The only two books I specifically remember from ninth grade English are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. Both are classics of mid-20th Century American literature, both are surprisingly easy to read, and both had their fingers on the pulse of the era’s youth. Catcher was my favorite at the time, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that Catcher resonates less and less, while Mockingbird only gets better. It may not be exactly fair to compare the two of them as they deal with different stages of life and are written in different styles, but because we read them back to back, that’s how they’ll forever be. Catcher made sense to me as a 14-year-old male in ways Mockingbird didn’t (I was a greasy-haired teen in 1997, what do you expect?).
Now you may laugh, but to be honest, the first thing that really made me respect Mockingbird was when I found out that it’s Superman’s favorite book and movie (again, 14 in 1997). Suddenly it all made sense -- it’s about the moment you realize that everything in the world is way bigger than you imagined, that your parents are not just “mom and dad” but people with their own stories and conflicts, and the fact that there are gray areas in society’s morals doesn’t excuse you from doing the right thing when given the opportunity.
Whoa. Suddenly this Holden guy was less of a role model and more of a prick.
He was all about resisting change. His hatred of “phonies” seemed a lot less heroic when it just makes him brood all the damn time. He doesn’t see any inner truth that Atticus doesn’t, but Holden acts like he does. Now part of it may be that he never had an Atticus-figure to look up to, but more on that in a bit.
The film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is as faithful as one can be while still maintaining its own vision. The events are all there, and even when there’s a jarring perspective change in the second act -- when it’s no longer Scout’s story but Atticus’ -- it’s for all the right reasons.
In the film, as in the book, we follow a series of events surrounding the Finch family from Scout’s point of view. Scout is a wildly intelligent tomboy with problems conforming to structure; she wants to wear overalls, not dresses, and she wants to learn at home with her father Atticus, not at some school where the rules don’t make sense. Her older brother Jem is old enough to take action when he sees something wrong, but too young to know what to do when the moment arrives. Both have key lessons to learn from Atticus, and it’s not difficult to see them as different sides of his own personality.
The film follows the book very closely, and not only in story. We really feel like kids feel during the summer, that it’s seemingly endless and full of possibilities. The kids act like kids, not like walking metaphors or truism fountains. Small things, like how to walk past a certain neighbor’s house, have huge meanings; and huge things, like racism and justice, don’t even register.
But I’m not saying anything you probably don’t already know. Does the movie work?
It works for the same reasons the book does: its commitment to intellectual and dramatic honesty. But it triumphs because it has the courage to break its own structural rules.
There is one long stretch where the film is no longer from Scout’s point of view, and it takes up practically an entire act. When Scout and Jem go to the courthouse to see Atticus defend Tom Robinson, a Black man who is in court on trumped up charges, we’re no longer following Scout’s thoughts as she makes sense of her father’s actions. We’re watching a courtroom drama akin to Inherit the Wind, where all of society is being put on trial and Atticus takes the leading role.
This isn’t a problem, it’s just slightly jarring if you’re remembering the book as you follow along. But as the scene breathes, it becomes apparent that breaking form for an extended period of time was the only way to remain faithful to the book. Think about how Taxi Driver is a first-person narrative except one stray scene where Harvey Keitel is “romancing” (ewww) Jodie Foster. That scene breaks the rules of its own premise -- that we’re stuck inside Travis’ head as he builds up to a psychotic episode -- but suddenly we’re in this guy’s apartment. But it works for one of three reasons, perhaps all of them: 1) it’s in Travis’ imagination, 2) we need to see it in order to hate this guy even more, or 3) Harvey Keitel is just too good to not give him the scene. It works any way you slice it because it’s able to see outside its own structure to see the bigger picture; this scene needs to be in there, who cares if it’s wrong on paper?
Unlike with Taxi Driver, we have a book to base this scene on, but the same rules apply. Gregory Peck is just too damn good to not give him this scene, we need to know that Tom is actually innocent in order to make sense of the ending, and we need to hate the accuser enough to feel like justice has been done when he gets what’s coming to him. And from an artistic point of view, we -- the audience -- are learning from Atticus’ wisdom and courage as much as Scout does, so one way to look at it is that the perspective shifts not from Scout to Atticus, but from Scout to us, so that we can better understand the power of having such a father-figure.
There’s no use in praising To Kill a Mockingbird‘s story because only, like, three things happen. It’s all about how a developing mind processes new and unfamiliar concepts, which is easier to do in a book than in film. Hats off to you, sirs.
Comments: A mostly-literal interpretation of an American classic, it deviates when it needs to while keeping the core intact.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. Creative, loyal, incredibly well acted (especially the kids, and I hate kids in movies) and very influential.
Inspired: It’s hard to think of what it hasn’t influenced, but practically every lawyer-seeking-justice film (even the bad ones) wants to emulate this one.
Next Week: #33 High Noon
Last Week: #35 It Happened One Night
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