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To Kill a Mockingbird and the Bildungsroman

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most recognizable pieces of literature to ever come out of the south, and its film adaptation is arguably just as iconic. The characters and the drama is spot on with the original, and Lee herself once said, “In that film, the man and the part met. As far as I’m concerned, that part is Greg’s for life.(Freeland). in regards to Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus. But due to the time constraints of the silver screen, much of Scout’s own personal growth was overshadowed by the drama surrounding Atticus and the trial of Tom Robinson. By shifting the premise of the story from one of self-discovery to a trial drama they both end up telling very different yet equally compelling stories.

In the novel, the events taking place in Maycomb, Alabama are told through the eyes of six year old Scout. Not only does it focus on the racial injustices present in the early 20th century south, it also focuses on Scout’s own personal growth and her fundamental understanding of the world around her and the humanity held by all people. The first person narration of the novel is imperative to the childlike view of her world and is essential to see the personal growth she endures as events unfold. This is something that is lost in the film adaptation and it shifts the frame of the story from that of Scout’s own growth to the nobility of her father Atticus and the misadventures of her brother Jem. The movie opens with a brief narration at the beginning and end, but the first person perspective becomes muddled in much of the ensuing action in Maycomb.

Many of Scout’s formative events in the book are also cut in the adaptation to film such as finding the trinkets in the knothole of the Radley’s oak tree (which was shifted to Jem instead), many of her and the boys’ attempts to contact Boo, the scene in which she and Jem attend church with Calpurnia, and the tyranny of Aunt Alexandra. By making these decisions the movie narrows the focus of the movie to two or three large moments to characterize the racism laying under the surface in Maycomb such as the mad dog and the drama of the Robinson trial.

By isolating the incident of the dog and the trial, the movie chooses to shift the action away from the bildungsroman of the original novel in an attempt to characterize the injustices taking place in the south. The scene with the mad dog puts Atticus-the noble characterization of the southern white liberal- against Tim Johnson who signifies the deep-set racism and mob mentality held by the residents of Maycomb. By shooting the dog he shows his conviction to his values and is characterized as the only person able to take on the racism of the town. By saying to Jem, “Don’t go near him, he’s just as dangerous dead as alive.”(Lee 111), it illustrates that no matter the outcome of the trial the racism in Maycomb will linger after it’s done. This scene is pivotal in two ways in the novel, not only for the symbolic meaning of killing the mad dog but in a very tangible way for Scout and Jem as it rocks the very foundation of what they know of their father and grants them more respect for his methods.

The trial itself is a pivotal moment for the film in which the symbolic racism becomes tangible for the audience. The execution of the trial scene was nearly perfect in its illustration of the ugly face of racism in the south at the time. A quotation left out of the movie that is really striking in regards to the trial is after the death of Mrs. Dubose (who’s story was cut from the film) when Atticus says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”(Lee 128). This illustrates that true courage is the ability to fight for what is right despite the odds being stacked against one, and this parallels his own struggle to fight against the racism in Maycomb.

The book uses these instances in a much different way, to frame Scout’s growth into her own person. One detail that stood out is that the only people in the movie who use the N-word are the “bad guys”, the Ewells, while in the novel the normalcy of the racism in Maycomb is much more present. Even Scout, in the beginning and middle of the novel casually uses the term not fully understanding the connotations that come with it. Her and Jem’s childlike ignorance fades as they visit Calpurnia’s church and are exposed to another side of Maycomb that they don’t quite understand. Another instance that is missing is much of the children’s interactions with Boo, the relationship in the movie springs almost out of nowhere near the end, but in the book the framework for their relationship is one of the most constant things in the novel.

In the end both the book and the movie aim to tell very different stories with the same characters and beats. While the novel is a story about growth and recognizing the humanity in everyone despite their race or their decisions the movie is more focused around the trial and exposing the rampant racism in the south. Neither is more important than the other in the message that it tells but the book paints a fuller picture of the characters and the events that surround them. In the end, the overall point of both is driven home when Boo and Tom are recognized as the titular mockingbirds.

Freedland, Michael. “I’m the Only Journalist Alive to Have Interviewed Harper Lee – and It’s All Thanks to Gregory Peck | Michael Freedland.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 July 2015,

One thought on “To Kill a Mockingbird and the Bildungsroman”

  1. I really like your point about how the novel is able to comment on normalized racism in ways that the film is not. One function of courtroom dramas is to narrow viewers’ focus to the spectacular events of the trial rather than on the ways in which injustice occurs on a much smaller scale beyond the space of the courtroom. So in devoting more screen time to the trial portion of the story it makes sense that the film does exactly this.


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