I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in my freshman year at high school, eight years ago. It was probably the first time I enjoyed reading a book in class and was able to appreciate a book as a work of art.
The film version, directed by Robert Mulligan, has become a classic in its own right, mostly thanks to Gregory Peck’s career-defining work as Atticus Finch. That is the highlight of the film, no doubt. Peck is masterful in this role and there probably are not enough superlatives in the English language to give it. Simply put, it’s one of the most affecting performances in Hollywood cinema. The audience is able to feel like Atticus is not just the father of the Scout and Jem, but the father to anyone watching it. Peck always feels like a stiff, stern piece of cardboard in many roles (particularly in things like Gentleman’s Agreement) but here, that works somehow.
Mulligan’s film centers on just two of Harper Lee’s threads in the book – Atticus’s defense of a black man falsely accused of rape and Scout and Jem’s infatuation with Boo Radley. Both come together in the end. Robert Duvall plays Boo in his first screen role and while he does not get to say a word, his subtle performance leaves an impression.
The courtroom drama at the center of the film is what it is most known for. Peck gives a stirring speech about how justice needs to be fair in this country and that stereotypes should not get in the way of that. It is a message as important then as it is today.
What needs to be admired in Mockingbird (both in the book and in the film) is the fact that the trial does not have a happy ending. Atticus is, indeed, a man ahead of his time. The people in this Southern town are not ready for change – even when all the evidence presented proves their verdict otherwise. Scout and Jem are able to learn that not everything ends the way you want it, even when you pour your heart into it.
Universal has released the film numerous times, but the best is the 2005 Legacy Series edition, which is filled to the brim with worthwhile features. The film, which is presented using a fantastic transfer that really proves how wonderful the black-and-white photography is, is joined by promotional material and Peck’s acceptance speech of his Best Actor Oscar on the first disc. The second disc is packed with Conversation with Gregory Peck and an in-depth 90-minute making-of documentary.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a story that has transcended art. The book is one of the most consistently taught in schools across the country. While the film did lose out to Laurence of Arabia at the 1962 Academy Awards for Best Picture, it is still regarded as one of the classic Hollywood films of the early 1960s. (The 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a testament to that.) Even those that have enjoyed the book will like the film, which only seeks to honor the book and it does so perfectly.
Read my last review here.