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Movie Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

May 25, 2004

I decided to take this review and go in a different direction than the norm. We know that it's no secret that adapting a novel to film is and should be a difficult task. A movie, even when it turns out to be great, doesn't convey the feeling of the book it's based on. But in this case, screenwriter Horton Foote treated the Harper Lee novel with a high level of respect and the director successfully evoked the novel's sense of childhood mystery and tenderness. The movie is taken from the point of view of the children, who play and quarrel and generally act like real kids. The young actors are marvelous, without any of the cutesy affection that ruins so many films about children. Elmer Bernstein's quietly melodic score creates the mood of looking back on one's childhood and remembering its sufferings and joys. At the center is the performance of Gregory Peck as the father, Atticus Finch. Peck's reserved and dignified manner, which in some of his vehicles has come off as mere stiffness, is here perfectly matched to his character. Much of the film's emotional power derives from the love of Atticus for his children, and the love or longing that we feel for our fathers. Atticus is indeed and ideal, patient, old fashioned, yet tolerant, father. Since the story is told through the eyes of his daughter, it makes the ideal seem not only real but deeply moving.

To Kill A Mockingbird is also remarkable in that it's not only a good film about children, but a good, serious film for children. I watched it several times on television as a child, and it affected me in a way that movies aimed at kids, without taking their thoughts and feeling seriously, ever did. I must admit this affects me experience of the film to this day. I believe that this makes it so that one can find themselves crying at a moment's notice because of the memories of personal feeling from one's childhood that it summons. The film begins by portraying the innocence and world of play of a tomboyish six-year-old girl and her ten-year old brother, and their perceptions of their widower attorney father. They also fantasize about a recluse who inhabits a mysterious house in their neighborhood. They are abruptly brought out of their insulated and carefree world by their father's unpopular but courageous defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a Southern white woman. Although racism dooms the accused man, a prejudiced adult attacks the children on a dark night. They are unexpectedly delivered from real harm in the film's climax by the neighbor, "Boo" Radley. This is a great way to fully capture the audience and bring them into the experience. The film works best within the sequences that involve the children. Through the all-important courtroom scene which compromises the majority of the film is also well mounted and very gripping, although it does alter the tone which was carefully sustained up to that point. As Badham and Alford begin to understand, they take a more active part in the proceedings, yet their lives are still defined in simple terms, largely through their love and respect for their father. The scene where Badham defuses an angry mob by speaking to one of its members is a lovely illustration of how the two worlds remain separate but intertwined. As a drama on racial intolerance, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is more centative than many other films that later on came about, such as Roger Corman's "The Intruder", and still a tad more white and well-meaning than films which would come later including "In The Heat of the Night". It makes its points eloquently, and though perhaps the all too literal summation provided by the legal drama makes it explicit, the issue of perception and misunderstanding runs throughout the film. It is fortunate that it comes to a satisfying climax which ties up all of the narrative threads.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a fascinating portrait of childhood. It integrates familiar themes of the end of innocence with a self-consistent adult drama. The children themselves never serve any less important a role than the adults. . Although the young boy is visibly more 'adult' than his sister, the events are largely seen through her eyes, and this is crucial in allowing the film its moments of childlike hesitancy. This movie emphasizes all the great points that one needs in order to create not only a spectacular film, but one that will live on for decades to come.

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