Directed with true brilliance and care by Robert Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird is a 1962 American film adapted from Harper Lee’s 1960 semi-autobiographical, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name. The film stands as one of the few screen adaptations eternally beloved by fans of the book and critics alike, providing engrossing explorations of racial inequality and injustice in the South, the prejudice permitted in the American justice system, the importance of empathy, and the trials and tribulations of growing up.
Set in the early 1930s in the “tired old town” Maycomb, Alabama, the dramatic events of To Kill a Mockingbird unfold through the innocent eyes of Scout Finch (Mary Badham), a tomboyish six-year-old at the beginning of the film. Scout spends much of her lazy summer days with her older brother, Jem (Philip Alford) and the eccentric Dill (John Megna) playing games in the treehouse, rolling each other down the street in a car tire, and imagining stories about Maycomb’s pariah, Boo Radley. The delightful naivety of the children’s world dissolves once they witness the harsh, genuine, and terrifying realities of the adult world. Their father Atticus, a defense lawyer, is asked by the town judge to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). The racism of Maycomb soon unveils itself to the Finch household; Scout and Jem are ridiculed at school because of their “n—er lover” of a father, and Mayella's bigoted, ignorant father torments Atticus. When Scout and Jem are forced to examine the injustice permeating their town—and interact with Tom and Boo—they begin to mature and understand more about compassion.
Screenwriter Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan are two key figures responsible for the tender adaption of the revered novel to the big screen. Foote’s screenplay evokes the humor, charm, pathos, and characterizations of the book, crucially rendering the different challenges faced by Scout and Atticus with equal weight and nuance. Meanwhile, Mulligan elicited wonderful performances from young novices like Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, who brilliantly capture the multifaceted authenticity of their characters and the sense of childhood wonder without ever resorting to overly cutesy gimmicks.
Highlights of the film’s cast also include Gregory Peck, who plays the morally upright Atticus with an effective subtlety. Author Harper Lee herself admired Peck; in the liner notes for To Kill a Mockingbird’s DVD release, she writes, “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? … 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.” Peck’s extraordinary performance also won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and has become a standard for onscreen nobility; the American Film Institute honored Atticus Finch as the greatest movie hero in 2003. Peck’s rendition of Atticus remains an inspiration for many practicing and aspiring attorneys today, and his memorable, harrowing nine-minute closing speech is one of the most famous and influential scenes in all of cinema, let alone courtroom-based dramas.
In addition to the praise for Peck’s performance, the film itself was widely celebrated upon its release. To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for eight Academy Awards—including Best Supporting Actress for Mary Badham, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Music, and Best Picture—and won three: Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) for Foote, Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Black-and-White), and the aforementioned Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was a box-office behemoth, earning more than ten times its budget. After watching To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, Lee gushed, "I can only say that I am a happy author. They have made my story into a beautiful and moving motion picture. I am very proud and grateful."
Since then, To Kill a Mockingbird has become one of the most beloved American films ever made. In 1995, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The American Film Institute’s esteemed “100 Years...100 Movies” list ranked To Kill a Mockingbird as the 34th best American film ever made in 1998, and 25th in 2007 on its 10th Anniversary list. In 2005, the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s timeless theme of social justice, its masterful cinematography, its wondrous portrait of childhood, and its tour de force performances all contribute to its enduring popularity. While it is always a risk to faithfully adapt a classic novel to the film medium, it certainly paid off for To Kill a Mockingbird—both the film and novel versions have left their indelible impact on the world, and will continue to do so for many years to come.