To Kill a Mockingbird

With Harper Lee’s long lost manuscript getting published this week I thought it time to look again at the film adaptation of her original much celebrated novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’ve not read To Kill a Mockingbird, I need to come clean on that right away. I’ve meant to for many years now but I’m afraid I just haven’t got round to it. There are just too many other books out there and more significantly for me too many films. (This is the point at which the readers among you start to tut and splutter but let’s get past that, you’ve got your preferred creative medium and I’ve got mine.) Like the source material though, Robert Mulligan’s movie is considered a seminal work and it will no doubt be stills of Gregory Peck as Atticus Fitch that will be adorning the newspaper reviews of this new literary sequel as journalists inevitably talk about too much hype and fallen idols.

Let’s give Lee a break here, there is clearly a reason why Go Set a Watchman has gone unpublished for decades and I’m sure it wasn’t her idea to put it out there now. The interest in the work was inevitable once it had been discovered and it’s not as though they were just going to post it online, that kind of stuff only happens in the movies.

The film, released just two years after the book, is a masterpiece but it has aged in a way other movies have not. It feels far more of its time than Casablanca, Psycho or The Third Man. Clearly those films are dated in their conventions but the themes and emotions are timeless. Any film about human rights and racism made now though would feel very different to this film made in 1962. You only need to watch movies like 12 Years a Slave, Selma or even something like A Time to Kill or The Help to see how simple the racial politics in To Kill a Mockingbird are by comparison. The way it deals with equality is powerful and moving for sure but it has more in common with Hairspray that it does with a Cry Freedom.

Take attorney Atticus for example, that warrior against prejudice and hero of the oppressed. In the context of the film it is ambiguous as to why he takes the case of black man Tom Robinson, charged with a hideous crime he so clearly didn’t commit. The suggestion is that he was bravely fighting for a cause no one else would stand for but maybe he just needed the money. By his own admission he is poor and he didn’t seek out the gig, he was asked to do it.

Consider his speech in the court room as well. He speaks of the one thing Tom might have actually done wrong, not the sexual attack on a white woman he is accused of but the act of feeling sorry for her, as going against the town’s rigid and time honoured code. He says it is something that in their society is unforgivable. These are not exactly the words of a brave iconoclast railing against a corrupt regime. He does continue by criticising ‘evil assumptions about black people’ but that is condemning extremism not challenging the casual institutional racism rife in his community. He is sitting on the fence more than a little. It could all just be hyperbole as well, he is trying to win a court case.

I’m not trying to kill one of film history’s sacred cows. He is clearly a brave and principled man but there is ambiguity there. It is interesting that early reviews of Go Set a Watchman have suggested the character is presented as bit of a bigot which deeply undermines how he has been seen for decades. Based on the film at least this may not really go against how he has been portrayed before. – The book, I understand, is a lot clearer on Atticus’ motivations but actually, the different ways you can read the adult protagonist is part of what makes the film so good. He is not a two dimensional figure and feels like more of a real person than many of the heroes we see on our screens today. Either way the film is brilliant for reasons beyond its handling of rights issues because Atticus is not actually the main character. That duty falls to Scout, his six year old daughter

The portrayal of the children in the film, and childhood in general, is just wonderful. Scout and her older brother Jem are played so endearingly by Mary Badham (who was actually and very obviously four years older than the part she was playing) and Phillip Alford. With these two, and their sometime neighbour Dill, we see a romanticised but affecting vision of what it is to be a kid. Their’s are lives full of adventure and mystery where everything is either totally simple or incredibly complicated. This does come from the fact that they are given far more freedom than is appropriate, even for the time, but I’ve already cast Atticus’ ethics into question so I won’t have a go at his parenting skills as well. Besides, Atticus is clearly a loving father with immense respect for his children and this as much as his apparent courtroom heroics is what sets him out as a noble figure.

The way the film is shot is stunning too and the music by Bernstein is sublime. Both of these things come immediately to the fore in the opening credits, as the tune, initially hummed by a child, plays over beautifully shot images of the contents of an infant’s treasure box. The artistry is established right at the start doesn’t let up. – To Kill a Mockingbird is not quite a perfect film; it rushes the Boo Radley subplot and nasty Bob Ewell’s final actions seem out of the blue in a way I’m guessing they don’t in the novel. It is a wonderful piece of work though celebrating young life with all of its innocence, love and quirks (Scout dressing up as a ham is particularly random), as well as confronting the world of adulthood with its potential for guilt, anger, and hatred. It is the ultimate coming of age tale.

The title To Kill a Mockingbird refers to the act of destroying the lives of those who don’t deserve it; you wouldn’t kill a mockingbird, it is just a songbird and all it brings is pleasure. Atticus and Scout stand equally for fairness and justice and respect everyone’s right to a free and unoppressed life. This sentiment has clearly influenced the creation of many other literary and cinematic characters over the decades. If you’re not happy with the way Scout grows up in this new book then you can look instead to all of those other stories infused with her spirit from E.T to Spirited Away to The Hunger Games which most explicitly invokes Harper Lee in calling its heroine the Mockingjay.

To Kill a Mockingbird is an important work on the page and on screen and this new book, good or disappointing, can do nothing to change its legacy.

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