Stay Classy: To Kill a Mockingbird

Maybe you’ve never heard of it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see it. Or maybe you’re just tired of the new. Whatever your reason, the classics are always worth a nod. Every Friday in Stay Classy, we look some of the films that started it all and how they hold up today. So sit back while we reel through the past.

Photo: EW.com

(Absolution and Finch.)

Like millions of other book worms, I count Harper Lee's classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, as one of my all-time favourite re-reads. In fact, it may be my all-time favourite. In all my years of loving it, however, I never managed to watch the Oscar-winning film inspired by the Southern saga (don't throw those tomatoes too hard, classic movie buffs!).

Even though I've read so many gushing reviews and top ten lists featuring the flick, I've always sort of been afraid of it. I have a tendency to be very hard on big-screen adaptations of books I loved (see my utter hatred of everyone's favourite watered-down chick flick, The Devil Wears Prada). In many cases, the film version can ruin the book for me, taking my favourite characters away from my previous perceptions of them, and mucking with my interpretations of the subtle meanings behind plot points and poignant passages (recently, I went on a rant-page after hearing that my beloved teen lit classic, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was going to be turned into a movie starring Hermoine Granger). I couldn't even bear to imagine my precious Atticus, Scout and Boo (Oh, Boo!) being soiled by a poorly unrepresentative big-screen transfer. So I just avoided it completely. What a pretentious and terrible decision that was.

It's been 48 years since Mockingbird first hit theatres (50 since the book!), and yet, it still sings. The film follows the Finch family (Atticus and his kids, Scout and Jem) as they deal with various forms of prejudice (theirs and others) in 1930s Georgia. Atticus, the town's main lawyer, has been chosen to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been arrested for raping a white woman. The majority of the racist town resents this decision and decides to terrorize him, and the Robinson family, for it.

Back at the Finch household, Jem and Scout have to cope with their fear of Arthur "Boo" Radley, a mysterious shut-in who lives down the street and who they believe is a murderous madman. Over the course of the 128 minute-film (three years in reel time), we explore the trials of Robinson and the tribulations Atticus, Tom and the kids have to go through during it.

The Finches are played by Gregory Peck (Atticus), Mary Badham (Scout) and Phillip Alford (Jem). They all do a great job bringing their much beloved characters to life (especially Badham), but Peck is incredible. It's no surprise he won an Oscar and still manages to gain praise for his performance. He is Atticus Finch, three piece suits, horn-rimmed glasses, moral compass and all.

The cinematography is similarly perfect. The film is entirely in black and white, which might turn off some modern viewers who think of colourless films as boring and outdated. In this case, that assumption could not be further from the truth. The two-toned background adds serious poignancy to the racial conflict which frames the film and the book. The much-mentioned courtroom scene, where the whites are sitting on the lower levels and the blacks above, seems so much more dramatic, and telling, in monochrome. It's so powerful, modern movies still pay homage to it (see: the trial in Pleasantville).

Although the film is undeniably great from a technical standpoint, your enjoyment of it will really depend on your tolerance for wiser-than-their-years kids. Scout, at least I've been told by a few friends, can seem grating and pretentious at times (i.e. the 6-year-old calls her daddy Atticus). But that's why I like her.

Scout Finch is a sassy spitfire who cares mostly about playing tag and having fun with Jem and with her neighborhood pals. Early in the film, she beats up a kid at school who says claims that her dad is defending a "n-word." Later, she stops a mob of ill-informed men from lynching Tom by simply talking to them. She even sneaks into court to watch Robinson's trial and defiantly sits in the black section. To paraphrase Atticus' infamous line, Scout does not believe anyone should kill, or persecute, mockingbirds (or innocent but socially misunderstood people), and is not afraid to say so.

Scout and Atticus' undeniable passion for tolerance is really what makes To Kill a Mockingbird a era-defying classic. Although African Americans are no longer second-class citizens, there is still much intolerance in the world. It's just taken a different shape. In the place of overwhelming uses of the n-word and disgust towards people of colour, we've gotten a new f-word and intolerance towards same-sex relationships. And that's just the beginning.

I see a little Scout in modern day mini civil rights activist, Will Philips. The 10-year-old refuses to stand during the Pledge of Alligance at his American school, saying that he cannot admit that his country provides "liberty and justice for all" until gay and lesbians receive full rights. Like the youngest Finch, he reminds us that respect and understanding should be universal.

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