Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
On July 11, 1960, a novel was published that would impact and change the world. Harper Lee‘s debut work To Kill a Mockingbird, was a coming-of-age Southern Gothic story loosely based on her experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. It took Lee roughly two and a half years to write, with the help of famed editor J.B. Lippincott and her childhood friend, the soon-to-be famous writer Truman Capote. The book quickly became a literary sensation, going through multiple reprints. Since its original publication date, To Kill a Mockingbird has been consistently in print around the world for over 55 years.
Quite quickly, plans for a film adaptation of the novel were set in motion. Lee’s friend, American playwright Horton Foote, wrote the script for the movie with her full endorsement. Child actors with little to no film experience were cast as the leads to allow for a more authentic, less overacted charm seen in their characters. For the part of the beloved laywer Atticus Finch, Universal Pictures wanted a star with gravitas. Actor Gregory Peck, then known to audiences mainly for his roles in war epics and romantic pictures, snagged the part that would become the most well-known of his career.
Films based on novels can often be tricky, but To Kill a Mockingbird has become well-known for being one of the greatest ever made. The film follows the plot of the book closely, recounting a few key years in the life of Scout (played by Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), the two children of the Finch family. Their father Atticus (Gregory Peck) has been appointed to defend an African-American man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who has been accused of raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). At the trial for Robinson, Atticus does his best to defend Tom and points out the racial prejudices at play in the case. There are signs that Mayella’s father Bob Ewell (James Anderson) may have harmed her. Throughout the film, the children also spy on the Radley house next door, concocting wild rumors on their neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a man who never leaves the house and has not been seen in years. The Finch children undergo changes in their lives, and learn much about themselves and the brutal world they live in.
Harper Lee was involved in nearly aspect of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird from teaching the crew about Southern foods to penning personal notes to the actors who were cast in the film. She spent weeks on the set during filming, offering encouragement and praise to cast and crew. Every aspect of the film shines in To Kill a Mockingbird, the film perfectly captures the Great Depression era south visually and thematically. Most importantly, the adaptation stayed true to the themes of Lee’s great novel. Released on Christmas Day in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement in America, the movie highlighted the racial prejudices and injustice that had plagued the country for decades. In particular, the scenes during Tom Robinson’s trial are a powerful look at not just racial prejudice, but also class and gender roles. The Finch children come of age, learning about the harsh reality of Southern life that their father has tried to protect them from. All children must grow up sometime, a fact of life that resonates with audiences around the world who have seen the film.
In addition to the universal themes of the film, the incredible cast make To Kill a Mockingbird a true standout of cinema. Mary Badham’s performance as Scout feels authentic, in part because she was cast with no prior acting experience whatsoever. She and Philip Alford, who plays Scout’s brother Jem, tap into that sense of childhood curiosity and wonder at the world with seemingly little to no effort. The audience happily tags along on their adventures with hardly any hesitation.
Lastly, one could not talk about this exceptional film without highlighting Gregory Peck’s role as Atticus Finch, one of the most memorable characters in cinema. Over the years, Atticus has become a symbol of morality: he’s the man who wants to help others and do whats right. Peck said in a 1997 interview, “Hardly a day passes that I don’t think how lucky I was to be cast in that film. I recently sat at a dinner next to a woman who saw it when she was 14 years old, and she said it changed her life. I hear things like that all the time.” Children and adults have grown up watching Peck’s fantastic performance, now a standard for the great American hero. Lee noted in the liner notes for the film’s DVD release that “When I learned that Gregory Peck would play Atticus Finch in the film production of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was of course delighted: here was a fine actor who had made great films – what more could a writer ask for? …The years told me his secret. When he played Atticus Finch, he had played himself, and time has told all of us something more: when he played himself, he touched the world.” Both versions of To Kill a Mockingbird have certainly left their impact on the world, and will continue to do so for many decades to come.
Universal Pictures originally fought the casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. At the time, they petitioned for their biggest star, Rock Hudson, for the role. Jimmy Stewart’s name was also floated around at the time.
The film won three Academy Awards in 1963: Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Art Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Gregory Peck’s memorable nine-minute long closing speech in the courtroom was done in exactly one take.
Mary Badham and Gregory Peck remained good friends right up until Peck’s death in 2003. He always called her Scout.
According to the comics, Superman aka Clark Kent’s favorite movie is To Kill a Mockingbird.
What’s your favorite book to movie adaptation? What other classic films would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: Universal Pictures
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.