — actually, Aunt Alexandra, period — stand out as the most conspicuous absences, but their impact on the characters and the story is not missed.
One thing that is missed, though, is the aftereffects of the big Tom Robinson trial. The movie includes only the very basics of what happens after the courtroom empties out: Tom is shot trying to escape prison, Bob Ewell threatens Atticus, and the kids are attacked after the Halloween show. Everything seems rushed once the trial lets up, giving the impression that the trial had little effect on Jem and Scout. They’re obviously disappointed about it in the film, but the book really lets the implications of the trial settle in through the numerous discussions the kids have with the neighbors and Atticus. It’s a sign of the kids slowly but surely losing their innocent view of the world, and just showing the event doesn’t leave as much of a lasting impact as showing how the characters handle it afterward would. It also makes the trial the main focus of the story, rather than just the key event that fuels the real story: the characters themselves.
But boy, does that climactic scene deliver. Peck really shines in the closing arguments, where he goes through the entire six-minute speech in one straight take, where the camera only cuts away maybe twice and only in the last minute or so to show Jem and Scout watching from the balcony, where he paces and directs his impassioned monologue directly at us, the audience, imploring us to, “in the name of God, do your duty.” It’s the scene that, in all likelihood, singlehandedly won Peck the Oscar. It’s moving, it leaves an impact, and it is a mark of only high praise that the filmmakers decided to leave the entirety of the speech in the movie.
But I felt this scene was indicative of the predominant reason I feel the book is the stronger of the two. In the book, the story is told through the eyes of Scout, Atticus’ 7-year-old daughter. Seeing the world through her eyes gives readers not only a great story, but a great perspective. Lee captures everything of what it’s like being a child in a grown-up’s world, from focusing on “less important” issues (Walter Cunningham getting her in trouble at school instead of his poverty) to creating alternative and fantastical realities (Boo Radley’s background) to not entirely understanding major events (the specifics of the Tom Robinson case). She is a reliable storyteller, giving the readers enough information from the adults that we get gather what’s really going on, but her unique take on matters and her narrations help paint a more complete picture of each of the characters as people.
Atticus is a great hero and my vote for greatest fictional dad of all time, but too often in the movie, he comes off as superhuman in his goodness. I think a lot of this is because in the film, Atticus is the main character, not Scout. By limiting how many times we see and hear Atticus, his wisdom and his goodness and by showing only the moments Scout is there in the scene — whether he knows it or not — gives the audience more of a feeling of realism. The movie, while outstanding in its own right, sometimes plays Atticus as too much of an everyday superhero, which can be a bit much sometimes.
That said, both versions are wonderful stories. I would actually like to see another “Mockingbird” movie told more through Scout’s perspective. Seeing more of what she sees would be an interesting take on a timeless American tale.