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From the DVD Shelf: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

After re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird last month, I couldn’t resist re-watching the famous film adaptation from 1962 starring Gregory Peck.  I’d seen the film before, many years ago, but I hardly remembered it.  After having devoured Harper Lee’s magnificent novel, reminding myself in the process of what an amazing achievement in literature it is, I was eager to take another look at the film.

Sadly, whereas re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird only elevated it further in my mind, I found myself fairly disappointed by the film version.

It’s a fairly faithful adaptation.  Almost all of the key characters and scenes from the novel are present in the film.  Events are slightly re-organized, and the time-frame is condensed (the film takes place over a single year, from one summer to the next, while the novel is spread out over two years and three summers), but nothing major is left out.  Yet the whole thing seems sort of flat and lifeless.  The familiar scenes are all there, but they’re drained of much of the emotional context that I felt in the book.

Where the film really fell down, for me, was in the performances of the kids.  Frankly, I just didn’t care for any of the three child actors chosen to play Scout, Jem, and Dill.  I have written often on this blog that I think the failure or success of child actors rests on how they are handled by the director, so I don’t just fault the kids.  I also acknowledge that standards and styles of performance were quite different in the 1960’s than they are today.  One can’t expect to see the type of viscerally honest performance by a child actor such as Max Records as Max in Spike Jonze’s recent adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (click here for my review of that amazing film) in a movie from that era.  But whatever the reason, I just didn’t feel the performances of the three kids.  It felt like three kids acting out scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than my believing that I’m watching three real characters interact.

Where the film didn’t disappoint me, though, was in Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch.  Although he’s been in a number of other famous, well-made films, Mr. Peck has become indelibly linked with Atticus, and after thirty seconds on screen one can see why.  Mr. Peck is perfectly cast.  With his deep voice and large frame, Mr. Peck is powerfully believable both as an erudite lawyer as well as the town’s best sharp-shooter, and he embodies all the wiseness and kindness of an ideal father figure.  While I felt that the kids (and several other performers in the film) were stiff and overly “actorly,” Mr. Peck has an impressively naturalistic quality to his line delivery.  In that magical way that sometimes happens with the melding of actor and character, Gregory Peck simply IS Atticus.  Whenever he’s on screen, the film comes alive.

No surprise then, that my favorite sequence in the film is the lengthy trial of Tom Robinson.  The kids step aside and, for a while, To Kill a Mockingbird becomes fully Atticus’ film, and  almost fifty years later it’s still a power-house of a sequence.  The tension is real, and the racial issues are still potent.  In addition to Mr. Peck’s incredible performance, it’s also great fun to see a young Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.  Mr. Peters is an incredible actor (and of course he’s well-known to a big Star Trek fan like myself for his performances as Admiral Cartwright in Star Trek IV and VI, and in the recurring role of Ben Sisko’s father on Deep Space Nine) and he digs deeply for an emotional, heartfelt performance here.

Speaking of young actors, it’s also great fun to see the great Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.  It’s a small, nearly-silent part, but even without speaking a word Mr. Duvall is a powerful presence on the screen.

I was incredibly moved by the quiet scene immediately after the verdict in the Robinson trial is read.  It’s possibly my favorite scene in the book, and this is one point where the film met — and perhaps even surpassed — the emotional intensity of the novel.  A defeated Atticus gathers his papers and walks out of the courthouse.  As he passes by them, the African Americans in the upper level — all of whom have remained in their seats, though all the white folks have left — slowly rise as Atticus walks by them.  “Jean Louise, stand up,” Reverend Sykes whispers to young Scout.  “Your father’s passing.”  It’s an incredible moment as written by Harper Lee, and the filmmakers brought it wonderfully to life.

Still, over-all, I found the film to be something of a disappointment.  Not terrible, though not in my mind the classic film that it was reputed to be.  Perhaps if I hadn’t just re-read the novel I might judge it a little less harshly, but that’s hard to say.  I’m glad to have re-watched it, though I think I’ll find myself re-reading the novel again long-before re-watching the film.

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