The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which stars Gregory Peck as Atticus and Mary Badham as Scout, is as much a classic as the novel itself. (The film received eight Academy Awards nominations and netted awards for Best Actor, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Art Direction — Set Decoration, Black and White.)
Ideally, a novel and its film version complement each other, which, on many levels, is the case with To Kill a Mockingbird. However, film can accomplish things that novels can't, and vice versa. Likewise, film has limitations that a novel doesn't. This essay explores some of the differences between To Kill a Mockingbird, the film and the novel.
By its nature, film is a visual medium, which makes a first-person story difficult to tell. To have Scout narrating throughout the film as she does in the book would prove distracting, so Scout as narrator is only presented to set the mood of a scene in the film. As a result, viewers don't get a strong sense of Scout's first-person narration as they do in the book; instead, they simply notice the childlike perspective portrayed in the story. (The film uses music to help reinforce the child's point-of-view. The music is very elementary, and much of the score is composed of single notes without chords or embellishments.)
Because the narration is not as straightforward in the film, the film seems to shift more to Jem's experiences. For example, Jem finds all the articles in the tree. Jem accompanies Atticus to tell Helen Robinson of her husband's death. Jem is left alone to watch his sister. Scout is still an important character, but the film expands on her brother's role.
A film has less time to tell its story and therefore often concentrates the events of a story into fewer characters; when a book makes the transition to film, characters and their actions are often combined. For instance, Miss Stephanie Crawford is Dill's aunt and Cecil Jacobs, not Francis Hancock, drives Scout to break her promise to Atticus about fighting. Aunt Alexandra isn't present in the movie at all, so the issue of Scout "acting like a lady" never plays a major role in the film.
Film also often introduces new characters to help develop the story line. In the film, Scout and Jem have a conversation about their deceased mother which brings her alive for the viewers; the book devotes a single paragraph to her. Viewers also meet Tom Robinson's children and father. His father isn't mentioned in the book, and his children receive only a brief mention.
The benefit of film is that viewers get to see the characters. They can put a face with a name, so to speak. And characters can say things with facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture that an author must describe to readers. Many people enjoy the advantage of being able to visualize a character; however, viewers can be thrown out of the story if the actor playing the part doesn't fit the reader's vision of the character. For instance, the actress who plays Miss Maudie is thin, much younger, and more conventional than Scout describes in the book, which takes some of the bite out of the character. On the other hand, Gregory Peck, by Lee's own assertion, is the perfect embodiment of Atticus Finch, which gives the character a far greater depth than the book, alone, can provide.
Because a film has a limited time in which to tell the story, events from a novel are invariably dropped when the book becomes a film. Although the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird includes every major event from the novel, the screenplay takes place over two years, not three, and many events are left out. For example, the children have virtually no contact with Mrs. Dubose, and the film never shows the inside of a classroom, so viewers don't experience any of the episodes with Miss Caroline, Miss Gates, and some of the other minor characters that create Maycomb's texture and layers.
Lee's novel is a coming-of-age story influenced by a major event in the community and within one family. Scout not only tries to understand and process the trial, but she's also wrestling with the expectations those around her have of little girls. The film, on the other hand, is a courtroom drama that happens to include something about the lead attorney's home life. In its film version, To Kill a Mockingbird only touches on the issues of femininity. The movie never gets into Maycomb's caste system, so viewers don't necessarily know that the Ewells are considered to be "trash."
The implied incest between Bob and Mayella Ewell is never discussed during the course of the trial. Unlike today's films, movies in 1962 weren't allowed to cover such controversial subject matter. Instead, films had to find ways to work around taboo subjects. In this case, the film works around the incest issue by showing Bob Ewell's unscrupulous behavior in other ways. For instance, he begins stalking Jem and Scout before Tom's trial begins, and viewers can see from Mayella's facial expressions in the courtroom that she's frightened of her father.
The courtroom scenes are condensed in the film. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch delivers a shortened version of Atticus' closing arguments to the jury. The lines he does say are verbatim, but several points from the speech aren't included. Neither does the film explore the aftermath of the trial or portray the conversations Atticus has with his children in trying to help them understand the situation.
The film addresses the plight of African Americans only through the trial. Calpurnia is treated respectfully by everyone, the children never attend Calpurnia's church, and on the day of the trial, blacks and whites enter the courtroom together (although the blacks, and Scout, Jem, and Dill, sit separately in a balcony, just as they do in the book). Remember, though, that at the time this film was in theaters, audiences wouldn't have needed an explanation for these sorts of things. They knew first-hand the challenges African Americans faced. The idea that blacks would sit separate from whites would have been expected — or understood, at the very least — by anyone viewing the film.
Film is very much reflective of the original audience's culture. As a film ages, audiences need more information to fully grasp the story. The fact that the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird is still so powerful is a testament to a fine adaptation of a classic story.