When I was in school, movie day was everything. Elementary through graduate school—when that brown metal cart rolled in, carrying that huge cube of a TV and its VCR, the feeling was always the same. Pure elation. It was movie day!
Movie day meant everyone’s adolescent anxiety disappeared, at least for a brief period. For me, it meant not worrying about being called on, not stressing about public speaking. In the dark, staring at that screen—suddenly reality was gone and everything was magic.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of my first experiences with film adaptation. I was so excited to discover that, after finishing Harper Lee’s iconic novel, we were to be rewarded with the movie version. I didn’t know or care who Gregory Peck was. I was going to watch Scout, Jem and Dill try to solve the mystery of Boo Radley. (Incidentally now I do know and care about Peck.)
Adaptation and Mockingbird
The movie hardly ever lives up to the book. The Da Vinci Code, The Lovely Bones, Timeline—the list of disappointments grows every year. This is because when we were younger a book captured our hearts and then its movie version did the same.
Released in 1963, To Kill a Mockingbird set the bar high for film adaptations. Both movie and book succeeded where many failed—both gave us authentic glimpses of childhood. Director Robert Mulligan knew what he had (a great, true piece of art) and knew to stay out of its way.
I remember being struck by how much quicker the movie version was, it started and it ended and we were carried through the story. Reading is so ethereal—we decide when we start and stop, thereby creating these puffs of experience that combine to form this cloud of knowledge.
This is the challenge of movie-making, especially adaptation. You have to do a whole lot in a short amount of time. But you also have new tools available. Mulligan condensed and cut when he needed to—Dill’s Aunt Rachel became Aunt Stephanie, and Scout’s tire crashed into the Radley yard in the same scene as Jem touching the Radley door. But those changes ring true to the source, and our emotional connection remains uninhibited.
Childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird
When I was growing up we played outside and knew our neighbors. Hardly anyone had or played video games, and television was for after dark or bad weather. Childhood today may be different, but the rustic childhood of Mockingbird differs from my own as well. Yet I connect with it’s universal truths, like when Atticus tells Jem the story of his first gun—his father told him never kill a mockingbird, because they only make the world a better place with their songs. This is what parents do—they pass down generational knowledge at the dinner table.
Mockingbird gives us these authentic moments of childhood: keeping treasures like watches and dolls hidden in a box, or crossing your heart to protect a secret. The shadows on the Radley house, the wind, the eerie sounds—everything is bigger, scarier, and unknown when you’re young. Every moment is significant. As children we’re creating the context—the foundation—for the rest of our lives. Mockingbird reminds us of that.
I recently rewatched To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in 20 years. My first impression was that I was shocked that it’s in black and white—in my memory it’s full of color, because it was, and remains, so real and so true. Also, can you believe Robert Duvall is Boo Radley? Who knew!
Do you remember the first time to you watched To Kill a Mockingbird? Let us know!