Creative Nonfiction Magazine is out with issue 48, whose theme is Southern Sin. Here is my (slightly re-re-edited) submission, which was possibly too venial.
To Watch a Mockingbird
Harper Lee tells us that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. But is it a sin that I like the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird better than the book?
This happens to me occasionally, as with The Godfather (didn’t love the book), The Stand (did love the book), and even Pride and Prejudice (did love Keira Knightly). Most of the time this happens when I see the movie first, which is certainly the case with To Kill a Mockingbird. I have seen the film maybe a dozen times over the years, and only recently read the book.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the book, a wonderful story well told, rich with the sense and flavor of the times, memorable characters, and a message that is deeply affecting. But in my view, the movie does all that as well, and consistently does it better.
There are two primary differences between the book and the film. One is in the two voices of Scout, the Remembering (narrating) Scout and the Younger (active) Scout. The book in my view mixes them up, especially in the comic lines, giving the words of the older as the opinion of the younger. Maybe it’s intentional, and it is amusing. But it is unnecessary. There is plenty of comic action without it.
The film on the other hand does not mix the voices up. The Remembering Scout only remembers, in the evocative if uncredited voice of Kim Stanley. The Active Scout is always in the moment and in character. Both work beautifully.
The other difference between the film and the book is in the performance of Gregory Peck. The literary character of Atticus is a profound creation. But the filmic realization has overtones that I think go beyond the literary. For example, it is one thing to read Scout’s affecting words:
He would be in Jem's room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
But it is another hear those words while seeing Peck’s Atticus sitting in the room. Or you could pick any of a dozen other moments in the film. As a novelist, I don’t like to admit that an actor’s performance can enhance my words. But as a playwright, I know that it is the case (though the reverse is also true).
There aren’t many perfect films, but To Kill a Mockingbird may be one. So perhaps this is an exception that proves the rule. But if anyone ever makes a film out of a story of mine, I will hope for the same treatment, and promise to be pleased with (and own up to) the same result.