When producer Alan Pakula first proposed a film adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, studio executives asked him what story he was going to tell with it. “Have you read the book?” he asked them. They said yes. “Well, then you know the story,” he said. You likely know the story as well; it’s been assigned reading in United States classrooms for years.
Pakula was wise – when you are working with source material this good, the best approach is a minimal one. So this is a very faithful adaptation of Lee’s work – with the adult Jean “Scout” Finch recalling her Alabama childhood, back when she was six and then seven; when she (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) got into mischief alongside Dill (John Megna), the nephew of one of their neighbors. Most often the three would dare each other into spying on the creepy neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a recluse about whom the kids had spun many a tall tale.
Meanwhile, Scout’s widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck), the town lawyer, was caught up in a case defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating poor (and white) Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), even though the majority of the evidence points to Mayella’s father Bob (James Anderson) doing the beating part. Robinson is found guilty nevertheless, but Bob Ewell still feels slandered by Atticus’ case, and vows revenge – leading to a scary confrontation bringing both stories together.
The biggest difference between the book and the film is that some of the richness of the kids’ lore is missing. But with good reason – Lee simply wrote so much about their shared superstitions, conversations and thoughts that including it all would have made for an impossibly long film. Fortunately what is here is still rich enough, and the kids playing Scout, Jem and Dill are all perfect. Badham is particularly memorable as Scout, a spunky kid who’s just as likely to beat up a classmate for insulting her Pa as she is to snuggle with Atticus on the porch swing for a talk when she’s confused about what Bob Ewell was saying in court. She’s a tomboy, but she’s also fond of her daddy.
And with Atticus as her daddy it’s easy to see why. While at times he’s depicted a bit too rosily, Atticus is patient, fair-minded, nurturing, wise and even-tempered. This was Gregory Peck’s favorite role – reportedly he instantly said “yes” when offered the part – and the role for which he is best known, even today. Pakula, as well as several friends of Peck’s, have speculated that this is because Peck was playing himself; or, at least, an idealized version of himself.
I’m very familiar with both the book and the film, having seen and read them both before. And this time around some of the detail in the Tom Robinson subplot struck me afresh; there’s a moment when Atticus learns that Robinson was “shot while trying to escape” a police escort. I didn’t even remember that scene from earlier viewings, but this time, after years of seeing real-life instances of police brutalizing black men and women – Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – I found myself distrusting the man who’d brought Atticus the news. Harper Lee may not have meant for me to suspect Robinson’s “accidental” shooting was staged, and some years ago I might not have.
But that’s part of the power of the film. It’s ultimately about Scout and Jem growing out of innocence and learning some of the harsher truths of the world; that their Pa wasn’t all-powerful, that sometimes people are unfairly treated, that some people are dangerous. But they also learn that sometimes the creepy neighbor is just shy or that sometimes doing the right thing when no one supports you is its own reward. And that sometimes there are no easy answers, and that growing up is a work in progress – both for a girl and for a country.
There’s a running gag about aspiring writers setting out to write “the Great American Novel”, but arguably I would say that Harper Lee already did, and this is the film made of it.