To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Updated: Mar 10
If anyone of you reading this managed to tune in to this website from the very beginning, congratulations! I applaud your dedication to this website, and I feel more humbled if you recall my review on both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, both by Harper Lee. They’re both classics in their own right – even if for different reasons – as well as household names for tackling racism in a small Southern hometown and how it’s perceived by someone who had an innocent and curious nature.
To Kill a Mockingbird became a highly regarded work of literature for its accomplishments, but it had the even greater honor of having a movie made off of it. And not just any movie, but a movie that respected the core purposes of its story and left its mark in cinematic history as a masterpiece of films discussing racism.
The story is about a young girl named Scout Finch, who was enjoying her day-to-day life in Great Depression-era Maycomb, Alabama, and doing so with her brother, Jem, their best friend, Dill, and her father, Atticus Finch, a local lawyer, played by Gregory Peck. At first, she got into some adventures any kid would’ve dreamed of, such as prying into the house of a mysterious man shrouded in local legend. Ironically, the man they originally were so afraid of would eventually have started to show his true colors to them, and in a way that was soft, quiet, and life-changing. But if that wasn't enough, everything in Scout's world turned upside down when Atticus decided to take on a case concerning a young black man, Tom Robinson, who was accused of raping and assaulting a young white woman. He took on the case fully aware of the consequences he’s putting himself into, especially considering Maycomb's racist backgrounds, and yet he still decided to do this case because he believed that Robinson was innocent. This started to open Scout and Jem‘s eyes to Maycomb's sense of trustworthiness, and why such innocent people like Robinson was being accused of a crime that they, and Atticus, knew he somehow never committed.
Just like the book, one of the hallmarks of To Kill a Mockingbird was its story. It did a great job of taking a more analytical look at how easily excitable children did their own thing while balancing it out with the questionable lifestyles and opinions of a small Southern town deeply rooted in hatred, bigotry, and racism. Whenever these two subplots came together, the kids' sense of curiosity led them to question the more complicated and convoluted tribulations of life, especially those that were prevalent through Maycomb. But at the heart of the story is the idea of prejudice and how other people dealt with it, whether it’s against Boo Radley by the other kids or even by some adults, or against Tom Robinson, who was automatically given the blame just because he was black. And it was discussed in such a way that was intimate, honest, and, the more it was brought up in such a manner, the more important it became to contemplate once you have finished the movie.
What made the story so juicy, besides how it decided to relay its message of racism and bigotry, was the Finches themselves. They were a meek, modest family whose points of view of things in life started to clash against those of the rest of their hometown. Once you see them start to acknowledge the misdeeds going on within their own town and struggle to prove why their methods of enacting misdeeds influenced by bigotry were wrong, especially in the South, they would have left you rooting for them even when it looked like they could've been fighting a lost cause.
Scout Finch was a tomboyish young girl who enjoyed all the scruffy activities in life, so much so, that if she was in something as feminine-looking as a dress, it put her in a bad mood. Even better was, she wasn’t perfect; she still expressed some shreds of prejudice that kids at her age and during the time period in which it was set may have expressed. And what made her more identifiable was when she started to acknowledge the risks of some of her and Jem's shenanigans – such as getting to peek into Radley‘s property, even though she and Jem both caught on to the goodness noticeable through Boo's indirect, but thoughtful gestures towards them – and her concern and confusion over the case concerning Tom Robinson. Even when she came to grips with the imperfections of her hometown concerning racism, she still held onto her tomboyish tendencies, such as when she was tempted to get into fistfights with anyone her age who expressed similarly commonplace racist remarks just because she didn't agree with them. Her uncertainties about the situations, and her ways of reacting to them, all added to her complexity as a character and her relatability as a human being.
Jem Finch was a noble character who tried as hard as he could have to protect Scout every time they both got involved in perilous situations. It was also interesting to watch him attempt to feel, despite his young age, like he was still observant enough to know when something was wrong with the adults in town, like with his father, or with regards to the case concerning Tom Robinson. I think part of it came from his idolization of Atticus.
Dill, their next-door neighbor, was just a delightful kid. He kept on boasting about how he and his family accomplished or achieved certain things, and it was neat to watch him let Scout and Jem partake in what seemed like wild adventures cooked up only in the vastness of his imagination. Word has it that he was inspired by Harper Lee’s childhood best friend, Truman Capote, so that should explain some of his more theatrical impressions.
Bob Ewell was just a maniac. His racist attitude and unorderly demeanor left him feeling like someone who was both despicable and intimidating. Even during the court scene, which I'll elaborate on in a minute, his proclamations about what went on during Tom Robinson's encounters with his daughter were slightly pompous and filled with the utmost prejudice. And when you see his daughter make her statements on the event, her reactions to some of the questions being asked to her about her family life, especially by Atticus, hinted a highly dysfunctional, unstable relationship between the two of them. And those facets in Bob's personality only got cemented by the end of the movie, when he stalked and attacked both Scout and Jem as they were both walking home from the school’s Halloween dance, and all just because their and Atticus' views on racism differed from his own. At that point, he started to feel more animal than he was a man.
And most of all, there’s Atticus Finch. At first glance, you would've thought of Atticus as just a respectable father who abhorred racism and would've done anything he could've done in his power to put the naysayers in their place. But he was made more interesting by two things. One was the qualities in his character that separated him from the rest of his hometown. One of them was the fact that he allowed Scout to read more advanced reading despite her young age, like from his newspapers, when she was expected to just read books within her reading level. And the second was his willingness to stick to his conscience and keep defending Tom Robinson, controversial as his decision was to everyone else. These qualities established him as a good father and a unique, brave human being who was determined to do what he believed was right, whether anyone else in his hometown - or even within his family circle - would've been on his side or not. And his pursuits culminated in a truly powerful, truth-ridden, and spot-on commentary about racism that not only grew more relevant with age, and not only will it send chills down your spine, but it will open your eyes, too, because of how true and to the point it all was. And as of this writing, because there are so many ongoing issues concerning racism and even common sense, what Atticus had to say can't be taught or retaught enough.
The characters wouldn’t have been who they were onscreen without the talents of the actors, and the myriad of acting I witnessed from this movie was just stupendous, to say the least. Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus Finch with the utmost tenderness and boldness that synced in beautifully with both his fatherly demeanor and his determined personality. These qualities helped Atticus feel as human, as aware, and as eager to do the right thing as anyone watching him do his own thing would aspire to be. Because of that, the Oscar he went home with for Best Actor for his role here was much deserved. And I think the chief reason he won the Oscar might be because of his sense of conviction, plus the compassion and desperation he expressed as he attacked the vices of racism and fallacies in Maycomb’s more one-sided, primordial arguments against Tom Robinson.
Mary Badham was also brilliant. Whenever she got into Scout's character, she lent her the cocky attitude and rogue personality of someone who liked to get dirty and rejected the more extreme kinds of formality in the Southeastern USA. It also helped that the voice she lent Scout carried some traces of an authentic Southern accent to it.
The scene at the end of the movie where Scout and his family finally met Boo Radley in person was filled with acting at its absolute finest. Robert Duvall made the most out of his onscreen debut as Boo Radley, portraying him as a meek, timid, simpleminded, but still noble, kind, and considerate human being who slowly but surely became a good friend of Scout and Jem. And he maintained his personality, down to the physical expressions correlating with them, all without needing to say a word. Talk about a star being born!
And Mary Badham’s reaction to seeing Boo Radley for herself was her breakthrough moment, much like how the court speech was to Gregory Peck. The way she thought-processed the man standing in front of her in her bedroom was just masterful. It started with a slight uneasiness, then a twinge of fear, and ultimately, with a blossoming sense of soft, gleeful recognition. You can just read it all over her face, as well as feel it as we tried to wrap our heads around it with her. Her entire performance, in addition to this, was actually good enough for her to be bestowed a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, and yes, I feel like it was earned on her end.
Everyone else in the movie just nailed down their performances in the movie, again lending them traces of a Southern accent to match the Alabaman setting, including Ruth White as Miss Henry Lafayette Dubose, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell.
Now, because this movie was based on a classic book, it did go through some cuts during the transitioning into the movie medium. What’s funny is that the original book was a little more episodic and told more of Scout's adventures in Maycomb, whether they were to establish the joys of childhood, or to correlate with Scout's budding uncertainties of the Tom Robinson case.
There were more events and encounters the Finches had with one of their kindly neighbors, Miss Maudie, including one where her house burned to the ground due to an accident.
Jem and Scout visited Miss Henry Lafayette Dubose, who they had initial misgivings about due to her grouchy personality until they realized that she needed some company.
The movie did not show what went on in school outside of Scout's playground fights; most of what happened throughout her school life in the book was passed on in conversation, mostly by Scout to Atticus.
One of the events shown only in the book showed Scout getting into some trouble for speaking in a manner that was beyond her expected reading level, and Bob’s kid, Burris Ewell, walking into their classroom and harassing everyone there, including the teacher, Miss Caroline.
Scout, Jem, and Atticus all attended a family reunion at Scout's aunt's place while Scout was being harassed by her cousin, named Francis, for even expressing concern about Tom Robinson.
Jem and Scout all joined their housemistress, Calpurnia, to attend black Mass, and they discovered not only how the Black people lived their lives in Maycomb, but how they held prejudices against White people similar to what the Whites held against the Blacks. The racism in Maycomb was twofold, and what Scout and Jem experienced firsthand was what my family and I call 'reverse racism'.
The reverend and many of the Black people came to attend Tom Robinson’s hearing in the movie, though, just like in the book.
I enjoyed them for going a little abroad to explore other parts of Maycomb and how their lifestyles functioned compared to that of the Finches. But with them being taken out of the movie, did they impact the movie in a significant way? Well, personally, no, they didn’t. They actually helped the movie come across as much cleaner and less jumbled, and most of all, it gave director Robert Mulligan the advantage of keeping his focus, and that of the movie, on the stories’ core themes, such as coming of age, racism, the follies of such behavior, and how it’s all being brought into question through the eyes of Scout and her friends.
Many of the core components of the movie complemented each other perfectly; the acting complemented the writing, the directing complemented the story, the directing complimented the acting, the acting complimented the characters, the period settings complimented the story, the location complemented the acting, and the result is a genuinely full-bodied, fantastic coming-of-age movie that analyzed the injustices America is trying to come to grips with. Much like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it encouraged the notion to analyze certain things closely, especially through the eyes of another witnessing it with us. As Atticus tells Scout:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
Of course, the same can be said about the dedication committed in the filmmaking process. The actors truly understood their characters and allowed them to feel as alive, believable, and identifiable as if they were our own neighbors.
And it doesn’t stop there. The directing focused on what’s most important about the story, the story itself was uncompromising yet honest and intimate, the setting evoked a small-town warmth coupled with an aggressive sense of conflict, and its themes only became more important today than they ever were before. Say what you will about how Go Set a Watchman might’ve “undermined” some of the key things so many people loved about this movie and the book, but while I would disagree with it, it still does not diminish the sheer power, sophistication, keenness, and poignancy of To Kill A Mockingbird’s portrayal of a still-ongoing American issue.
Much like how the book was one of the most celebrated books of all time for a reason, the movie was one of the most celebrated cinematic events of all time for a reason, too, because of everything it stood for. It's a movie I could see Atticus himself being proud of.
My Rating: A
Don't think this will be the only film I'll talk about in response to these racially-oriented crises. Be prepared for what'll be coming your way next Friday. By the time it comes, it might make for some healthier food for thought than you might think...
The more I think about it, have any of you noticed how many times I've critiqued and admired movies through The Screened Word that starred Robert Duvall? True Grit, MASH, and now, To Kill a Mockingbird? I'm starting to have a bit of a soft spot for him, aren't I?
How much of a reputation did the movie leave behind? Well, here’s an interesting story. At one point, Walt Disney treated his family to a private home viewing of the movie, and when it was finished, he solemnly admitted to them that it was the kind of movie he wished he had made. And this was a couple of years before he made Mary Poppins. It was that impactful, and to hear that from such pioneers as Walt Disney himself, that's quite a huge bit of praise indeed!