Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: The Relationship between Text and Film
By R. Barton Palmer
London: Methuen Drama, December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0713679113, $19.95. 224 pages.
Review by Laurence Raw, Başkent University, Ankara, Turkey
If ever there was a book telling us everything we possibly wanted to know about Harper Lee’s classic – both book and film versions – it is this one. Exhaustively researched and written in a clear, accessible style, Palmer situates the novel in its context of production, and then explains why it has proved so enduringly popular since it first appeared in 1960. He describes it as “an indirect assault on the insufferable intolerance of Jim Crowism [….] [The novel] challenges, even if it does not overturn, conventional understandings of stable identity” (107).
Palmer subsequently discusses how Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film version departs significantly from the book. With Gregory Peck as the star, this was bound to happen: the character Atticus Finch was transformed into “[a] fair-minded Southerner” who, with the help of “fair-minded Northerners” would help to provide solutions to racial conflict (197). Lee does not say anything about Northerners influencing Southerners; nor does she even conceive of the South as a “social problem” seeking remedies from outside. However, the film version was rewritten to accommodate Peck’s sensibilities as a white liberal trying to cope with a fast-changing world. Despite such changes, Palmer argues, the film does not have an “adversarial relationship with the novel”; rather, it “has been generally understood as more a faithful homage [to Lee’s work] than a critique” (233).
Why should To Kill a Mockingbird have become so important in American literary and cinematic culture? Palmer suggests that Lee not only attacks Jim Crowism but also challenges the stereotype of a benighted and savage South. Frustrated by the close nature of Southern society, she tries to open it up, not only critiquing its racist assumptions, but showing its more positive sides too – for example, the belief in the family. Lee had a love-hate relationship with her culture; she wrote Mockingbird not in the small Alabama town where she grew up, but in New York City, where she moved to pursue her writing career. Only then did she acquire sufficient physical and emotional distance to recount a fictionalized version of her life (63). Palmer suggests that she not only depicts her childhood in an authentic manner, but also has a lot to say about the adult world of racial politics. This is what makes the novel so important for readers and teachers, many of whom identify Mockingbird as an essential part of their students’ moral education. Ex-President George W. Bush recognized Lee’s achievement by awarding her the Presidental Medal of Freedom in 2007.
In his account of the making of the film, Palmer shows how director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula conceived it as a small-scale work, focusing in particular on personal relations and social customs. Peck agreed to be involved in the project as he believed that it would contribute to his reputation as a serious screen actor. He liked the part of Atticus, seeing in the character a reflection of his courage and desire to empathize with others (163). Palmer analyzes the screenplay in detail, showing how it evolved through various drafts, incorporating changes recommended by the star as well as the Catholic Legion of Decency (which still exercised considerable powers of censorship in the early 1960s). He shows how Peck was dissatisfied with early drafts of the script that did not present Finch in a sufficiently favorable light. After extensive rewrites, however, Peck’s concerns were allayed, and filming proceeded smoothly with very few technical hitches. When the film opened in late 1962, it was commended by Variety as “a major film achievement,” which vindicated Peck’s commitment to the project. Since then its reputation has increased with successive rereleases: Palmer notes that no one has ever tried to remake it, except for one misbegotten effort in 1997 which never achieved a general release.
To spend over two hundred pages discussing one book and one adaptation might seem like overkill. Far from it: Palmer not only offers new insight into how a classic film was constructed, but shows how adaptations can connect meaningfully and deeply to their sources. I recommend the book as an inspiring read not only for film buffs but for anyone reading or teaching the novel, regardless of educational level.