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 ≥comparative literature≤ in an age when more and more stories are told through the medium of movies.
Pre-viewing and Post-viewing Questions
A good way to
see how the
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.
|Scout's Room and the Finch Porch at Night|
The scene in Scout's room presents an intimate bedtime portrait of father and daughter. Reading to Atticus from Robinson Crusoe, Scout asks about Boo Radley and is admonished to "leave those poor people alone." When Atticus tells her it is getting late, Scout asks to see his watch and reads the inscription to "my beloved husband." Atticus explains that the watch will go to Jem one day, as is "customary," and assures Scout that she will get her mother's pearl necklace and ring. As Atticus says good night to the children and sits on the porch, we hear Scout asking Jem about the woman who died when she was too young to remember.
The dialogue and basic actions are the scriptwriter's responsibilities. Sometimes Foote lifts dialogue word for word from the novel, often abbreviating speeches in the interest of economy. Sometimes, he gives narrative lines to certain characters, transmuting narrative into drama. Here he has fashioned a scene from moments scattered through the novel, using Atticus's watch as an occasion to reveal delicate feelings about Mrs. Finch, the missing center of the family.
But the script is only a blueprint. The actors must construct a performance from Foote's words, interpreting them as nuances and gestures. Mary Badham, playing the innocent six-year-old, speaks primarily in questions, pausing as she reflects on things she is just beginning to understand. Gregory Peck, as Atticus, always formal and controlled, manages to betray just a trace of emotion when Scout reads his watch. When he sits motionless on the porch, listening to the voices of his children reminisce about their mother, his feelings seem all the stronger for not being outwardly expressed.
Robert Mulligan, the film's director, bears the ultimate responsibility for guiding the actors and the technical crew. This includes cinematographer Russell Harlan's camera work, Oliver Emert's set design, Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead's artwork, and Elmer Bernstein's music. Notice how the lighting helps to set the time and mood. Watch how the camera moves in through the curtained windows, then cuts to a position inside the room, always keeping Scout on the left side of the frame and Atticus on the right, even when it shifts back and forth between their points of view. Cutting (splicing separate shots together into a continuous sequence) is the task of the editor, Aaron Stell, who matches particular actions - like the closing or placement of the book - so seamlessly that few viewers ever notice the cuts. Pay close attention to the sounds, not only to the dialogue, which fades as the children fall toward sleep ("Did you love her?" "Did I love her?"), but also to the music, which resumes its nostalgic motif at certain moments, and the sound effects, like the faint chirping of crickets, which anchor the moment in an audible world.
The objects that appear behind the opening credits include a pocket watch, harmonica, pearl 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?