They say that Great Books cannot be adapted into Great Films, that the latter come from average books at best. Given the difference between the two forms, and that Film necessarily involves a simplification and streamlining of a story whose greatness lies in its complexity, it’s a workable rule of thumb. But it isn’t a universal rule: To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of a film that is as great as the book it adapts. The two stand side by side.
Harper Lee’s novel, which most people believe to be autobiographical, was published in 1960 and filmed only two years later, with Gregory Peck in the leading role of Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the Alabama town of Maycomb in 1932.
Atticus is a good man, a decent man. He’s a widower bringing up two children, Jem, aged about 12, and Jean Louise (known as Scout) aged 6. Both book and film are seen through the eyes and understanding of Scout, though neither shies away from plain and often painful recounting of the adult events that are its story.
Atticus is asked to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is accused of raping and beating a white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the South, in 1932, the outcome is foregone. Justice is only for White Folks. Atticus is taking on a cause, whether he will or no, in demanding equal treatment, equal justice for a black man, especially one who has lusted after a white woman.
Peck accepted the role the moment he was asked, and many people have said afterwards that he is, in a sense, not acting in this film because he was Atticus Finch, that Atticus Finch was who Peck was in real life. If that’s so, then the highest of credit to him: Finch is not angry, aggressive or idealised. He is simply what I said above, a Good Man, honest, straightforward, realistic but committed to what he believes is right.
His is the leading role – there are no other ‘stars’ in the film though Robert Duvall makes his debut in a minor yet crucial role – but the film is seen from Scout’s viewpoint, a little girl growing up in a tired, hot Southern town, in the Great Depression, with nothing to do all day but play, and slowly learn. Scout’s straightforward in her own way, often disastrously, having yet to learn any of the filters adulthood places on us. She, Jem and Dill, the boy visitor they befriend (who, astonishingly enough, was in real life the boy Truman Capote) are fascinated with the nearby Radley property, and the reclusive Boo Radley, about whom so many wild stories revolve.
The film lets itself revolve around this three and their gallivanting for its first hour, with Tom Robinson and the case impinging only at moments. The film changes, though, on the eve of the trial, when Robinson is brought back from the jail in another town where he’s been incarcerated for his own safety. Immediately, a lynch mob gathers. Atticus has put himself on guard, in front of the jail, refusing the mob, about twenty strong, to take Tom and hang him, but he is only one man, whose principles are not enough to hold off the bigoted.
However, in the only scene that rings a little of wish-fulfillment rather than the truth of small southern towns in this are and this frame of mind, the appearance of the three children, throwing Atticus into fear for them, weakening his stance fatally, proves to be the save. Oblivious to what is around her, Scout recognises and addresses one of the leaders, the father of one of her classmates, and her insistence on his replying to her turns the tension into embarrassment, kills the momentum and has the mob turn and go home.
Now the film turns to the trial. The Courtroom is crowded, and segregated, whites downstairs, coloureds upstairs. The children insist on watching: they go in with the blacks. And Peck performs the role of his life, quietly, gentlemanly, ruthlessly drawing out the lack of any forensic evidence that Mayella was sexually assaulted, and the heavy implication that she was beaten by a left-handed man. Her father, Bob Ewell, a bitter, vicious, drunken stereotypical bigot, evil for what he is out of no conscious choice, is left-handed: Tom Robinson cannot use his left arm at all.
On the stand, the truth plays out. Bob Ewell expects his word to be taken because he’s white and Robinson’s a n****r (the word is used three times in the film, twice by Ewell, once in innocence by Scout, who is instantly and strictly forbidden its use in a manner that reminds me of the one time I used that word in childhood, little older than her, and how I was firmly put in my place). He’s sneery and snide, an ignorant poor white who’s going to put one over on a jumped-up, well-mannered, fancy dressed lawyer with his tricks and twistings.
Mayella, in contrast, soon shows herself as lording over the negro – who, naturally, she calls ‘Boy’ – but is clearly telling a story she’s been told to say. The sharp-eyed will notice that when she’s told to put her hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, she doesn’t touch the book, just holds her hand above it and nods the ‘oath’. And when Atticus has trapped her into knowing, she starts screaming at the jury in expectation, refuses to speak more and tries to run, rather than tell another lie.
In complete contrast, Brock Peters invests Tom Robinson with an immense natural dignity, and a degree of pain. He knows his place, knows better than to be uppity, is not in any way uppity, but he is honest and truthful, and this is plain as can be.
But it’s not enough. It probably would never have been enough, given the where and the when, but in cross-examination (the prosecutor is played by William Windom, his debut, and a far cry from his role in My World – and Welcome to it!) he kills his case when he begins to say that he had helped Mayella Ewell because he felt sorry for her.
The verdict is as we have expected all along. Atticus is hopeful: there are good grounds for appeal, which won’t be heard here. Robinson is silent when he is led out: later that night, Sheriff Heck Tate brings Atticus the news that Tom is dead, that he broke away and ran, that the Deputy shot to wound but missed his aim.
The film never suggests there is anything doubtful at this account, but it doesn’t need to: it knows that we who are aware of this time and place will automatically suspect worse things than despair. The film was produced on the edge of the civil rights era in the States, when far worse did happen and is still in many cases unpunished: like M.A.S.H. being set in the Korean war to be a commentary on Vietnam, To Kill a Mockingbird comments on the forthcoming struggle.
But before this, we have my favourite moment of the film, at the end of the trial. Once the verdict is rendered, the white folks start streaming out, the Court clears itself, Atticus is left alone downstairs, collecting his papers. On the balcony, the blacks have not moved. They sit in silence, overlooking all, until Atticus closes his case. Then, from the edges to the centre, they all come to their feet, stand in respect. The Reverend Sykes, who has appointed himself guardian to Scout, Dill and Jem, admonishes the little girl: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
But Tom is dead. Atticus drives out to his widow’s home to break the news. Jem, who we can see visibly growing up throughout these later events, who we can see growing in admiration of his father, and determination to be like him, insists on going with him. Thus Jem is there to see Bob Ewell, drunk and sour, convinced of a superiority over the black people because of his skin when he is no better than dirt in the highway, spit in Atticus’s face, and to see Atticus’s long, slow response, which is to wipe his face and leave.
Even here, Bob Ewell’s viciousness is fueled. At Halloween, as Jem escorts Scout, still wearing her parade costume of a rigid ham, through the woods at night, the pair are followed and attacked. Both are flung down, Jem to a broken arm, Scout protected by her costume. We see what happens indirectly, not through Scout’s eyes, but as brokenly and incomplete as she sees.
A strange figure carries Jem home. Scout is embraced by her scared but relieved father. Heck Tate finds the body of Bob Ewell, with a kitchen knife under his ribs. The man who intervened, who carried Jem hope, hides behind the bedroom door. Scout looks at him a long time, our eyes on her face, as she slowly works out who the stranger is, and softly says, “Hey, Boo.” Mr Arthur Radley, her father confirms.
Now she sees him, despite his wild yet shy appearance, Scout has no fears of Boo Radley, the monster. She takes his hand, encourages him to stroke Jem’s hair, then leads him outside to rock on the porch chair-swing. Atticus is preparing for Jem’s charging, though it’s a clear case of self-defence, but for once Heck Tate is ahead of him. Jem didn’t kill Bob Ewell: he fell on his own knife.
That’s as much a lie as Tom Robinson’s guilt: we all know who saved Jem and Scout, who relieved Atticus of fear. And the shy Mr Arthur Radley cannot stand the spotlight of being the hero. So, Bob Ewell fell on his own knife: a life for a life. And Scout summons up the metaphor, that to expose Mr Arthur like that would be like shooting a Mockingbird, a bird that doesn’t raid or harm, and only sings. Scout walks Boo Radley home to his door and he goes inside. Her adult narration accompanies her run back to her house. Though it’s unsaid, we understand that she will never see him again in her life.
To Kill a Mockingbird affects me deeply. It’s a story of a great wrong, avenged but not punished, and it presents as its hero a good, decent man of a kind I would always hope to be. It’s been criticised for perpetuating the cliche of the white man helping the poor, stricken blacks, which I suppose is true but which I cannot accept as diminishing the film.
Looking back over the past six months, and ahead over the six months to come, I don’t think I have any other Great Films, not in the sense of this. I would argue that La Dentelliere is a Great Film, but it is a private and a personal film. To Kill a Mockingbird is a statement, one that we need all the more as the gains of the last sixty years start to slide away from us. But it’s also a film about people, and in the end that’s the only way that statements can be properly seen: in the people they are about.