TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, AGAIN
The movie, To Kill A Mockingbird, is being re-released in movie theaters on March 24, 27, 2019. Originally, it was released on Christmas Day, 1962, based on the best-seller of 1960 written by Harper Lee.
Directed by Robert Mulligan and written by Horton Foote, the movie closely follows the book's plot - Scout, a six year old girl, and her ten year old old brother, Jem, live in a small southern town in the 1930s with their father, Atticus Finch, an attorney. Their mother died when Scout was only two and neither child has clear memories of her. During the summer, a young boy, Dill, joins Scout and Jem to explore the neighborhood, and, especially, the home of a mysterious character, Boo Radley, a young man kept in isolation by his father.
The opening title sequence, created by Stephen Frankfurt with music by Elmer Bernstein, is one of the best ever done in film, setting up the adult story told by children.
The book is narrated by Scout and the movie makes a virtue of this by having an adult woman, voiced by Kim Stanley, narrate throughout as the adult Scout. Stanley's voice and the beautiful music of Elmer Bernstein create an atmosphere that is difficult to resist. Much like the beginning of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, the movie sets a tone that is intoxicating - it is a memory movie. It tells us of a time past, when things were different. Or so we imagine.
The story is about growing up, about evil that passes for tradition and good that wears rags and is scary. The children play dangerous games while the adults act out tragedies masquerading as justice. When a mad dog threatens the neighborhood, the sheriff comes to the rescue, but he's too unsure of his abilities and asks Atticus, the lawyer, to shoot the dog because, as he tells a wide-eyed Jem when his father kills the charging dog with one shot, 'didn't you know your daddy was the best shot in the county?' So later, when Atticus confronts true evil and it spits in his face, Jem knows that it isn't cowardice or lack of skill that keeps Atticus' hands at his side.
The African-Americans are not rounded characters in Lee's story because she isn't writing about them. The most detailed, Calpurnia, the Finch's housemaid and cook, has a quiet dignity. Her relationship with the children is as a substitute mother and a lot of Scout's courage and insights are Calpurnia's legacy to her.
The other African-American character is the victim, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a young white girl, Mayella Violet Ewell. Everyone knows that the trial is a mere formality. Lee does not flinch from the evil that is in her hometown; 'good men and true' are set on lynching Tom and even Atticus cannot stop them.
Currently, there is a play on Broadway adopted from Lee's novel by Aaron Sorkin, one of our times most accomplished writers for TV and theatre. There was - as the saying goes, literally - a lawsuit about the changes from the book that Sorkin wanted to make in his play. As with most lawsuits, the case was settled. Since I have not seen the play, I cannot comment on it.
I will say that the movie, too, changed several things from the book. At the time of the movie's release in 1962, the South was still, racially, much like it was in the 1930s. Blacks and whites could not eat, sleep, drink, sit or even go to the the bathroom in the same place; of course, they could not marry. For those who have seen Green Book, that was the South that existed in the early 1960s. So, the movie left out much of the book that showed the virulent racism of the townspeople in order to placate the South so that the movie could be released there. It did that to its detriment and our loss since many more have seen the movie than read the novel. Life is very complicated and people more so. Rarely are they just one thing or the other - good or evil. That is what Scout and Jem come to learn. And that is what great novels, movies and plays show us - a look in that spooky mirror called reality. As Tennessee Williams has Tom say: I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
It's been a long time since I saw the movie on the big screen. My clearest memory is of the final confrontation between Atticus' children and the evil father of Mayella, Bob Ewell, who was set on getting revenge on Atticus for defending Tom Robinson by hurting his children. I was about Jem's age so it makes sense that he was my focus. When Jem gets attacked by Ewell, he is saved, but not by Atticus, not by any of the townspeople we have met, but, rather, by the outcast, the boogie man of the town, Boo.
While 1960s South Philadelphia was far from 1930s Alabama, Jem's life and mine had much in common. In the summer, you left the house in the morning and didn't come back until you were hungry. You had adventures. And along the way, there were people who wanted to hurt you or your sister or friends and you had to fight for what was right. And not always with your fists. Sometimes, you had to fight with your heart. That was much more dangerous.