Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful evocation of a place and time – a small Southern town in segregated Alabama during the Great Depression. The year is 1933 and widowed father Atticus Finch makes a modest living as a lawyer in the fictional town of Macomb, Alabama. He does his best to bring up his ten-year-old son Jem and six-year-old daughter Scout within a racially prejudiced community. The story of two summers and one fall in their lives is told from the point of view of the now adult Scout, who is remembering the events.
Finch’s humane guidance whilst explaining the complicated issues of life to his children comes to the fore when he takes on the case of young African-American Tom Robinson – falsely accused of raping a white woman. Finch makes a dignified and plausible defence of the accused, all to no avail. Whilst the court’s decision exposes Southern small-town bigotry, Finch’s passionate defence teaches his children a lesson in moral courage.
Harper Lee’s profound story was based on her firm belief that there were people in the South who could surmount the prejudice and bigotry that for decades had seemed to permeate all human life there, and stand by fundamental principles they believed to be just. Although Lee always maintained that her novel was not autobiographical, most of her characters were based on people she knew as a child. The narrator, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, is based on Lee herself and Finch was her mother’s maiden name. Scout’s devoted father, the respected local attorney Atticus Finch, is a close version of Lee’s own widowed father A.C. Lee, who was a lawyer and state legislator. Likewise, Scout’s young delicate friend Dill Harris, who spent his summers living with his aunt next door to the Finch family, was modelled on Lee’s life-long friend – the novelist and writer Truman Capote.
The novel was originally brought to the attention of Universal Studios by Rock Hudson, who was keen to star in a film version. But it was turned down by the studio, probably as a polite way of saying they didn’t see Hudson as Atticus Finch. Soon after, Hollywood producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, who had briefly teamed up in 1957 to make the baseball film Fear Strikes Out, became interested in Lee’s novel as another joint film production. They contacted Lee’s agent, who informed them that other filmmakers were also interested in the film rights. So determined were the pair that they personally asked Miss Lee to withhold the sale until they could enter a bid, as they intended to offer the star role of Atticus Finch to Gregory Peck. She agreed and they immediately sent a copy to Peck asking him to read it. Peck sat up all night reading the novel and early the following morning he called Mulligan and said, “If you want me to play Atticus, when do I start?”
Racially-themed movies were certainly not the surest subject for box-office success in 1960s America. As a consequence, Peck’s agent tried to talk the actor out of it, telling him, “Greg, you realise you will lose the entire South”. But Peck believed the very warm and telling story would find an appreciative audience and furthermore, Peck’s reaction to racial intolerance matched Atticus Finch’s perfectly.
With a star in place and the film rights secured, Pakula and Mulligan’s first choice to write the screenplay was Miss Lee herself. But she was working on a new novel as well as caring for her ailing father in Monroeville, Alabama, and was reluctant to leave and come to work in Hollywood. Concerned about who would adapt her novel, she was much relieved when told that fellow-Southerner Horton Foote – who had compiled a considerable body of fiction set-in small-town America – had agreed to write the script.
For the pivotal roles of the three children in the film, director Mulligan selected nine-year-old Mary Badham for Scout and 13-year-old Phillip Alford to play Jem. Although both native Southerners, neither youngster had acted before. Nine-year-old John Megna, a child actor who had appeared on Broadway, got the lesser role of Dill. The rest of the supporting cast was largely composed of new faces rather than familiar Hollywood-character actors.
Despite scouting various Southern locations, including Miss Lee’s hometown, none were deemed suitable due to being modernised, and thus were unable to accurately depict 1930s Alabama. The producers therefore settled on creating the town of Macomb on the backlot of Universal Studios.
Mulligan encouraged his young novice actors to play games and make-believe on the film set whilst keeping his cameras at a distance. As the shoot progressed, the youngsters initial self-consciousness gradually abated, resulting in enchanting natural performances.
Furthermore, throughout the production, Gregory Peck, with his usual reserved and dignified style, deliberately modulated his acting, consistently and unselfishly sharing the screen with the youngsters. However, Peck’s overall portrayal of Atticus Finch is an acting tour de force. When Finch delivers his full seven-minute summation to the jury, Peck nailed it perfectly in one take. As director Mulligan shouted “Cut! that’s a take”, the actors playing the jurors all stood and applauded Peck’s stunning solo performance.
The film also has one of the finest and moving courtroom scenes from any Hollywood production. Finch has lost the case. The all-white judge, jury, prosecuting counsel and spectators have left the courtroom. Finch is alone gathering his papers but up in the sweltering black-only gallery, high above the courtroom, all the black folk are sitting in silence. Scout, Jem and Dill have snuck into the gallery and are watching Atticus as he walks down the centre aisle, borne down by the weight of losing the case but still defiant. He does not acknowledge the packed gallery but as he walks below all the black folk, they respectfully stand and their Reverend Sykes says to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up child, your father’s passing”. Once viewed, that memorable scene is never forgotten.
The title of the novel/film is used as a metaphor of innocence, as Atticus says to both Scout and Jem, “…it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because all it does is sing”. Through Atticus his children come to see the mockingbird in the unjustly persecuted Tom Robinson, as well as the ghostly-white neighbourhood boogeyman “Boo” Radley – who in fact becomes their guardian angel.
Gregory Peck’s iconic portrayal of Atticus Finch marked the apogee of his illustrious film career and deservedly won him the Best Actor Academy Award in 1963. The ten-year-old Mary Badham, as Scout Finch, was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress but lost to another child actor – Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.
To Kill a Mockingbird received a total of eight Oscar nominations and along with Peck’s won two more for Best Screenplay and Best B&W Art Direction. This classic film remains as relevant today as it was in 1962.