Last week, the literary world mourned the death of To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee on February 19. She was 89.
Lee’s long-anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman, caused a stir in 2015, but Lee and her work are no strangers to controversy. Some argued that Go Set a Watchman should never have hit bookshelves at all and To Kill a Mockingbird was long banned in school libraries after its release in 1960.
The film adaptation of Mockingbird premiered just two years after the book was first published and one year after it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Like the book, the film has become a beloved part of American culture in the decades since its release. The film is perhaps most memorable for its cast: Gregory Peck’s iconic turn as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham’s precocious and earnest performance as Scout, Robert Duvall’s big-screen debut as the phantom-like Boo Radley, and Brock Peters’s heartrending role as the doomed Tom Robinson.
The screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird holds a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, ripe as ever for a 54-year-old film — but the Village Voice wasn’t so kind when it first hit the big screen.
Critic Andrew Sarris had a few bones to pick with the filmmakers, going so far as to say: “This is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards.” Sarris called out director Robert Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote, for what he considered a ham-fisted way of bringing Lee’s vision of race, injustice, and small-town Southern life to the silver screen. Not even Peck was immune to Sarris’s judgment. The Voice critic reduced Atticus Finch to an “unctuous” social justice warrior out to save a stock black character who’s presented as little more than a martyred stereotype.
What did Lee think of the film? She’s on the record as a fan of both Peck’s performance (“The minute I saw him I knew everything was going to be all right because he was Atticus”) and Foote’s screenplay (“All of us connected with the filming of Mockingbird were fortunate to have the screenplay done by Horton Foote. I think this made a great difference”).
Here’s the text of Sarris’s biting critique of To Kill a Mockingbird in full:
A Negro Is Not a Mockingbird
by Andrew Sarris
[From the March 7, 1963, issue of the Village Voice]
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (at Radio City Music Hall) relates the Cult of Childhood to the Negro Problem with disastrous results. Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards. Horton Foote’s script is a fuzzy digest of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer best-seller, while Robert Mulligan’s direction is slavishly faithful to the elliptical style of Miss Lee’s action sequences. For example, Miss Lee describes the shadow of a spooky neighbor creeping up on a young boy. So Mulligan compliantly photographs the shadow of a spooky neighbor creeping up on a young boy. What could be more cinematic? Unfortunately, a director who manipulates a shadow without delivering its substance is only cheating his audience. Mulligan flubs the violent climax by the same misapplication of a literary effect to the cinema. A reader can always catch up on a mystifying action a page or two later, but a moviegoer wants to see what is happening while it is happening. All the talk in the world afterward cannot redeem a lost image.
Just Too Easy
What fools too many critics about a project like this is the trick of the child’s point of view. The camera drops a foot, then darts and swoops with the child’s erratic movements. The world opens up, and everything looks more profound and inventive. It is just too easy for a bad director to look good when the adult world can be reduced to a homespun parable like “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The movie begins innocently enough, trailing after a little girl who is even more adorable than the moppet in “Sundays and Cybele,” another overrated trick film. The setting is Maycomb, Alabama, in the early ’30s. The novel teems with relatives, neighbors, and assorted gargoyles arranged in an intricate network of political and social alliances, but the movie Maycomb comes out looking deserted and underpopulated, and lacking spatial unity besides. When Gregory Peck is assigned to defend a Negro sharecropper falsely accused of raping a white woman, Peck’s adorable children help deter the obligatory lynch mob and then watch the courtroom spectacle from the balcony segregated for Negroes. (I daresay the Maycomb courtroom is still segregated thirty years later, and so much for Miss Lee’s cleverly masked argument for gradualism.)
As usual, the Negro is less a rounded character than a Liberal construct, a projection of the moral superiority Negroes supposedly attain through their suffering and degradation. He is not only obviously innocent of the charge, and infinitely nobler than his white-trash accusers, father and daughter; he is also incredibly pure of heart. Brock Peters tries hard to break through the layers of moral whitewash, but he is finally smothered by Peck’s unctuous nobility. When the Negro is convicted on evidence of a flimsiness sufficient to acquit Trotsky in a Stalinist court, Peck offers the glowing hope of an appeal. (This is in the days of the Nine-Old-Men Court.) When the Negro is shot (off-screen) for attempting to escape, Peck is so upset that by some inverted logic understood only by Liberal Southerners, he deplores the Negro’s impetuousity. Here the movie tries to placate Dixie audiences by departing from the sacred text of the novel to omit a reference to fourteen bullets fired into the escapee’s body. It never seems to occur to Miss Lee, Mr. Foote, or Mr. Mulligan, as it occurred to someone sitting behind me, that the Negro’s reported escape is as malodorous as his unjust conviction. Aside from doubting the word of the local constabulary on a matter concerning the rape of white womanhood, the disinterested spectator is aesthetically justified in questioning the truth of something not shown on the screen.
The plot takes a retributive turn of sorts with the redneck who started all the fuss getting his just deserts while attempting to murder Peck’s children. The sheriff decides to shelter the redneck’s murderer so that the dead can bury the dead and all accounts can be squared.
This is a heart-warming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous redneck hardly cancel each other out. How neat and painless it is for the good people of Maycomb to find a bothersome victim in one grave and a convenient scapegoat in the other. When all is said and done, Southerners are People Like Us, some good and some bad. So what? No one who has read the last letters of the German troops trapped in Stalingrad can easily believe in a nation of monsters, but the millions of corpses are an objective fact. At some point, a social system is too evil and too unjust for personal ethics to carry any weight. Perhaps the Negro and the redneck are brothers under the skin, both victims of the same system. Perhaps they are the nucleus of a new political coalition. It is too early to tell, but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the White conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird.
From the Voice archives, here’s what Sarris’s review looked like back in the day:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 22, 2016
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