• Michael Rickard II

"The Challenges of Adapting a Novel into a Film: Robert Mulligan's 'To Kill a Mockingbi


Editor's Note: This is an essay I wrote two years ago about Robert Mulligan's wonderful adaptation of Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Desmond and Hawkes argue that the novel's second theme deals with courage. This theme is examined several times in the film including the scene where Atticus tells the children not to argue with those besmirching him for representing Tom Robinson, when Atticus stands up to the lynch mob outside the jail where Tom is being held and when Atticus refuses to be goaded by Ewell into a fight.

Atticus shows his courage repelling a would-be lynch mob.

While the theme of understanding someone by examining their point of view is explored with the Mrs. Dubose character, the film abandons a significant subplot involving courage. While the film has a brief scene where Atticus talks to Mrs. Dubose with respect despite her hostility, the subplot where Jem reads to Mrs. Dubose while she's trying to fight her morphine addiction is eliminated.

Atticus is a peaceful man, but he will use force when necessary.

Director Robert Mulligan condenses several scenes from the novel in order to trim the film's running time. For example, the novel contains passages of the pageant Scout attends (and falls asleep at). The film by comparison only shows Scout and Jem leaving the school before the film's dramatic confrontation between the children and Bob Ewell. These cuts do not diminish the film in any significant way, unlike the previous mentioned cuts of material that could have explored the theme of tolerance and courage. A second example is how Robert Mulligan condenses the three years depicted in the book until a year with "summers on both sides" (104). It can be argued that Mulligan's compression of time actually improves the novel as the three years depicted in the novel don't show any significant changes to the characters such as the maturity that sometimes comes with age.

Scout's new friend

To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a close to intermediate adaptation. There is a strong argument that although the film captures the essential plot, theme, and characters, there are enough characters and scenes cut from the novel to make it an intermediate rather than close adaptation. Given the challenges posed by adapting a 384 page book into a feature film, Robert Mulligan overcomes these challenges and captures the film's core story and themes.

Work Cited

Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. McGraw Hill, 2005.

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