TKAM, or 'Mockingbird' as I prefer to call it, was required reading for my 10th grade high school English class. I fell into it completely and totally, the instant I started it. I remember we had just started it in class during the week, and over the weekend I could not put it down, reading it ever spare second I could. That Sunday afternoon, my homework was done, I was already about halfway through the book and I didn't want to get too far ahead, so I decided to see what was on TV. I turned on Channel 38 just as Mockingbird-the-movie was about to start!!! I knew Mrs. Pearson would kill me if I watched it, but I didn't care. I was already chapters ahead of the class anyway. So I settled into the beanbag chair in my room, and got ready for an incredible ride. A couple of hours later, and crying my eyes out, I grabbed the book off of my desk and killed it by bedtime. The next day when I got to English, I told Mrs. Pearson that Mockingbird had been on TV the day before, and that I watched it. She was distressed, "What?! You weren't supposed to watch it!" I waved her off and said, "Don't worry, I finished the book last night too." She just laughed and told me not to tell anyone in the class how it ends. Needless to say, I found myself participating in class discussions more than was normal for me, and bursting with impatience for my classmates to hurry up and finish so that we could talk about the end!!
For those of you who have never read the book or seen the movie, it's set in Depression-era Alabama, in the fictional town and county of Maycomb. Maycomb is based upon author Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The story is told from the perspective of Jean Louise Finch, "Scout", who is remembering the events that took place over the course of a couple of summers when she was a child in the 30's. The book, of course, is much longer and more detailed than the movie, which had to condense, and eliminate, many of the different elements of the book. Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy, "Jem", and their father, Atticus, who is a lawyer. Their mom died when Scout was 2, and Atticus employs a black woman, Calpurnia, to help with the kids and around the house, and Cal is very much a mother figure to the kids. Atticus raises his well-mannered children in a home free of prejudice and/or hate, despite it being the deep South in those times. In fact, several of the townspeople are portrayed as being far more open minded than one would think, including the Judge, Sheriff and neighbor Miss Maudie.
Scout sets the scene, both in the book & movie, as follows:
"Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it. Somehow it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer. There's no hurry, for there's nowhere to go and nothing to buy... and no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself... that summer, I was six years old."
There are 2 themes in the book. The first is of the children's world, their friend Dill Harris & their very overactive imaginations, and the mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley, who never leaves his home, and with whom the children are obsessed. The second theme is much darker. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, who is being accused of having raped Mayella Ewell. The Ewells are a repugnant bunch; the lowest of the low class of white people in those times. Still, they are white, and no white jury is going to find a black man innocent, even though it is 100% clear that Tom is not guilty. Most Court appointed attorneys would provide the most basic of defenses for a black client. However, Atticus makes no secret of the fact that he will defend Tom to the fullest, which enrages Mayella's father, Bob Ewell. The children also have to put up with a lot of crap from classmates and townspeople because of Atticus' decision to take Tom's case, often being called "n***** lover". A good portion of the movie/book deals with Tom's trial, and the explosive aftermath. Both themes dovetail beautifully at the end, as Scout astutely discovers what, rather who, the Mockingbird represents.
I can honestly say that the movie is as good as the book. And the reason is that Harper Lee was on the set, and approved of the screenplay, script changes and casting. Gregory Peck reminded her so much of her father, Amasa Lee, (on whom Atticus is based) that she gave Peck her father's pocket watch. The character Dill Harris is based on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote. Boo was based on a reclusive neighbor of Lee's as well. And by the way, Gregory Peck was absolutely born to play this role. Peck himself stayed up all night reading the script and couldn't wait to start filming, and has said it was the highlight of his long career. He got an Oscar for it. This movie is perfectly cast. I was reading the Mockingbird trivia on IMDB and I cannot imagine what it would have been like if Rock Hudson or Jimmy Stewart had played Atticus. The children are so engaging and they played a lot of make-believe and other games, like I played with my cousins, so from that standpoint, it reminded me of my own childhood growing up in a small, rural town.
Mary Badham, who plays Scout, was nominated for an Academy Award. She was so magical in the scenes with Peck. And the scene when she, Jem & Dill go to 'rescue' Atticus from the angry mob that show up at the jailhouse to take out their own brand of justice on Tom, is riveting. Scout doesn't quite understand what is going on, other than fact that her father is being threatened by these people, because he is defending Tom Robinson. She looks over the crowd and finds a familiar face: The father of a classmate who had lunch at the Finch home one school day the year before. She calls out, "Hey Mr. Cunningham! Remember me? I'm Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning. I got my daddy to come out and thank you." The angry mob of men shift uncomfortably as Scout continues, "I go to school with your boy! I go to school with Walter! He's a nice boy, tell him 'hey' for me!' Scout continues talking until she realizes that she's been talking too much. Embarrassed, she hangs her head and says, 'I sure meant no harm Mr. Cunningham'. By this point, the men are completely shamed. Mr. Cunningham finally speaks up, 'No harm taken, young lady. I'll tell Walter you said Hey." It's absolutely brilliant the way a child snapped those men out of their intent to remove Atticus by force and lynch Tom Robinson.
I found the movie poster at the antique show in Puyallup a few years ago. When I was at Universal Studios in LA in 1986, the tour tram went right by the Finch house. It was so fast that I couldn't get a photo of it, but at least I can say I saw the house! Of all the old movies that have been remade, I am so pleased that no one has dared to improve on this classic. The cinematography is top notch. The black & white adds even more of a nostaglic flavour to it, not to mention a good amount of creepiness in all the right places. I truly do not believe that I would love Mockingbird as much as I do had it been in colour.
One of the reasons I love Atticus Finch in the book, and especially as portrayed by Gregory Peck, is that he reminds me so much of my own dad. My father was a very fair, gentle-but-firm, and well-respected man in my hometown. He was level headed and always tried to do the right thing, even if it wasn't popular to do so. He possessed so many of the same qualities as Atticus. Even looked like him a bit.
Can you see the resemblance? Because I sure do. This is my dad right before the July 4th parade in 1975.
When my dad died in 2003, I was racing around the house trying to pack to get back east as soon as I could, and I needed to have a book with me. I grabbed Mockingbird out of habit, but it only occurred to me a few years later what I had done on a subconscious level. At the time I wasn't actually consciously thinking about Atticus and dad at all. I just needed a book that I loved and one that was an easy read, and Mockingbird has always been my 'go-to' book. But I definitely wasn't thinking, 'hey, I know, let's compound my grief by reading a book about my dad....'
Back in the mid-90's, I had taken some time off at the end of October...I think it was 1996...so I was home on Halloween which fell on a weekday. We never got trick or treaters, so I knew I could kick back with a movie undisturbed, so I of course chose Mockingbird. Thus began a long standing tradition of watching it on Halloween. The final scene of the movie actually takes place on Halloween night and it's pretty creepy.
Of course I hunted down the soundtrack as well. The movie score, composed by Elmer Bernstein, is absolutely amazing. Bernstein manages to perfectly capture the wonder of a child's world with his delicate piano, played to sound like a music box, which then swells into the main "Mockingbird Theme", both beautiful and nostalgic, yet poignant and heartbreaking at the same time. I love it so much, and it moves me to tears every time I hear it, and since I have it on a few cassette tapes that I listen to regularly, I hear it a lot. Still chokes me up.
The score captivates from the second the movie starts all the way through to the end credits, which when accompanied by the visual of young Scout walking Boo Radley home with the adult Scout's narration, brings me to instant weeping. I have seen this movie hundreds and hundreds of times, and I cry every. single. time.
"Neighbors bring food with death... and flowers with sickness... and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a knife... and our lives. One time Atticus said... you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. The summer that had begun so long ago had ended, and another summer had taken its place. And a fall. And Boo Radley had come out. I was to think of these days many times, of Jem and Dill... and Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. And Atticus. He would be in Jem's room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning."
See it or read it. I guarantee you won't be sorry.