Top 100 Movie Review: #34 – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Who Doesn’t Want to Emulate Atticus Finch?

Even with a slightly white-washed script, “To Kill a Mockingbird” can swell the spirit and can recreate the magic from the book. 

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.

American Film Institute Ranking: #34/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for eight, including best picture and director, while winning three for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote), and Best Art Direction.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

First, I think it has to be appreciated the challenge this director and screen writer faced: they had to take one of the most beloved pieces of literature and transmute it onto the silver screen. This was no small task.

Their approach was to put more focus on Atticus Finch than Scout which is a pretty-big deviation from the book. There are both positives and negatives because of this narrative change, and people’s feelings about this movie can usually be tracked back to how they view this slight of hand. Atticus is such a beloved figure of moral inspiration that having him be the center brings his edifying persona to the forefront, allowing fans of the book to get more of a favorite character. The downside is that the story strikes an odd tone, being almost silent on the African American plight.

[Spoilers] This absence of African American perspective is extremely prevalent at the end of the movie; the grave injustice involving Tom Robinson, representing on a larger level the African American community, gets swept under the rug. Mr. Ewell has been killed by Boo Bradly, the mysterious neighbor that is the center piece of the children’s imagination. The sheriff decides to not bring this to light, implying that Boo Bradly did everyone a service via an eye-for-an-eye by getting rid of such a despicable character such as Mr. Ewell.

No doubt that it was nice to have Mr. Ewell receive his comeuppance, but the problem is that we cannot feel completely satisfied like the movie wants us too. The score sheet is not balanced. We still have the grave injustice done to Tom Robinson within the court system, his suspicious death, and ultimately the community as a whole. One could say this was also true of the book, but the difference was that it was told through Scout’s coming of age story. By having the focus on Atticus Finch, it almost seems a bit preachy as it’s all about the lead white character’s moral perfection, leaving us with an incompatible “all’s well that end’s well.”

Now, I am an Atticus Finch fan. He represents the moral compass that we all want to have, and having him do the right thing during a time and place where moral transgressions were the norm makes it all the more powerful. I always return to this quote (which didn’t make the movie) involving the vitriolic neighbor, Mr. Dubose who decides to kick her morphine habit before her death:

Atticus: I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

That’s some genuine, soul-satisfying, real talk. 

The court scene in the movie is the greatest chunk of the movie, and it’s a spectacular showing of great moral courage. The above quote could easily apply to Atticus as we all know what the ending is going to be; the proceedings are for show, but Atticus performs his duty diligently,even though he knows he’s licked before he begins.

Rev. Sykes: “Jean Louise, Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passing.”

After valiantly defending Tom Robinson in the face of alienating himself from friends and family, even with threat to his well-being, he leaves battered but not defeated. The African American community, who because of skin color was regulated to the upper balcony, stays until he leaves well after the court has been adjourned. They stand as he passes, a sincere demonstration of deference. They knew, too, how this was going to end, but understand the risk that Atticus took. He is a symbol of justice, and they give him their respect.

While the film tries out Scout’s point of view every once in a while, the inexorable tug of Atticus pulls the attention away. This does make for some aforementioned oddities, particularly the ending of the movie, but along the way we get to see an American archetype of justice live out his humanistic ways. I find these scenes powerful enough to overlook the difficulties arising from rendering a movie production of a book. After all, if we all had more Atticus Finch in us, we would all be better off.

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