To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
|Atticus Finch definitely taught me a thing or two.|
A few weeks ago I started my new favorite running series on my blog, “How to Make a Movie.” Once again, I must stipulate that I’ve never made a movie, which would be enough to stop most people from instructing others. However, I’m only sure of about nine things on this earth, and one of those nine things is that To Kill a Mockingbird is a nearly flawless film. Thus, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch for filmmakers to take a cue from it on how to make a movie.
The other night I took my wife out on a date (!), and in a lame attempt to be romantic, I asked her this question: If you could choose any ONE work of art (i.e. painting, sculpture, movie, song, book, poem, stage-production, TV show, anything that could remotely be considered art) that most embodies something about who you are or connects with you more than any other work of art, what would it be? Her answer was the book “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. But this post isn’t about her answer. As I was asking myself the same question, literally the first thing that flashed across my mind was To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps the reason for this is that it connects with me on multiple levels. I first watched it when I was around the age of five, and since then, I have probably seen it somewhere in the vicinity of fifty times. What’s great is that the narrative is told from the perspective of Scout (the six year-old tomboy), and so even though there are important issues covered, it is told in a way that even small children can understand. As I grew older, Scout’s older brother, Jem, became the character I connected with. I had a secret treasure chest in my room, just like Jem, and I’m pretty sure I pretended several times over the years that a certain neighbor on my street was Boo Radley. Obviously, growing into adulthood, and especially beginning law school, Atticus Finch became the character I looked up to; an inspiring yet soft-spoken, understated yet powerful man who embodies everything good in this world—specifically, defending a black man accused of rape in the 1930’s in Alabama—and goes about this business as if it’s just another Tuesday morning.
So specifically, out of about 537 things that To Kill a Mockingbird could teach someone about making a movie, three seem to stand out to me:
Step 1: Use the Camera Lens to Your Advantage
Or, in other words, enhance the story through your medium. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most celebrated American novels ever written. Most directors could have just told the story in the book without doing anything fancy and the movie would have turned out pretty well. However, director Robert Mulligan used the camera to his advantage. The story is told in the novel from Scout’s perspective, and he never lets us forget it. Most of what we see in the film is through her eyes. We are just as scared of the Radley household as Scout and Jem are, because that is the way they see it. The scenes in the courtroom , even though they feature Atticus, constantly show the children and their reaction to everything. Additionally, there is one great scene at the end in which an altercation takes place between Boo Radley and Bob Ewell with Scout present, only we can’t see them, because Scout is stuck inside a ham costume and can’t see them. Many directors would have taken the easy route with this film, and focused it more on Atticus and the trial, but Mulligan delivered something substantially more meaningful because of his willingness to take a risk and enhance the story through his lens.
Step 2: Be Relevant
One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird was successful was that it was made during the Civil Rights Movement. Obviously the racial implications of the story are relevant, but one thing I like is that it doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head with an overly moral or holier-than-thou approach. Rather, the story tackles the tough issues with a childlike wonder that is not found often in cinema. Yes, there are a few Atticuses in the world, people who will do the right thing in any circumstance; and yes, there are a few Bob Ewells in the world, people who are simply filled with hate and intolerance and nothing else. But most of us in this world are Scouts—people who are seeking to do the right thing but don’t always know the best approach; we clumsily find our way through our various prejudices on our quest to find understanding and empathy in this world, and we should surround ourselves with Atticuses and Jems on that quest. The great thing about this theme is that it is an enduring one—what was relevant in the 60’s to racism has now turned into other issues—yet the same lessons still apply.
Step 3: Be Emotionally Engaging
A step that may seem difficult but this movie makes it look easy. A lynch mob seeking to kill Tom Robinson in his cell turns around after Scout speaks to Mr. Cunningham and says that she’s friends with his son at school. After unsuccessfully defending a black man in trial, a whole balcony of African-Americans honor Atticus by standing up as he passes through under them. When Scout finally meets Boo Radley, she immediately realizes that not only is she not scared of him, but that he has loved her for her entire life.
...and of course I could go on and on. This is a dearly beloved film and book that I doubt I need to sell many of you on. When I think about what movies should resemble, this is one of the first films that comes to mind. I think about how it’s not just important to do the right thing, but to go through the process that teaches you to do the right thing. I think about how things that we don’t understand seem scary until we look them in the eye. I think about love—familial love, love in friendships, love in community, and love of mockingbirds—who “don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy...they don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”