There will always be an argument about what one should do first: read the book or see the movie. I don’t see why it should be so . A book is much more detailed , so much more complex than a movie, that it should be experienced first. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a movie is still a condensation ; many things have to be left out if a three hundred page book is to be translated into a two-hour movie.
In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, I read three-quarters of the book before I saw the movie. While both of them are excellent , the movie cannot possibly hope to convey the humor in the book to the big screen and, of course, it leaves out some of the details. In all other respects, the movie is as good as the book.
Gregory Peck has been accused, in the past , of being somewhat wooden in his acting. Not in this movie . Here his portrayal of Atticus Finch hits all the right notes…the principled , courageous small town lawyer struggling to bring up his motherless children even as he fights the good fight . No wonder that he won the Oscar for Best Actor.He is Atticus Finch and I can quite believe the anecdote that Harper Lee gave him her father’s watch as a gift. Peck was actually the third choice to play Atticus but I’m glad that Rock Hudson and Spencer Tracy were unable to accept the role . In my opinion , Hudson was a light weight as an actor and Spencer Tracy too old to make a credible Atticus.
At first sight , Mary Popham didn’t fit my image of Scout Finch but by movie’s end I had to admit that she andPhilip Alford ( who played Jem ) and John Megna ( as Dill) were wonderful in their roles. At the Oscars she narrowly lost out to Patty Duke ( Best Supporting Actress,”The Miracle Worker”). Of the others , Brock Peters was superb as the accused Tom Robinson, innately dignified and decent , fearful and hopelessly resigned to his fate. Much is made of the fact that this was Robert Duvall’s acting début but he was not called on to do much. In his role as Boo Radley, he appeared only towards the end of the film and did not utter a single word.
The film garnered two other Oscars : Best Screen Play ( Horton Foote) and Best Art Direction & Set Design . They were richly deserved. Foote’s screenplay preserves all the highlights of the novel and I found myself recognizing the dialogues from the book as I watched the movie. One effective device in the movie treatment is the scene where Atticus brings out the fact that Tom Robinson is left-handed . He tosses a pen to Robinson who automatically catches it with his right hand ,giving Atticus the opportunity to establish that Robinson’s left hand was mangled when he was 12 and that he could not possibly have used it to batter Mayella. As for the sets , they were faithfully recreated from sketches of the original buildings and I could have sworn that the entire movie was shot on site.
Accustomed as I am to color and ,lately , HD TV I don’t usually like to watch black and white movies. To Kill a Mockingbird was an exception ; such is its excellence that I didn’t care that it was in B& W. It is no wonder that it is one of the top 25 movies of all time .
For those who liked the movie , I strongly suggest that you watch the 2010 documentary, Hey , Boo : Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird ( available on Netflix Streaming ). It gives much insight into the life of the author as well as the making of the movie. Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964 and I, for one , didn’t know anything about her except that she is still alive and well at age 85. In interviews with relatives , friends and one-time neighbors, Hey Boo gives us some background on the author , her beginnings and the sources for her inspiration . There is a wonderful anecdote about the generosity of friends who enabled her to write full-time and complete the novel. Lee had moved to NYC and was working as an airline reservations clerk with BOAC while trying to write in her spare time . In 1957 , an editor at J.B. Lipincott advised her to re-cast her essays and reminiscences as a novel and to work on it full-time . Michael Brown , who with his wife Joy was a close friend , had made some money at songwriting and generously gave it to her so that she could give up her job and concentrate on the novel. It was another 2 1/2 years before the novel was completed but , if not for Michael Bown’s generosity, it might never have seen the light of day.
Hey Boo has interviews with several writers such as James Patterson, Scott Turow , Wally Lamb , Anna Quindlen and Richard Russo and personalities like Oprah Winfrey and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young who tell us about the passages in the book that affected them. They help us understand nuances that we may have missed. There are also some very interesting reactions from a range of people , from actors like the grown up Mary Popham ( ” Scout”) to school children in the South, black and white, who are asked what the book did for them.
One of the most interesting clips was that of a woman who grew up in Alabama talking about the time her entire fifth grade class saw the movie when it first hit the theaters in 1962. She tells us that , as she watched the movie, she fully expected Tom Robinson to be exonerated . When he was found guilty , she was horrified to the point of tears but, even as she was crying ,she could not help feeling guilty :a white girl going against the principles she had been brought up to believe in, by shedding tears for the fate of a black man. Remarkable in its honesty.
Another notable sidelight is the interaction between Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Capote was instrumental in introducing Lee to her editor and , conversely,Lee was very supportive of Capote when he was working on his controversial best seller, In Cold Blood. However, after Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Truman’s jealousy drove them apart. In later years, as Lee never published another book, there were rumors that Truman Capote must have helped in the writing of To Kill A Mockingbird. Truman , cad that he was , never denied the rumors and , by playing coy , gave the impression that they were true. That was low , even for him .
The documentary also floats several theories about why Harper Lee never wrote another novel . Was it the pressure of trying to live up to the standards of to KIll a Mockingbird? Was it that she had that one masterpiece in her and that ,having written it , she had nothing more to say ? We will never know . We can however be grateful to her for giving us this gem , for having the courage to write a book that was as effective in helping expose an evil as Harriet Beecher Stowe’ s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a century ago.