The poet Dylan (Bob, not Thomas) once wrote of a particular book:
“And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul.”
Such was my experience with “To Kill a Mockingbird” upon first reading.
As for many young people it was “required reading,” that dreaded form of literary appreciation some ended up enjoying, others walked away despising.
Unlike many of my classmates, I enjoyed much of what was handed down as “good for me” in literature class. (Though don’t talk to me about Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome.” Ever.)
But even among the most reluctant of readers, I’ve found “Mockingbird” almost universal in its beloved status. It was the book most had to read that everyone actually liked.
I have read it several times since those early days, and I have found the late Harper Lee’s novel, a story of the ugliness of racism and the hope of understanding, to be every bit as vital and important each time I have revisited it. The richness of the characters, the wisdom of its narrative voice, is unique in literature.
But it is the book’s core message that remains and reverberates well into the present day: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Not long after we finished the novel, our class watched the 1962 black-and-white classic starring Gregory Peck as the inimitable Atticus Finch.
Mary Badford plays Scout. Phillip Alford plays Jem, while John Megna is Dill Harris, a character who most take to be based on Lee’s real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote.
Adaptations of books to film are always problematic. Adaptations of excellent books to film more so.
But it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation than “Mockingbird.”
Peck, who won the Best Actor Oscar, is a perfect Atticus, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else embodying that role. Indeed, it’s almost unthinkable, at least now, to envision anyone else playing any of the key parts, so deeply have they become embedded into our collective consciousness.
There are, of course, differences between page and screen.
Bits are excised. Characters are condensed or underutilized or appear not at all. We never, for example, see Aunt Alexandra push the tomboyish Scout to act more like a “lady.”
Those absent moments of humor and grace are often missed.
Impossible to portray, except in snippets, is Scout’s narrative voice.
When asked to revise her first manuscript, later published toward the end of the author’s life as the divisive “Go Set a Watchman,” Lee was encouraged to make the story about Scout’s perspective as a young girl. In “Watchman,” the narrative is set fully 20 years later.
It stands as one of the best examples of editorial advice perhaps … well, ever.
But as brilliant a move as that was, it means the book’s story, told with Scout’s wit and ever-growing understanding, isn’t fully present in the film. It can’t be. In fact, the film turns the focus more often to her brother, Jem.
It shows that the book and movie, while so close at times to be indistinguishable, do each stand alone.
The heart and soul of the story is still everpresent in the film, and most of the major story beats survive: the mystery of Boo Radley, the trial of Tom Robinson, its tragic aftermath, and a message, both simple and pure.
Evil exists, prejudice exists. But we can still each choose to do good.
If you’ve never read the book, then the movie is a fine introduction to the story.
And Peck … My goodness. His performance is one way the film truly trumps the book. To see Atticus Finch, father, attorney, paragon, in the flesh so embodied is something that must be experienced – and a major way seeing the movie first may make a tremendous book even better.
Even if you have no interest in the novel, it’s a fine film.
But I’d still recommend that if it wasn’t “required reading,” or even if it was, you revisit the source material, in addition to enjoying one of the best films ever made.
The richness of having experienced both versions adds up to something truly special, far greater than any one part could ever be alone.
What: “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Paramount Film Series
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday. Film expert Robert Holladay will talk about the movie at 6:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Paramount Theatre, 352 Cypress St.
Tickets: $7 for adults and $6 for students, seniors, military, and children. Go to www.paramount-abilene.org for information.