To Distort a Masterpiece

Despite being a student and an enthusiast of both history and literature, I have never quite taken to classic American literature. It has always seemed very dull and lifeless to me There is only one exception that I know of to this rule– Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird .

I read the book first when I was eleven and over the years, I have re-read it so many times that I have lost count. It never fails to enchant me, which in itself never fails to surprise me, because it has all the makings of a boring book; it is set in the rigidly conservative Alabama of the Depression era and focuses on the brutality of whites towards the blacks. Déjà-vu, right? The subject has been written to death and does not make for an especially enjoyable read. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird captures your heart through its sheer simplicity, at once transporting you to a different world and keeping your feet firmly rooted in this one. There are no graphic descriptions of violence as there might well have been in a story like this, but the burning sense of injustice is conveyed nonetheless.

Imagine, then, my delight at learning that a movie had been made based on the book, starring Gregory Peck! The reviews were fantastic and I immediately arranged to watch it, secure in the belief that it would live up to its source material. After all, the source material is a highly celebrated and critically-acclaimed book. I assumed the reviewers would be tough on the movie. Unfortunately, it was not so. The movie left me as disappointed as any other big screen adaptation of a good book.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) unfolds rather like a play, with very few sets and the same air of simplicity that pervaded the book. The story needs no introduction, but I will provide a brief outline for the uninitiated: the tale is told through the eyes of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a six-year-old girl (though, obviously, she grows progressively older) living with her father, Atticus, and brother, Jeremy or Jem Finch, in a typical middle-class neighbourhood in Maycombe County, Alabama. Her mother is dead and Atticus is a lawyer. Scout faces all the usual troubles of her age, such as school, friends, her relationship with her brother, etc. Add to this the little problem that her father is defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman; and not only is Atticus fighting for him, but he is fighting to win, something that is quite unacceptable within the narrow-minded confines of the racism of the times.

Newcomers Mary Badham and Philip Alford play the roles of Scout and Jem respectively. They are very cute kids, especially Mary, but they somehow do not manage to portray the innocent yet sensitive characters that we love so much. This is a major flaw in the film, since they are very pivotal in the story, where much of the focus is on their lives.

Gregory Peck, on the other hand, is simply outstanding. Atticus Finch is probably one of the best roles an actor could hope to play – indeed, much of the book’s appeal may be attributed to his character – and Peck does full justice to it. His is an understated, yet powerful, presence. He is that rare thing – a gentleman, a man of honour. While Peck’s Atticus consistently stands up for what is right, he never does it in a self-righteous or overbearing way. He commands respect and admiration and forces the viewer to reflect. Of course, he looks unbelievably good while doing all this, so all we can do is gape in admiration.

Special mention must also be given to Brock Peters, who played Tom Robinson, and Colin Wilcox Paxton, who essayed the role of Mayella Violet Ewell, the victim of the supposed rape. Their performances, though brief, were quite flawless. Paxton, in particular, infused a kind of intensity into her character that made me wonder if she was actually a stage actress (and, lo and behold, she was!).

Nevertheless, despite these brilliant performances, the movie quite fails to match up to the book. Too much is either left out or changed and, as a devoted fan, I regard such alterations in the light of a personal insult. The book is perfect as it is, so no changes are necessary. If they had to be made in order to transfer the story onto the big screen, then it would have been better to discard the idea altogether rather than create a movie that undermines its source material so drastically. Somewhere along the way, the magic of the book is lost. The viewer gets no glimpses of those carefree, idyllic summers or the many fascinating occupants of the neighbourhood or the thousand other tiny little details that make the novel so very alluring. Harper Lee created a world, a different time and place, which Robert Mulligan’s interpretation just doesn’t reach.

It will be a long time before I trust any literary adaptation again. We need some sort of law against these half-baked impersonations, because while it may be a sin to kill a mockingbird, it is also a sin to distort a masterpiece.

Aishwarya Jha


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