Here is one of the rare occasions when novel and film are so closely connected in my mind that I cannot help love Harper Lee’s initial work and its adaptation to the screen. They’re both so timeless in their own ways. Don’t get me wrong. They are very firmly entrenched in a bygone era, but this story exudes certain themes that are universal.
It’s rather like visiting an old friend. It seemed like so long. I can hardly remember the last time I sat down with To Kill a Mockingbird the book, or the movie for that matter. And yet it rushes back so easily. The characters, the settings, the story. I can almost visualize the words on the page as the scenes take place on screen. It’s a wonderful experience and I wish I could connect with something like this more often. But To Kill a Mockingbird is special to me because I read it at a young age and really ate it up. Thanks to Peck’s performance the story was just moving the second time around. It never ceases to be.
It struck me that I thoroughly enjoy Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch, because of Mary Badham. Finch is a stalwart father figure and that comes out in the ways he guides and leads his young daughter Scout through life. She has a very cut and dry view of the world, not getting down the nuances or complexities around her. What Atticus does is model what it is to live life with other people, pure and simple. He takes the complexities of life and simplifies them in terms his daughter can try to make sense of.
To a lesser extent, that means telling his kids to leave the Radleys be and complementing the always ornery Mrs. Dubose. He is not prone to bravado by acting his age instead of playing football and not gloating about his skill with a gun. He’s too humble a man for that. He also does not fight back. He has more self-respect for himself and other people.
He attempts to instill this and other skills like tact in his kids, especially naive Scout. He gives her the eponymous metaphor that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because they are a bird (supposedly) that brings only beauty and goodness into the world. And as he says, and I’m paraphrasing, you never understand someone else until you climb into their skin and walk around a bit. He delves into what empathy is and it’s what allows him to feel sorry for the Ewells, instead of desiring vengeance.
Atticus Finch is one of the special characters that I would actually use as a model. He makes me question my own actions as I take on a role much like Scout. He’s constantly reminding, constantly being patient, and modeling what it means to do what is right. All this is done without condescension, without lecturing. It’s done out of love.
His greatest act is, of course, defending accused African-American man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), because after all, without this central point there is no film or book before it. But rather than focus on the depiction of these African-American characters and whether they are objectionable or not, I would rather acknowledge that this was a simpler time with a lot of evil still left in the world (as there is now), so this film speaks to me, because on a basic level, it is a story of good in the midst of all this blind discrimination and hatred.
That simple truth still speaks to me even with a story that is over 50 years old. The only adult cast member who is still with us now is Robert Duvall, and he is well into his 80s. Gregory Peck with his bespectacled visage and his soothing yet commanding voice is gone. Brock Peters is no longer with us, nor are the many other lesser known figures. But their story and these characters they embodied remain as a testament to Harper Lee’s original work.
It seems important to ask ourselves why would a man like Atticus do what he did? Why would he take that risk when no one else would? He answers Scout in this straightforward manner, “If I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.” He’s a man who holds himself to a different set of standards.