Looking Closely at the Film
Looking Closely at the Film
Prepared by William Costanzo, Professor of English and Film, Westchester
Bill Costanzo teaches English
and film at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, NY.
A former chair of NCTE's Committee on Film Study and director of the Media
Bill speaks and writes regularly on the connections between English and media
education. His book, Reading the Movies, is available through NCTE. Bill is a
featured guest on To Kill a Mockingbird: Then and Now - Program 2: The
In her introduction to Horton Foote's published screenplay of the novel, Harper Lee
wrote, "If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the
novelistıs intent is preserved, Mr. Foote's screenplay should be studied as a classic."
There are many good reasons for studying the movie in an English class. First, it is
very accessible: easy to get (on video tape or laser disc) and to understand (for its
story, its characters, its themes).
Second, it is a well-made, perennially popular
film. When it appeared in 1962, the film was honored by five Oscar nominations and
Academy Awards for Best Actor (to Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best
Black-and-White Art Direction. It also won special humanitarian awards for its
treatment of racial injustice.
Finally, it is a landmark in the art of adaptation,
beginning (in Harper Lee's words) "a new era of responsibility in Hollywood." As such,
To Kill a Mockingbird offers a case study for ³comparative literature² in an age when
more and more stories are told through the medium of movies.
|Directed by Robert Mulligan ||Produced by Alan Pakula for Universal
|Screenplay by Horton Foote || Cinematography by Russell Harlan
|Edited by Aaron Stell || Art Direction by Alexander Golitzen and
|Set Design by Oliver Emert || Music by Elmer Bernstein
|Title Design by Steven Frankfort || Released in 1962 - Running Time:
Visit Looking Closely at the Film under Instructional Activities for a complete listing of cast members.
Strategies for Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird:
The Film Here are four ways of looking at a film that teachers have found
| Viewer Response:
|| The Why and How of Adaptation
| Help students to clarify their personal responses to the
to describe and account for their reactions to particular scenes and to the
movies as a whole. Get them to notice where their responses differ and to weigh
the possible explanations for these differences. The process of comparing
responses and trying to undersand the responses of others gives students a good
chance to "walk around in someone else's shoes."
|| Why are so many books made
into movies? What is involved in transferring a story from the page to the
screen? What are the benefits and risks fo adaptation. By posing such questions,
you encourage your students to think about what is lost and what is gained when
they see a movie rather than reading a book.
The Art and Craft of Filmmaking:
|To appreciate a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird, it helps to
something about the medium of motion pictures: how films are made, who contributes to
their production, and how the basic elements of filmmakinglike lighting, sound, and
editingshape a film into a work of art. The Lyceum offers you and your students a rare
opportunity to ask the artists themselves about what happens behind the screen.
What makes a good story? What standards do we bring to stories told on film? What makes
an adaptation successful? Screening To Kill a Mockingbird can be a good occasion
for considering such questions of quality and judgment. Get your students thinking
about movies with some general questions before and after your screening of the film.
Elements of Fiction in Film
Since films tell stories, they involve many of the elements of fiction that novels do.
After students have read the book, you might look at the way these elements are treated
in the film.
- Movies speak to us in images and sounds, so every character is
performance, an interpretation of the script. Our conception of character depends
heavily on the way a particular actor looks, acts, and speaks. Note how the main
characters are introduced. Scout swings into the frame from a tree. Dill is first seen
from a high angle as a small figure almost lost among the leaves of a cabbage patch. We
hear Jemıs voice coming from the treehouse before we ever see him.
What do the
entrances of these and other characters emphasize about them?
POINT OF VIEW.
- Point of view in film is often conveyed literally, by the
the camera. We see Jem in his treehouse in a low angle shot from Scoutıs point of view.
We see Dill in a high angle shot from Jemıs position in the tree. Since most of the
story is narrated from Scoutıs perspective, the camera usually shows us only what she
would see. A good example occurs when the three children enter the courthouse to find
Atticus. Scout and Jem lift up Dill so he can peer into the courtroom, and we are
limited to what Dill sees and what they hear. That makes the shift in perspective all
the more striking after the children leave and Atticus faces Bob Ewell as one adult to
Where else in the film does the camera make you aware of a particular
character's point of view?
- The film establishes the storyıs time and place with a voice-over
taken directly from the novel, spoken over images of rural Maycomb. If a picture is
worth a thousand words, the camera can set a scene in an instant. On the other hand,
while novelists can construct vast panoramas with a pen, filmmakers must labor with
hammer and nails, which may explain why a director might exclude a fire or a church
scene from a script.
Where in the film does location seem most important?
How do the
filmmakers help us to believe that we are in another time and place?
- Since a film has less time to tell its story than a novel does, the
often streamlined, designed for a single sitting. Notice what the film omits from Leeıs
meandering story: characters like Uncle Jack and Mr. Avery, details like Mrs. Duboseıs
morphine addiction, and the seventeen shots that kill Tom Robinson.
How many of
omissions might be explained as concessions to length?
Some viewers have
the film concentrates on the storyıs two main strands, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, and
weaves them into a tighter narrative.
Do you and your students agree?
- Symbolic objects and actions are more literally defined on the
screen than on
How does the movie represent the symbols found in the novel?
these things differently when reading than when you saw them on the screen?
particular attention to the opening title sequence and the symbolic objects used in the
Why do you think the title designer chose these objects?
unanswered questions about the opening credit sequence, decide how you might pose them
to the designer during the teleconference.
Elements of Film
Although films and novels use common elements of fiction to tell stories, filmmakers
use special tools to develop character, setting, plot, point of view, symbols, and
tone. Invite your students to think in cinematic terms by drawing their attention to
these elements of film.
Acting: How do the actors interpret their roles? Do they look and act as you imagined
them when you read the book? How believable are their performances?
Camera Work: How does the camera frame events? Notice when it moves, shifts angles, or
otherwise changes the focus of attention. What does this camera work emphasize in each
Lighting and Set Design: Consider the location chosen for each scene. How was the place
made to look as if it belonged to the 1930s? How would you describe the overall tone
or atmosphere? How does the lighting contribute to this atmosphere?
Editing: How are the separate shots within a scene combined into a continuous sequence?
Notice how often the camera cuts, fades, or dissolves into a new view of events.
Consider the reasons for each of these transitions.
Script: Horton Foote, the script writer, had to capture the 300+ pages of Harper Leeıs
story in a 129-minute film. What decisions did he make? Notice where he trimmed the
story or rearranged its parts. Can you justify these changes? How successful is his
adaptation on the whole?
Sound: TKM uses all four forms of sound available to filmmakers: music, sound effects,
voice-over, and dialogue. Notice how Elmer Bernsteinıs original music helps to create
and guide the storyıs moods. Listen for the creaking stairs, the crickets, and other
sound effects that contribute to these moods. What does Kim Stanleyıs voice-over
narration add above and beyond the dialogue?
A good way to
see how these
elements of film work together is to analyze particular scenes. Watch the same
scene several times, using the remote control features of your VCR or laser disc
player to scan, slow down, and freeze the image. Note how the scene moves the
story forward, sets the time and place, develops characters, establishes a point
of view, creates a mood, or suggests symbolic meanings. If you have access to
Horton Foote's screenplay (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), use it to study
the art of adaptation. The goal here is to understand how scenes are constructed:
what artistic and technological decisions were made and why.
Scenes for Analysis
Opening Credit Sequence.
The objects that appear behind the opening credits include a pocket watch, harmonica,
necklace, whistle, marbles, and a child's drawing of a bird - items that gain
meaning as the story unfolds. The sequence is a good introduction for the story's
symbolism and themes. It also shows (to quote Harper Lee again) how a film can
have "a life of its own as a work of art." Notice how the camera moves in, like a
child's vision, to closeups of these valued objects, tracking from left to right
along the row of treasures carefully arranged. Notice how the nostalgic music and
humming of a child create a mood. And notice what happens to the drawing at the
end of the sequence.
Boo Radley's Porch.
The night scene in which
the children sneak up to the Radley house dramatizes their fascination with and
their fear of the unknown. How do the filmmakers use lighting, music, sound
effects, and camera work to heighten suspense? How suspenseful does the scene
seem to viewers today?
For a detailed scene analysis by Costanzo, visit Looking Closely at the
Film under Instructional Activities