The Film Version of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Harper Lee's Classic Coming-of-Age Masterpiece on Film

Atticus Stands Guard
Atticus Stands Guard. (c) Universal

“It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” - Atticus Finch

It’s rare that a movie captures the magic of a ​great book, and yet holds its own as a masterpiece of cinema. To Kill a Mockingbird does just that.

Set in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird  raises great questions of racism, poverty, ignorance and injustice with enormous grace and emotional power. Moral and deeply humane, the movie is a classic coming-of-age story of childhood innocence lost in the segregated American south.

The Plot

In hot, dusty Maycomb County, lawyer Atticus Finch ( Gregory Peck) takes on the case of an innocent Black man accused of assaulting a White girl. He’s up against the entrenched racial power structure of the Old South, fierce taboos against interracial sex, and the pride of the girl’s impoverished and violent family.

The story is told from the perspective of Finch’s daughter Scout (Mary Badham), whose character narrates the film in flashback), her brother Jem and their friend Dill (modeled on author Harper Lee’s childhood friend, writer  Truman Capote.) The children are fascinated by the decaying old Radley place, where Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his film debut) is a recluse. A grown man who has not left the house for years, Boo is a bogeyman to the children ---until he begins to leave them small gifts at the risk of displeasing his abusive father.

Hounded at school because their father is defending a Black man, the children watch the trial from the Blacks-only balcony of the courtroom and begin to see Atticus in a new light. Both they and their father are put in real danger as the trial progresses, and the two story lines come together as the tension rises.

The Cast of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Peck plays a hero who’s such a perfect human being he’d be a little hard to believe if not for Peck’s forthright, understated performance. He’s intelligent and modest, a soft-spoken man of unquestionable integrity devoted to the cause of justice. He’s also a devoted single father and the best shot in the county. It’s a good thing the studio’s original pick for the role, ​Rock Hudson didn’t work out. Peck won a well-deserved, long overdue Oscar.

Badham, delightful as the willful tomboy Scout, was nominated for her amazingly natural and engaging performance but lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to ​Patty Duke as Helen Keller in ​The Miracle Worker. Brock Peters is wonderful as the falsely accused Tom Robinson, terrified, but clinging to his own pride and the truth. A terrific ensemble cast brings the entire town to life with a great sense of place. And although Duvall has only a few moments of screen time as the damaged Boo Radley, he’s unforgettable.

The Bottom Line

Beautifully shot in black and white, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece that everybody should see, and no serious movie collector should be without.

The film celebrates the power of innocence to turn back evil but acknowledges that true justice is often impossible to reach. The great achievement of To Kill a Mockingbird is its unsentimental appeal to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” It shows us who we want to be, and who we deserve to be, even when we fail.

Recommended for You

If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, you may like other Gregory Peck movies, including Gentleman's Agreement, and other movies that deal with the issue of race, including A Patch of Blue, A Raisin in the Sun, or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

'To Kill a Mockingbird' at a Glance:

Year: 1962, Black and White
Director: Robert Mulligan
Running Time: 129 minutes
Studio: Universal