Watching the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was an extremely different experience than reading the novel. While the plot stays deceptively similar to the book’s–several things are cut, but it sticks largely true to what it does show–seeing the action take place was jarring in a way reading the novel was not. This speaks to the true strength of Harper Lee’s version: Scout’s perspective and her singular, childlike view on everything around her. Without this guiding the story, the film is largely centered around and led by Atticus. The movie paints a wide picture of his life as both a single father and a lawyer in the Deep South in the 1930s. Through focusing on Atticus and the trial rather than Jem and Scout’s youth, the story takes a much different turn for the viewer. Instead of being ensconced in Scout’s innocent, simple life, there is no longer any buffer between the viewer and the dark, disturbing happenings in Maycomb.
I am not sure whether it was because of my own naivete, or Scout’s, but while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I did not grasp the significance of the scene with the crowd outside of Tom’s holding cell. Not until we discussed it virtually did I fully understand that Mr. Cunningham and his friends tried to lynch Tom Robinson before his case had even come to trial. I did not understand, as Scout did not, what exactly the stakes were for Atticus as he sat on the steps and threatened them with the sheriff. I knew there was danger, but the vague feelings of discomfort and forbearance were replaced by an immediate sense of fear and disgust in the film’s version. Seeing it played out, it is clear and repugnant. Mr. Cunningham, the man who doesn’t like to be thanked, tells Atticus: “You know what we want.” Instead of being somewhat in the dark with Scout, this time I knew what he wanted, too. Replacing the perspective of the story entirely changes the tone, though the outcome remains the same.
Likewise, when seeing the ending with Bob Ewell and Boo Radley, I was similarly disenchanted. Scout sees Boo as a kind of talisman, protector-like figure, perhaps even an imaginary friend. He represents the curiosity and daring of her childhood, and his rescue of her and Jem is a heroic moment, though he speaks little. Seeing him in the movie, he was actually kind of scary, and it hit me for the first time: he actually murdered a man. Not that Bob Ewell deserved less for his numerous crimes, including being basically responsible for Tom Robinson’s death and attempting to kill two children. The fact remains, though, that Boo Radley came out of his house, for the first time since stabbing his own father, and killed a man with a kitchen knife. It made me wonder if perhaps Atticus had been right to tell his children to stop obsessing over him, and if maybe there was a reason he had been locked away for so long. Without the veneer of childhood, the happy ending in the movie falls short in a way that I don’t think the novel’s ending did. Without Scout running the progression of events and narrating them in her own way as they related to her, the movie simply told a sad story and did nothing to fix it. Not that it could have been fixed; the damage was done. We even see Tom Robinson’s family react to his untimely death, in perhaps the scene hardest to watch. The film sorely missed Scout’s ability to seamlessly pair awful stories with the mundanities of school, summer, and her neighbors; the resilience of a child.
In comparing Atticus’s court scene to the other such representations of trials we have studied, I was drawn to thinking about Death and the Maiden. The cases involved are utterly and completely different, but both victims–Paulina and Tom Robinson–face obstacles that they know the law cannot, or will not, overcome for them. I am conflicted about the comparison between Atticus and Gerardo, but it begs to be made. They are both operators for the state with an interest in seeing the right thing happen, but both fall short in this pursuit. Of course, it is difficult to blame Atticus for the jury’s vote, and impossible to fault Gerardo for trying to dissuade Paulina from killing someone. However, Atticus’s ultimate loyalty is to justice more than to individuals, which reminds me of Gerardo in a sense. Gerardo was affected by his wife’s sufferings, and Atticus by Tom’s, but as lawyers devoted above all else, to the peaceful carrying out of the law, both of them lost something in the process.
Someone else talked about Atticus’s reaction to losing the case, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. He was resigned, not angry, which he had every right to be. Whether or not in the novel this was simply because he hid his anger from his children, in the film we see him grapple with Tom’s sentence and Tom’s death–he is affected, but not changed. He and Gerardo, while committed to justice as they see it, are ultimately serving a future that does not include the current grievances of their clients. Paulina, while on the opposite side of the “courtroom” than Tom, has a lot more in common with Tom than Mayella, her obvious counterpart. Though comparing Mayella and Paulina would reveal an interesting dichotomy; a woman seeking vengeance though held back by her husband, and a woman seeking a wrong vengeance under directions from her father. In Mayella’s case, her testimony did lead to the eventual death of the innocent man she accused. In Paulina’s, we never find out whether or not Roberto died, or whether or not he was innocent. Both show vastly different scenarios of the aftermath of a woman being sexually abused, but showcase the power–whether welded correctly or not–victims have when they say their piece. At the same time, they show the powerless; Paulina is never allowed to fully put Roberto on trial, and Mayella, in the end, put the wrong man to death because of her father’s continued hold over her. Atticus and Gerardo, though they might have won or lost their respective cases, have the power in both the play, the film, and the novel. With the law on their side, right or wrong, they are the heroes of their respective stories, and the ones with the most ability to affect change in their respective worlds.
One thought on “To Kill a Mockingbird and Death and the Maiden”
Lovely comparative work here, as well as some cool reflections on what the film’s narrowed focus on Atticus both closes off *and* opens up about the story.