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To Kill a Mockingbird

Like a lot of students I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird at school. I know I liked it but don't recall it making a lasting impact. Maybe it did subliminally. I hope so cause it's a great story, a great book and a great movie.

Given that the book and movie are over forty years old I'm not going to worry about spoilers. It'd be like worrying about spoiling Hamlet. (He dies at the end).

To Kill a Mockingbird deals with rape, forbidden sexual obsession, racial prejudice, mob hysteria and human hypocrisy. Would it have had the same impact if it didn't view these through the eyes of children? That's the brilliant juxtaposition that ensures that the novel - and the movie - will be remembered as a classic. (I think there was one scene in the film - Bob Ewell's first confrontation with Finch in the courthouse - which arguably broke this rule.)

The basic theme of To Kill a Mockingbird (like that of The Interpreter) is quite straightforward - the virtue of tolerance - but unlike that more recent movie the writing crackles and the acting and directing comes up to meet it, to be worthy of the message.

There are many great scenes - Scout's uncalculating (?) shaming of a mob into submission, Mayella Ewell's hysteria on the witness stand, her racist father Bob confronting Atticus Finch after being revealed a liar and a hypocrite in court, and more.

And there's one amazing scene - where the gods of the court rise in tribute to Finch after he loses his case. A moment right up there with the "La Marseillaise" scene in Casablanca but perhaps even more remarkable because there is no music to stir the emotion. Which was a bold choice because Leonard Bernstein's score is perfectly evocative everywhere else it was placed.

It's the cruel reversals and intensifications that make the writing so compelling. Classic storytelling: you pull the rug out of the hero's feet and kick him while he's down. We expect Mayella to turn and tell the truth - but she doesn't; instead she becomes even more strident in her denial. We expect Atticus Finch's great speech to turn the jury (and let's not forget that all the evidence is on his side) - but it doesn't, and condemns an innocent man who is later killed. We expect Ewell to feel at least a smidgin of remorse afterwards - but he doesn't; instead he spits in Finch's face.

These reversals are prepared by the scene where Scout calms the mob and the general G-rated children's story that precedes the trial. Based on the tone of the movie so far we expect things to go well in the courthouse. We don't expect it to turn so dark.

And the reversals are assuaged - to a point - by Boo Radley's actions at the end of the story. And by the growth of the children as a result of their experiences.

Thankfully the kids in this movie can act. Especially Mary Badham as Scout, charmingly indiscreet, whose eyes are opened to injustice, and Phillip Alford as Jem, always mature, but who comes into his inheritance as a man during the course of the trial. As a Star Trek fan it was fun spotting some well known Trek guest stars: William Windom as the greasy prosecutor, Paul Fix as the laconic judge and Brock Peters as a disturbingly virile Tom Robinson (a role for which he beat James Earl Jones to the part). And of course it's Gregory Peck's moral authority that dominates the picture.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 22, 2005 12:28 AM.

The previous post in this blog was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

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