Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): Praise and Criticism for Robert Mulligan's Most Popular Film

“To begin with, this case should never have come to trial.” Atticus Finch begins his closing statement with these words, and from that point delivers a speech so true, so commanding, so universal, you would have to be a fool not to believe it. It is the single greatest courtroom speech in the history of American movies.

I don’t usually confess things like this, but here it is: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is the film that launched me into an obsession with classic movies. All of my love for the classic filmmakers of Hollywood begins with Robert Mulligan. I first saw the film at the age of fourteen, in the summer after my departure from middle school. High school was just around the corner. One day, at the Webster Groves library, I found a videotape of To Kill A Mockingbird for rental and took it home. I was familiar with it, mainly, because the AFI had voted Atticus Finch #1 in their list of the Top 50 Heroes in American cinema. Once the movie was over, I was so overjoyed, I was in tears. Then when I entered high school the following autumn, as a freshman, I read Harper Lee’s novel for the first time. Again, nothing but joy. There was absolutely no stopping my seemingly immortal and undying love for this extraordinary story.

But those years are long gone. I’ve seen far too many more movies and far too many superior movies—some of which, for that matter, were directed Robert Mulligan. Don’t get me wrong: I still love To Kill A Mockingbird. Truly, I do. But this is not a perfect film. Far from it. Nor is the original novel a flawless work. In my young teenage years, I regarded both Lee’s novel and Mulligan’s film to be without compare, finding no fault in either of them and often getting in extensive arguments with those who thought otherwise. But after watching the movie again recently, I’ve suddenly realized that for all of its messages about love, tolerance, anti-discrimination and nonviolence, To Kill A Mockingbird is also a story that inadvertently contradicts itself by endorsing hero worship, stereotypical antagonists and, most offensive of all, eye-for-an-eye justice. It is a story that is at once beautiful and hypocritical.

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite critics, shares my appreciation for To Kill A Mockingbird but is also quick to criticize the film where it is deserved. In a slideshow for Salon, Seitz writes, “My problem is the way this movie (and its source novel) make the heroes so pure, the villains so irredeemably craven and nasty, and the moral lessons so tidy. Atticus Finch is the nicest man who ever lived. Accused rapist Tom Robinson is innocent of all charges, including the implication that a black man could be turned on by the likes of his accuser, the gangly, shrewish, redneck slut Mayella Ewell. Mayella's dad, Bob Ewell--who beat Mayella and concocted the phony rape and battery charges to save face--is a racist pig, a step up from the hillbillies in Deliverance.”

The irony here, as Seitz observes, is that To Kill A Mockingbird reduces its heroes to archetypes and its villains to stereotypes even though it is a story written for the purpose of denouncing all archetypes and stereotypes in general. This is supposed to be a story about people who think the way they do for a reason, good people who sometimes do bad things, and flawed people who don’t know any better than what they have been taught since childhood. In his famous courtroom speech, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) uses this sensible rhetoric when he speaks before the jury and tries to overcome their racism by dismissing two kinds of stereotypes: the idea that black men can’t be trusted around white women, and the idea that all poor white people are stupid, soulless and hopelessly bigoted.

Well, the movie certainly makes good on deconstructing that first stereotype. But To Kill A Mockingbird fails to make good on its second promise of illuminating on the poor white characters of the story as human beings. The one bigoted white character in all of To Kill A Mockingbird who can absolutely be described as three-dimensional is the farmer Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton), who brings Atticus bags of hickory nuts every week as payment for legal work Atticus once did for him, but then finds himself morally conflicted when he leads a lynch mob against Atticus at the local jail, and is unsure whether to proceed. Perhaps in some ways a case can be made that the abused, frightened Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) is a three-dimensional character, since she is a victim of incest, is confused by her sexual feelings and, as a consequence, puts another man’s life at stake after she does something that her society considers “unspeakable”. But no such complexities can be applied to her father, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who as Seitz correctly writes, is never seen as anything more than an evil, racist pig. He has only purpose: to be the guy we’re supposed to hate.

Keep in mind that these problems in the movie’s characterizations are not just the fault of Horton Foote’s Academy Award-winning screenplay. This is exactly how Harper Lee wrote them in her novel. Foote’s job was only to adapt her pages; practically every intellectual concept that is present in Mulligan’s film is one of Lee’s own original concepts. Yet as Seitz explains, it is not only the antiheroes in To Kill A Mockingbird who are sort of drawn up stereotypically. Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), the black man Mayella has accused of rape, is so generous that he’s almost too generous. Even if he didn’t take advantage of Mayella, is it so hard to believe that he might have been somewhat aroused by her advances? In his defense, Tom does seem to be a man committed to family values: he has a wife (Kim Hamilton) who loves him, and a father (Jester Hairston) who worries about him. Maybe he’s also fully aware of what might happen if he got in any kind of scandal with a white girl. Still, when Tom is on the stand, he describes the incident as if he’s an adolescent boy who feels threatened by any kind of temptations of the flesh. Tom’s big scene is powerful, and the tearjerking performance by Brock Peters is something I’ve never forgotten—but there’s also that element of peculiar sexual logic it has going for it.

What about Atticus? Is he too archetypal? I can't say. I confess that I myself am probably not fully willing to slam the character. All of us have wished at some point or another that we could have had a father like Atticus Finch—and Harper Lee modeled the character off of her own dad—but Atticus Finch himself is such a larger-than-life character, he almost comes off as a tall tale. When the AFI voted him their #1 Hero, there’s a reason why he ended up beating Indiana Jones, James Bond and even George Bailey for that top spot: he’s a hero without error. Lee wrote him as an all-knowing wise man who knows what’s best for everybody. He believes in tolerance and nonviolence, even though he is not quite a full-fledged pacifist (he is not above putting a rapid dog out of its misery, and recognizes an act of "clear-cut, self-defense" at a key moment). Again, however, I’m not fully willing to slam Atticus as a character. I’ve always liked the way he is written.

Actually, parenting is a favorite theme in many of Robert Mulligan’s films. In Fear Strikes Out (1957), the father was a controlling man who pushed his son too hard—as opposed to Atticus Finch, who treats his children the way they ought to be treated. Inside Daisy Clover (1965) featured Ruth Gordon as a mother who loves her daughter but is powerless to save her from a viper’s nest of betrayals when she leaves home to become a movie star. The mother in Summer of ’42 (1971) is largely absent from the screen and totally oblivious to her teenage son’s sexual awakening, and the mother in The Other (1972) has gone mad. Alan Alda in Same Time, Next Year (1978) is distraught about his son’s death in Vietnam and decides to vote for Goldwater in hopes that he’ll drop the bomb. Sam Waterston in The Man in the Moon (1991) dotes on his daughters and, consequently, alternates between loving and hotheaded.

One thing I like about Atticus Finch is that he is not so foolish as to believe he is the only force of influence in his children's lives. A widower, he has hired Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) to serve as their mother figure, and cares not if the rest of the town objects to him running a multiracial household. He and Calpurnia both are aware that Jem and Scout's new friend Dill (John Megna), modeled off of Truman Capote, is a charlatan when he touts that he dad owns the L & R railroad--but he lets boys be boys. And he has a kind neighbor in Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy), one of the few people in town who understands that what Atticus is doing for Tom Robinson is right.

The most special thing about Atticus Finch is that he wants nothing more than for his children, Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), to grow up adopting his dogma of acceptance of others. Scout doesn’t understand why Atticus makes an effort to small-talk the cranky old Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White), and Jem can’t help but stare in confusion when Atticus resists getting into physical fights with Bob Ewell, especially when he molests the windows of Atticus’ car and, in a later scene, spits in his face. Atticus knew the day was coming when he’d have to explain these issues to his kids, and he has thoughtful answers for them. He explains to daughter, “if you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.” His talk with Jem is more disconcerting, but no less honest: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible.”

Jem and Scout’s strong relationship with their father is, indeed, the heart of the picture, and one of the pleasures of To Kill A Mockingbird is seeing them attempt to adopt their father’s advice and become better human beings. Atticus has told Scout that if he were to refuse to defend Tom Robinson, he couldn’t hold his head up in town—he wouldn’t really be in a place to teach his kids how to distinguish between right and wrong. No doubt Atticus has given this same talk to Jem at one point or another, and both Jem and Scout practice following Atticus’ advice during the famous scene in which Walter Cunningham’s mob comes to the local jail, attempting to lynch Tom Robinson. Jem and Scout take matters into their own hands, and intervene: Scout’s sudden, innocent conversation with Cunningham shames the mob and lowers their guard. And Jem refuses to leave his father’s side. From a parent’s perspective, Atticus is doing the right thing when he orders his kids to go home; but Jem defies him, perhaps because he has realized that he could never hold up his head in town if he were to abandon his father to the mob and, quite possibly, watch him get hurt. Notice that, after the mob leaves, Atticus patiently asks the kids to go home, and then quietly pats Jem on the back, effectively recognizing his son’s courage. In this scene, Atticus, Jem and Scout all come away as heroes.

Roger Ebert criticizes this scene in his 2 ½-star review, claiming that it would never have happened this way in real life. I don’t agree with Ebert on this particular scene, although I will consent that the rest of Ebert’s complaints about To Kill A Mockingbird are valid. When I first read Ebert’s review as a young teenager, it outraged me. But reading it again, I can’t deny he has a point when he attacks the film’s more dubious scenes, which all follow Atticus’ courtroom speech: for example, after the racist jury finds Tom Robinson guilty, there are, strangely, no loud protests from the black crowd up on the balcony. The scene is written and directed in such a way so that the emphasis is put entirely on Atticus’ heroism for defending Tom, and hardly at all on the harsh realities of Tom’s fate.

Later, when it is revealed that Tom has been shot dead upon escaping from custody, Horton’s Foote’s screenplay veers into a most awful direction: it makes it look as though it was Tom’s own fault for running away from the police. In Harper Lee’s novel, the authorities shoot Tom seventeen times, clearly indicating that he was the victim of a racist shooting. Foote’s screenplay, however, omits this crucial detail, and changes the circumstances of Tom’s death to make him look like the guilty one instead. And Ebert also validly criticizes the scene in which Atticus breaks the bad news to the Robinson family, writing that “the black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.”

But I have not even gotten yet to the most offensive sequence in the film, one that both Harper Lee’s novel and Horton Foote’s screenplay share in common: the ending. On Halloween night, Jem and Scout, on their way home, take a shortcut through the woods, and are then attacked by a deranged Bob Ewell before the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) puts Ewell’s cowardly actions to a stop, and kills him. I’m not going to lie: this ending makes me feel good. It makes me happy to know that Boo Radley turns out to be a nice guy after all, that he comes to the children’s rescue and that he rids the town of the vile man who caused an innocent black man’s death. And that is precisely what it is about the manipulative effect of this ending that disgusts me.

Harper Lee wrote this ending for a very obvious reason: she couldn’t bear to end her novel without killing off the villain. She and Horton Foote couldn’t end the story without making sure that the racist pig got his just desserts. They didn’t give a damn about Atticus Finch’s universal message of tolerance and nonviolence: they wanted eye-for-an-eye justice to prevail at the end of the story. They wanted to see a knife stuck up Bob Ewell’s ribs. I think this is nasty.

As Matt Zoller Seitz writes, “think about how Lee's universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there's a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you're devout, but what if you're not?).” Just to add to Seitz’s criticisms, the reason why the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird rubs me the wrong way so much is because it’s such a clumsy way to conclude such an innovative story: the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird is formulaic, irrational, and even nihilistically sentimental. When Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) decides he’s going to cover up the incident and file a report stating that Ewell simply fell on his knife, it is not because Tate is concerned that all of Maycomb is going to be vulgarly celebrating Ewell’s death—it is because Tate is worried that Boo Radley will be overwhelmed by all the attention. Tate thinks this would be a “sin”, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Nor, for that matter, does Scout’s claim that Tate’s decision is “right”, or her comparison of Boo Radley to an innocent mockingbird. I agree more with Atticus, who looks at Scout quizzically when she makes this random comparison, asking her, “how do you mean?”

Did Mulligan and his longtime producer, Alan J. Pakula, recognize these as flaws in Foote’s screenplay? Not likely. I’m sure they were wholly committed to being as faithful in interpreting Lee’s pages as accurately as possible, for fear of aggravating unforgiving fans of the novel. In this sense they can only be lauded, as the film does remain one of the most faithful adaptations of a work of literature to date. Never mind the awkward turn of events in Lee and Foote’s dramatic structures, which happen mostly towards the end of the story and are never really explored.

In a nutshell, every single one of the later scenes following Atticus’ courtroom speech is flawed. That’s why I prefer, instead, to turn back to the courtroom speech itself, which has continued to stay with me to this day. “Now, gentlemen,” Atticus reminds the jury, “in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created… equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in our jury system. That’s no ideal to me—that is a living, working reality!” Atticus' code of honor is dutifully accepted by his peers in the courtroom: Judge Taylor (Paul Fix), to the credit of Lee and Foote, is not one of the more stereotypical characters in the story but, rather, a sensible man of the law who is clearly unhappy with the jury's final verdict, slamming the door on his way out. The prosecutor, Gilmer (William Windom), never objects to Atticus' questions to the witnesses, and vice versa. They all understand that they have jobs to do, and they have a trial to settle.

As for Atticus? He appears to be a man who has spent his entire life believing there is good in people, and has been thankful for it despite personal tragedies. No doubt the death of his wife has left a hole in his heart, and in one of Mulligan’s best-remembered shots in the film, we see Atticus sitting out on the front porch swing, listening solemnly to his sleepy children conversing about the memories of their deceased mother while he has his arm stretched outward onto the swing—around a wife who isn’t there. It's probably the most haunting shot in the film, and the only scene in the film where Atticus stops functioning as a mouthpiece for Lee and Foote's worldviews and disappears into ambiguity, reserving a quiet moment all for himself.

Now that I have looked more carefully at To Kill A Mockingbird—now that I have analyzed it extensively, shot-for-shot, line-for-line—I think I can finally bring myself to be at some kind of peace with it. As Robert Mulligan’s most popular work, it will continue to be a controversial film, and I may never cease to take issue with some of its most disconcerting narrative flaws. But what continues to live on, for me, is Atticus Finch’s complete determination to do what is right, even when the majority of the townspeople of Maycomb rally up against him. His last words to that unflinching jury get me every time: “In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God… believe Tom Robinson.” I’m not a religious person, but even though Atticus’ attempts to save him are unsuccessful, I hope that Tom Robinson went to a better place. And I hope, for that matter, that Bob Ewell went to a better place, too. I hope with all my heart that wounds were healed and lives were restored in Maycomb County when Jem waked up in the morning.


  1. Great piece, Adam. Add me to the chorus of you, Seitz, and Ebert on this film being both powerful and problematic. Here's my piece on that very subject:

    Where I depart from you is with the ending, and its implications. For one thing, it's probably my favorite part of the movie in terms of the mood it evokes and the feelings it tapes into - as I put it in my review, it fuses history, nostalgia, mythology, fairy tale. Furthermore, I'm not troubled by the ruthlessness of it (though I am troubled by the convenience of it): part of my problem with the film and the character of Atticus is that the man is so saintly he's ineffectual. Yes, he gives a nice idealistic speech, but to what purpose if Tom Robinson still gets sentenced? I compared Mockingbird & Atticus to Young Mr. Lincoln, noting how in the latter film he's not ashamed to manipulate and even use force in order to do the right thing (never illegaly, mind you, in either regard). Sometimes that has to be done, even a nonviolent practioner like Martin Luther King had more political savvy and common sense than Atticus seems to. (On the other hand, the possibility that perhaps the film and book know his foolishness, even as they admire him, has always intrigued me.)

    Also, I get the whole not-wanting-to-bring-attention to Boo Radley thing. No, the sherriff isn't doing a very good job by letting the matter rest but even if the attention was positive it would obviously bother Radley, who is such a private person. Still not sure how he's like a mockingbird, though, ha ha...I guess they needed to tie the title in somehow.

  2. I haven't seen this in years, but you basically sum it up here: it's a good movie, Peck is great and perfect in it, but there is a neatness to it that makes it just a little too easy to digest, especially considering its subject matter. Great, thorough piece dude.

  3. "To begin with, this case should never have come to trial.” Atticus Finch begins his closing statement with these words, and from that point delivers a speech so true, so commanding, so universal, you would have to be a fool not to believe it. It is the single greatest courtroom speech in the history of American movies."

    Yes it most certainly is, even counting Henry Fonda's delivery to the jury in 12 ANGRY MEN, Spencer Tracy's dazzling oratory in INHERIT THE WIND, and Maximillan's Schell's stunning summation in JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG.

    And this is simply a stunning and exhaustive piece Adam. It may well be your masterpiece at ICEBOX MOVIES, and it considers a film that has held up to this day. Of course, Lee's Pultizer-Prize winning novel is a literary masterpiece, and while I do agree with Joel that the ending enhances the mood and achieves narrative closure, it may not be entirely acceptable for all. It's not like the tacked on ending to Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, where the audience needed reassurances, but rather a natural progression of a character (Boo Radley) who had shown deep affection for the kids right along. His undying commitment to their welfare rings true.

    When I did my Senior practicum in my final year of college to earn my teacher's certificate, I had an experience I've never forgotten. I taught the novel (perhaps my personal favorite American novel, though others by Hawthorne, Mellville, Twain and Knowles push close) to a class of mostly Hispanic students at Emerson High School in Union City, New Jersey. I had the kids re-enact the courtroom scenes, after the wonderful analytical literary discussion. I then showed the film in two sessions to the students in the school's auditorium. It is was a glorious experience, and I'm sure the film has stayed with the kids.

    Any questions of character or narrative progression in this amazingly faithful adaptation must rest on the lap of Harper Lee, and not with Mulligan. The 'disconcerting narrative flaws' you speak of are really issues with the novel. I don't see them myself, but I do understand you are largely favorable with this review. Fair enough. Some reject this fierce fidelity as anti-cinematic, but frankly I find this beside the point. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a stunning convergence of superb artistic components, and Peck in my view for his purposely under-stated performance deserves his Oscar (even with a magnificent Peter O'Toole in the mix.)

    Elmer Bernstein's wonderous and poetic score is one of the best ever composed for a film.

    I'd be remiss if I didn't include a link here to Joel's extraordinary review of the film from April 21, 2009 at THE DANCING IMAGE:

  4. Joel, thanks a bunch for the comment. The one thing about the film's ending I do like is that it finally puts the Boo Radley mystery to good use. Where I'm conflicted is why Harper Lee felt she had to bring Radley into the story so gratuitously, saving the kids' lives and effectively crushing the villain in the process. I definitely think that Scout's comparison of Boo to a mockingbird is clumsy and was Lee's attempt to try to fit the title into the context of the novel's message, in some way. Regarding the town overwhelming the Radleys for Boo's act, while I can see why Tate may think it would do more harm than good, I'm just having a difficult time understanding how it could possibly "sinful". And when Tate says to Atticus "let the dead bury the dead this time", I agree with Roger Ebert when he objects to this in his review and charges: "I either doubt Tom Robinson or Bob Ewell would want to be buried by the other". As for Atticus, the nostalgic part of me seems to keep from completely destroying that character--I just love the character so much! That's probably my 15-year old self talking in the review during that part.

    I'll try to read your piece on the film this week too, Joel.

    Ryan, as always, it's one of the highest compliments when even you like my piece! To Kill A Mockingbird does suffer from moral neatnesses, although what nags me more is that the morals of the story just plain contradict each other. It's hard to tell if, at the end of the day, we're supposed to be swayed either by Atticus' nonviolence views or by Sheriff Heck Tate's pleasure that the stereotypical racist pig dies at the end. It's possible to feel both of those sentiments, of course, but that's precisely what it is about the film's manipulation techniques that is somewhat repelling. Regardless, a great movie. If you get a chance to see it again, I can almost guarantee you it'll still hold up, even when it's far from perfect.

    Sam, thank you so much! One of the things that makes To Kill A Mockingbird powerful as a work of literature is that it reaches to all kinds of races; it's never thought of as a movie about the superior white man. On the day that my freshman English class finished the book, all of us in the classroom--all of us, different races--just started clapping. That's how inspirational of a story it is (to my utter disappointment, my fellow students were much less enamored with the movie). It's so great to hear that even your Hispanic students were enamored with the story.

    I fully agree with you that Mulligan deserves none of the blame of the elements taken from Lee's book. I do think Horton Foote ought to share some of her burden, since he won an Oscar for his screenplay and not only holds true to some of the book's more questionable elements, but even invents some of his own! His version of how Tom Robinson gets killed is not the same as Lee's. Of course, he was a screenwriter-for-hire, so he probably didn't quite realize what he was doing... what he absolutely deserves, however, is credit for penning one the most faithful Hollywood literary adaptations there is. But what keeps the movie alive for me is Mulligan's direction, and I say that as a HUGE Mulligan fan. Hopefully by the end of this week I'll have pieces on Summer of '42 and The Other, which I consider his two finest hours.

    Thanks for mentioning Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score, too. I was trying to figure out how to mention it in my piece, but kept hitting dead ends. Stephen Frankfurt's opening titles make especially good use of that score, too. And that age-old debate of whether or not Gregory Peck deserved the Oscar over Peter O'Toole has always dogged me! I mean, obviously Lawrence of Arabia is a superior work to To Kill A Mockingbird as a whole, but Peck vs. O'Toole? Which to choose, which to choose... damn. I just can't choose.

  5. Adam:

    Excellent piece!

    Yes, this is a Noble film (capital N) that would certainly woo the Academy, but it also has richly detailed characters and a sense of decency. This last trait is not often seen in films these days, so we can look back on this film and treasure it for that quality.

    As for Peck vs. O'Toole for Best Actor, well after a few previous losses, it was basically Peck's time, according to the Academy. The fact that O'Toole was a newcomer had much to play in the voter's decision, I'm sure.

    Of course, O'Toole never has won a Best Actor Oscar (though he was given an honorary award back in 2003). Funny how the Academy never thought it was "O'Toole's time" to win as Oscar, until they realized he was 70 years old and might not have another chance.

  6. Tom, thank you so much. The O'Toole v. Peck dilemma has for a long time dogged me, and once I asked Peck's biographer, Gary Fishgall (actually, my high school theatre teacher) what he thought of it. He couldn't make up his mind on it, either! I definitely remember O'Toole's Lifetime Achievement Oscar speech. Actually, he was so spiteful of the Academy by that point in time that he initially said he wasn't going to attend the ceremony--but when they said they'd be giving the award to him anyway, he decided to attend.

  7. I printed this one out to read when I had time. You've done a terrific job of reexamining the film and describing how it moves you, including cases in which you recognize that the film is, well, cheating.

    A few responses ...

    * I think the film's biggest fault is the one deal with at the start: that the characters are so clearly pure and so clearly evil, with very little nuance. That said ...

    * One thing we can't forget is that this film is seen through Scout's eyes in reminiscence. So of course Atticus would seem essentially flawless. And of course the line between good and evil would be black and white. This is the way the world felt to her then, and that's one of the film's strengths: the way it captures a child's view of the world -- their fears, their sense of right and wrong, their habit of oversimplifying things. I don't want to give the film a get-out-of-jail-free card, but to tell this story with more nuance would be to tell it from an adult viewpoint. And so for all that would be gained with that change, much would be lost.

    * I might see Atticus a bit differently than you do. You call attention to the final scene as a rarity in that it gives Atticus a moment to himself, but I'm not sure that's true. When I see this film, I see a man who is profoundly alone. All the time. He loves his kids. He wants them to be happy. But he's lonely. He's gone from home much of the time. He leads by example and principle and hopes that's enough. In many ways he's disconnected from Jem and Scout. And he's a slave to his do-the-right-thing sensibility, even if that means putting himself between a mob and a jailed man, which of course means risking that Jem and Scout will lose the one parent they still have.

    * I think the reason we love Atticus is because he's a hero with no intentions of being one. He simply does what he feels is right, but he loathes being celebrated. That's a rare quality that I think almost all of us wish we had. I think most of us want to make sure at least someone celebrates us for our goodness. Atticus, on the other hand, simply feels goodness is to be expected.

    (A bit more coming ...)

  8. * The end of the film is certainly interesting. Yes, the audience gets to enjoy that the villain gets it. And Atticus gets to remain faithful to his code of honor. But I wonder if the ending says more about us than it does about the film. Because there's no question that Atticus would have kept to his moral code regardless. And, as you allude, maybe that isn't such a good thing. Atticus loses his case. And Tom gets killed. There's no victory there. Both of them acted with absolute good. Both lost. I think people love this movie because they admire those who would remain faithful to their values no matter what. So in that sense the film is saying that justice isn't served through purity. It contradicts it's hero. And in a sense, that makes it complex, not contradictory, it makes Atticus flawed and not perfect. Just saying.

    * My final point is about Tom: While he, too, can be criticized for being one-dimensional, for being childlike, for being entirely innocent, we cannot lose sight of that fact that, well, some people really are that pure, in the naive sort of way that allows them to become victims. That's what happens to Tom. A more complicated man never would have allowed himself to be alone with Mayella. A more complicated man would have doubted her (justifiably). But Tom believed in her goodness, as too many truly good people do.

    Again, nice job with this. It was a treat to read.

  9. Jason, I'm flattered that you took the time to post that long response, not to mention that you felt this piece was worth printing out! Thanks a bunch. I'll try to made good on all the ink and paper you spent...

    You are absolutely correct about Atticus perhaps not being seen in all his varying feelings and flaws because the majority of the film is told from Scout's point of view. In fact, if my memory of the novel is correct, Harper Lee told the entire story from Scout's point of view. So it seems odd to me how Horton Foote gives us a couple of scenes where Scout isn't even present and yet some of the characters still remain fairly stereotypical. For example, the scene in which Ewell spits in Atticus' face. Ewell is still the same bigoted pig he's always been. Atticus is still a noble do-gooder who refuses to fight back. Because Scout isn't in the scene, you would think we would see more of how the real Atticus and Ewell would truly act--and not as they might from Scout's idealized viewpoint. Granted, Jem is also present in the scene, but I always figured that he didn't have as much hero worship for Atticus as Scout does. Ebert sort of elaborates on this in his review:

    The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn't see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.

    So I guess what Ebert is saying is that since there are certain scenes in which the children aren't around to interpret what Atticus is doing, we ought to see more of how it really would have happened in real life.

    Regarding Atticus' independence in the film, although it is apparent throughout that he is a lonely man with nobody but his children, I think the early scene on the porch is the only scene that catches him off-guard. Whenever Scout (and sometimes Jem) is around, Atticus does a pretty good job of keeping his cool and maintaining his image in their eyes as a righteous person. But the scene on the porch might be the only scene where we see him vulnerable. I just love the touch of hime having his arm stretched to the other side of the bench. That is a dead giveaway that he misses his wife. Although, the mob scene may be another example of us seeing Atticus buckling in weakness, when Jem is standing up to him and refusing to leave his side. When the kids leave, however, and Atticus pats his son on the back, it's like he's reverting back to the righteous father, and not a terrified one.

    The ending continues to bug me. I know it's unfair to base opinions on the majority of fans' opinions, but every fan of the novel I've talked to loves how Ewell gets his just desserts, and how Atticus is willing to ditch political correctness for the sake of his family. On the making-of documentary on the DVD, a literary scholar even praises Atticus for making an "unselfish sacrifice". Is it unselfish? He makes the decision to help cover up Ewell's death as a father, not as a righteous person. This is why I wish the ending of the story had been just completely different.

    But now I'm contradicting myself... I don't know if I wanted Atticus to be a righteous person or a human being at the end. I'm afraid you've made me go in circles, Jason! What do you think?

  10. Adam: Just looping back to this ...

    I think these points could really be argued either way, which is why it's pretty easy to understand and even justify the love and frustration that this film inspires. For example, I realize that structurally speaking it's not all Scout's story because she doesn't witness these events, but that's the way I think of it: all as her memory looking back, with the scenes that she didn't experience accounting for the way that they were told to her and the way she imagines them. That said, I do think the film implies that Atticus was this swell of a guy. There's nothing in the film that suggests there's some darker context that Scout witnesses but doesn't recognize. So, again, I'm not bothered by his saintliness because I think it's Scout's image of him, but at the same time I think it's fair to say that the film wants us to think that Scout's impression is perfectly accurate, which lends weight to the complaints of the film's detractors.

    Complaints aside though, this is one of those movies where I think: It is possible to watch this movie and not "feel" it? Even its detractors seem to be moved by it in some way. I've yet to find someone who responds to this movie with a kind of arms-folded "whatever" detachment. Wish I could say it about more movies. It seems immune to any kind of genre dismissal (you know, "Oh, I don't like -- or only like -- action movies/chick flicks/horror/etc..."). That's special.

  11. (Being French, I won't write over-correctly and apologize beforehand for it)

    Thank You for your rich, in depth analysis : as I left the film somehow confused yesterday, it helped me articulate several points.. Herewith my minimalist comment on
    To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I wish to make a point that may surprize you : although Scout applies « Mockingbird » to the benevolent simple-minded Boo, the Mockingbird of the title, to my mind, refers to the central character of the novel : the young black man Tom who owns the virtue of compassion ascribed to the benevolent, helpful ones, but are killed for it : his high morals (nobleness) is considered an insult by the morally deficient ones.

    IF Boo’s interference is unexpected and providential in the end (that of a guardian angel come right out of the blue), it is really peripheral to the serious main topic of racism embraced by Harper Lee. By the time the sheriff finds a way to save Boo’s life (more easily and rapidly than Finch’s trying to save Tom’s life), the central preoccupation of the novel has become blurred and is almost forgotten by the children. Which in turn leads to doubt the depth of their former interest and commitment in the racial case…

    There’s some irony in the fact that a simple-minded man will achieve more than the charismatic, best lawyer ever did.

    A great emotional circumstance is the jury announcing its minimal, lethal verdict after such a superb defense.

    It is the mob who speaks last and the lynching of Tom expected earlier at the jail was simply postponed.

    Tom was the mockingbird in "to kill a mockingbird".
    Had the story been that of Boo, OK for Scout's saying.
    Or... Is it (like in "Atonement", a film by Joe Wright) a story based on
    children's memory which would provide an excuse for the weak ending ?
    (Although the word atonement indicates the revision of former misapprehensions)

    Vocabulary : the word “stereotype” appear in your and several other comments. I think
    “paradigm” would be more appropriate. In particular because the model of Atticus is so rare. Following in the steps of Lincoln doesn’t make a lawyer “a stereotyped character”

    Melusine, 25 January 2011

  12. Despite being an avid reader (there’s not much to do in rainy old England, but I digress) I didn’t come across To Kill A Mockingbird until last year, when I was sixteen. I don’t remember much about reading it, except that the reading process didn’t take all that long, and that by the novel’s end I was, for the first time in my life, in tears. It is quite probably the book that has touched me the most, and upon finishing it my first thought was ‘I’m sure there’s a movie adaptation!’ One month later, whilst in London, I found it.

    I’m like you here: the movie of To Kill A Mockingbird is what brought me into the wonderful world of black and white films. In 2010 all of my films – all of them – were, at the most, twenty years old. One year on and it’s a different story. Far from being the girl who avoided the ‘classic movie’ genre, I now welcome them with open arms. For this, I am eternally grateful for stumbling across TKAM in the DVD section.

    I don’t, and have never felt, that TKAM is a ‘perfect movie’, simply because such a thing doesn’t exist; however, at times I feel it gets pretty damn close. There are two scenes in particular (both of which don’t exist in the novel) that make me think this. The scene where Jem is left in the car when Atticus goes to speak to the Robinsons always strikes me as symbolic: not long after his father disappears into the house, Jem is approached by a young black boy (Tom Robinson’s son?). They both raise their hands in a wave, mirroring each other’s movements, and yet, despite the relatively short distance between them, they are separated by a sheet of glass. For me that says more about the message of the film than any speech or any racial slur. Not only does it highlight the invisible boundary between the black and white people, it also shows the still intact (though not by the film’s end) innocence of Jem, who is not yet fully aware of the ‘ugly things’ in the world that his father tries to protect he and his sister from. It’s a wonderful moment.

    Then of course there is the porch scene. I must confess that my lack of crying in books does indeed extend to films, but I almost did then. One of the few things that irritated me when re-reading TKAM was – despite him being the primary character – how little we came to know about Atticus. Although one could argue that this is down to the narrator choice being his young, impressionable daughter (who of course is going to idolize him, as young, impressionable daughters do) I always found myself wondering about his past self. Such musings then led me onto not only Atticus’s past, but onto the one person who might have been able to offer more insight into his character. She, of course, isn’t there. There is a moment in the book when Atticus comes very close to mentioning – however vaguely – his wife, and almost as soon as he says the word ‘mother’ he stops, pauses, and then changes the subject. I love how Horton Foote translates her absence (so much more prominent in the movie than in the book) into having Atticus’s arm curled around an empty space. I also love how they change the giver of Atticus’s pocket watch from his father in the novel to his wife in the film. For me, that just makes the scene so much more poignant, and allows the viewer the chance to see Atticus not just as the heroic lawyer or the loving father, but as a man who did once lead a different life. It’s addressed so beautifully, as well, and it still astounds me how much you can tell about his feelings from his body language and expression, despite him not saying a single word.


  13. I never really had many issues regarding the other characters’ characterisation, simply because, as previously said, we are seeing the film from the viewpoint of a young girl. I seem to recall in the novel that Bob Ewell was almost ‘charming’ (if that’s a word you can apply to such a character), but in the movie he’s portrayed as being the ‘village idiot’ who wanders around in some drunken stupor, aggressive and violent and little else. His death was, in the end, inevitable. My opinion of the ending is mixed: whilst I do think it is a nice way to tie up the loose ends (however neatly), I have some issues when taking into account Atticus’s and Heck Tate’s decisions to put the cause of Bob Ewell’s death as ‘accidental’. It also makes you wonder, with the inclusion of Boo Radley at the end, just who the true hero of the story is. Yes, Atticus Finch is the AFI’s man, but Boo’s intervention saves Scout and Jem when Atticus is at home, having left his children to walk home all alone at night, unsupervised and vulnerable. Did the thought that Bob Ewell would take revenge never cross his mind?

    I could go on about this movie for hours, but it’s getting on and I’ve got some History revision to be completing (ironically, the Civil Rights Movement). Thank you so much for your wonderful analysis of such a wonderful film; it made me wonder about my own opinions of the movie, as well as making me appreciate both its brilliance and its forthcomings. I also now feel the need to watch some more Robert Mulligan films, whose brilliant direction of TKAM helped make a good film great.


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