“Mockingbird” — Stage and Screen

Kristine and I just watched the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird a few days after seeing the play. The differences between the film and the stage play are instructive. In the film, the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, has maybe ten lines. In Sorkin’s play, she is one of the leading figures. Sorkin’s Calpurnia is more like the sharp, observent, simmering Calpurnia in Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, which, ironically, Lee wrote before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman got mostly mixed reviews, but I think it’s two-thirds of a very good book. (I felt it fell down in its last third.)
Often how a story is told, retold or adapted has to do with the perceived audience or the times. Last year I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and marveled at what a tough, uncompromising piece of work it is. The film version, though well done (directed by Elia Kazan), was softened considerably for the general public. In the original novel, Betty Smith didn’t hesitate to portray the poverty and ugliness of much of the Nolan family’s life. The movie is sentimental almost to the point of nostalgia. From what I can tell, the musical (which Smith helped write) is softer still.
So, something similar has happened to Mockingbird, though Sorkin obviously feels that the story for today had to be tougher than the film, and, for that matter, the novel. I have a few quibbles with lines that don’t sit right (I doubt Bob Ewell would say, “Don’t condescend to me,” or that people were talking about passive-aggression in the 1930s), but there are some canny expansions.
One striking thing I noticed is the differences in how Atticus comes to take Tom Robinson’s case. In the book, Atticus briefly says that Judge Taylor told him, “You’re it,” and assigned him to the defense. For the movie, Horton Foote wrote a scene in which the judge stops by the house and tells Atticus he wants him to take the case. Atticus barely hesitates before saying yes. In Sorkin’s version, the encounter is one of the play’s major scenes. The judge knows the case against Robinson is bullshit and he wants Atticus in there so that there is a chance that Robinson will be acquitted on the merits of the evidence (or lack of) and justice will be served through due process. Atticus resists the appointment, but the judge pretty much compels him to take it as a matter of honor. Atticus and the judge are clearly in league in Sorkin’s version. They may not be flaming liberals by contemporary standards, but they have political convictions that set them apart in that town in the 1930s.
I’ve written before about a novel (and a film) which preceded Mockingbird by more than a decade — William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Like Mockingbird, it’s about a white lawyer in a small Southern defending an innocent black man on a capital charge, and, like Mockingbird, much of it is related from the perspective of a child who idolizes the lawyer. But Faulkner’s version is tougher. Unlike Tom Robinson, who is a saintly, innocent figure, painfully courteous, Lucas Beauchamp is proud and will defer to nobody. He also doesn’t bother protesting his innocence to his white lawyer, Gavin Stevens. It is Stevens’s nephew whom Beauchamp trusts and collaborates with, and it is by the boy’s efforts (acting under instructions from Beauchamp) and the courage of an old white woman (obliquely related to Beauchamp’s late wife) that Beauchamp’s innocence is proved and the real guilty party uncovered. At the end, when Stevens asks Beauchamp why he didn’t tell him the truth about being innocent, the answer he gets is, “Would you have believed me?” Faulkner is saying that, despite Stevens’ undoubted decent sympathies, he’s still part of the problem. The hope lies in the fact that Stevens actually realizes this himself.  He awakens to some of his own prejudices.
I have no doubt that Lee knew Intruder in the Dust. At one point she made a comment about how her town was filling up with people like the Snopes family, and the Snopeses were characters from Faulkner. Whether consciously or not, I think Intruder influenced Mockingbird.

The filmmakers of Mockingbird had hoped to shoot it in Lee’s home town, Monroeville, Alabama, but the town had been so modernized in the years since the story was set that they had to settle for creating an idealized version in Hollywood. The film of Intruder in the Dust, however, was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s home town, on the locations Faulkner had envisioned as he was writing the book. (Faulkner acted as a location scout for the film, in fact, and was very pleased with the way it turned out.) The use of Oxford is one of the great assets of the film, because with the town came hundreds of the townspeople. Their faces during a mob scene are terrifyingly authentic.

But I’m straying from my original thought: that the film and stage adaptations of Mockingbird are the products of two different writers, Horton Foote and Aaron Sorkin, and the differences speak not just to their differences as dramatists but also to the audiences they expected to engage.  And those differences tell us a little something about changes in the audience in the intervening half century or so.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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