"The Challenges of Adapting a Novel into a Film: Robert Mulligan's 'To Kill a Mockingbi
Editor's Note: Here's an essay I wrote two years ago
on Robert Mulligan's adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Filmmakers face challenges when adapting a novel into a film. The film To Kill a Mockingbird is an example of how a director can use the medium of film to capture a novel's plot and theme while dealing with the challenges of how much of the plot to use, which characters to keep, which to cut out or reduce, what dialogue to include, and how to go about telling the novel's narrative in the cinematic format.
Desmond and Hawkes discuss the challenges of adapting a novel into a feature film. An average film ranges from 80 to 120 minutes in length. A page of screenplay averages one minute of screen time with the average screenplay comprising 120 to 125 pages. This means that a novel of 300 pages could theoretically end up running 300 minutes long. Desmond and Hawkes discuss the film Greed and how its director's determination to film the novel in its entirety led to an eight hour film until the production studio cut it, fearing that no audience would want to sit through an eight hour film.
This challenge results in a director oftentimes cutting elements from the story. A filmmaker may choose to cut out a text's exposition, its characters, scenes, and subplots. A filmmaker also has the options of combining scenes, truncating scenes, and cutting dialogue. Regardless of whether the film is a close, intermediate, or loose adaptation, the filmmaker has to handle these cuts properly or the filmmaker risks damaging the film's continuity and coherence. However, these changes do not mean that the film has to cut large swathes from the novel. Thanks to the unique elements of film, a filmmaker can do in film what a novelist may take numerous pages to convey. For example, an exposition that takes twenty pages in a novel can be handled within a short time in a film. A scene in a novel can also be truncated or even mentioned in passing dialogue.In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, director Robert Mulligan adapts the novel's main characters, a good number of minor characters, and several of the novel' subplots. This allows the filmmaker to follow much of the novel's plot tell the story and to evoke the novel's themes of tolerance and courage. A filmmaker must decide how many of the novel's characters to include in the film. When a novel has over a hundred different characters (such as Gone With the Wind or War and Peace), a director will likely cut out characters, reduce their roles in the film, or combine characters into fewer characters (such as the supporting cast of vampire hunters in the novel Dracula being combined into fewer characters in the novel's various film adaptations). To Kill a Mockingbird eliminates many minor characters as well as several key supporting characters. For example, town gossip Miss Stephanie does not appear nor does Scout's teacher Miss Fisher (although her character is mentioned by Scout). Atticus' family (including his brother Jack and Scout and Jem's Aunt Alexandra) do not appear. Atticus' family plays an important part in the novel, showing how they look down upon him not only for representing people like Tom but because they feel he is incapable of properly raising his children on his own. However Atticus' family do not appear in the film and a small but noticeable subplot of Atticus and his family visiting their relatives for Christmas is absent from the film. A filmmaker also has to decide how to tell a novel's point of view in a film. The filmmaker can choose to go about it anyway she chooses but certain points of view pose specific problems for cinema. As noted by Desmond and Hawkes, a first person point of view can be difficult to capture on film without the use of a voiceover. A voiceover is exactly what Robert Mulligan uses to have an older Scout recall the story from her childhood. Director Robert Mulligan uses cinematic elements to add a touch of cinematic art in the film. This is evident in the film's opening scene in which a montage of children's toys is seen while children's music is played. The director provides foreshadowing here by showing some of the elements that Boo gives the children later on. Anyone who has read the novel will recognize this and anyone who hasn't will likely remember it after the film's end.
A novel's setting can be included in a film or discarded. Sometimes a filmmaker will change a novel set in the past to the present or vice versa. The film To Kill a Mockingbird keeps the novel's southern setting and uses dialogue to establish that it is set in the Great Depression. The visual element available in cinema allows the use of costumes and sets to depict this time frame. The novel includes a character who remembers the Civil War but the film does not include this historical segment. This character plays a small but important role in the film because it reinforces the idea that people have not forgotten the war.
The novel's theme of tolerance is best exemplified by Atticus telling Scout, "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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." This dialogue appears in both the novel and the film and it is an essential piece of dialogue. The film would have suffered tremendously by the absence of a few lines of dialogue. The theme of tolerance is mainly explored through Tom Robinson's trial for rape and the deep prejudices held by the whites against the blacks. Tolerance is also explored through the scene where Scout invites Walter Cunningham Jr. to dinner and she doesn't understand his eating habits. There is also the ongoing subplot of Atticus trying to explain to the children that Boo may be different but that does not justify people alienating him. To Kill a Mockingbird's director cuts several scenes from the novel that explore the theme of tolerance. One of them is the classroom scene where Scout's teacher Miss Fisher has a culture clash with her impoverished students. Another are the scenes where Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill play act what they think Boo and his family have experienced, showing their ignorance and intolerance. Another missing scene is where Jem and Scout go to Calpurnia's church and one of the black parishioners take issue with white children being present. It can be argued that while these scenes may have reinforced the exploration of tolerance, their value was outweighed by the need to keep the film at a reasonable length.
Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. McGraw Hill, 2005.