Critic's Notebook: 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' a Screen Masterpiece

To Kill a Mockingbird 3-Photofest - H 2016
Leo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest

The film version of Harper Lee's novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' stands as one of the best literary adaptations to date, writes THR film critic Stephen Farber.

In 1997, Movieline magazine hosted a 35th anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, with an amazing array of talent there to discuss the film: actors Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Brock Peters, Phillip Alford and Mary Badham (the latter two of whom played the children, Jem and Scout), screenwriter Horton Foote, producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan. One person missing from that reunion was the reclusive author of the novel, Harper Lee, who died Friday at the age of 89.

Lee came back into the news last year with the publication of an earlier version of Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, which presented a bigoted Atticus Finch late in his career. Yet this book, and the controversy it generated, should not tarnish our memories of the original novel or the 1962 Oscar-winning film. When the American Film Institute conducted a survey to choose the all-time favorite movie heroes, Peck’s Atticus Finch was No. 1 in the poll. The movie opened during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the film’s depiction of Finch as a liberal Southern lawyer defending a black man (Peters) in Depression-era Alabama touched a nerve for viewers.

But that progressive social theme wasn’t the only element that made the movie memorable. Mockingbird is one of the screen’s most imaginative evocations of childhood, a beautiful memory piece as well as an indictment of racial prejudice.

The striking title sequence, which takes us inside a box of toys as a child hums in the background, introduces the film’s distinctive point of view. Elmer Bernstein’s haunting score heightens the wistful emotion. The film itself begins with narration straight out of Lee’s novel, eloquently delivered by actress Kim Stanley. Foote’s screenplay remains faithful to the book, while director Mulligan uses purely cinematic techniques to retain the child’s-eye point of view. In an early sequence, for example, the children are in bed talking about their dead mother as the camera pans gently from their room to Atticus sitting alone on the front porch, lost in reverie.

When the children explore the “haunted” house inhabited by the mysterious Boo Radley (Duvall in his film debut), the subjective camera encourages us to share their sense of fear and wonder. Foote’s screenplay retains many of the novel’s sharp set pieces, including the scene in which Atticus reveals surprising skill with a shotgun and another in which the children shame the town bigots out of their plan to lynch the black man accused of rape.

The courtroom sequences also are highly effective, featuring the summation to the jury that is probably the highlight of Peck’s acting career. But the comic scenes, like Scout’s first day at school in a starched and hated pinafore, are just as vivid. The most indelibly moving scene comes at the climax: Scout’s recognition of Boo Radley cowering in her bedroom after saving her life, when she approaches him and whispers warmly and welcomingly, “Hey, Boo.” 

Harper Lee provided the spine for the film in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but Foote, Mulligan and all the actors underscored the poignancy of her tale in one of the most flawless literary adaptations ever to reach the screen.