Some novels are sacred. At a young age, the right book can make an indelible impression, speaking to us on a variety of emotional and intellectual levels, and often the impact remains etched in our consciousness throughout our lives. 'Catcher in the Rye' is one such book, and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is another, a work of deceptive simplicity yet far-reaching power. Harper Lee's sole literary contribution explores with grace and insight such universal topics as racism, coming of age, tolerance, domestic violence, the binding ties of family, and the unique discoveries of youth, and has earned the author a degree of reverence and renown reserved only for the most elite men and women of letters. The two juvenile characters, six-year-old Scout (the spunky tomboy who narrates the novel) and her 10-year-old brother Jem, are among the most recognizable and beloved in American literature, as is their father, the stoic, honorable, courageous, wise, yet tender Atticus Finch, a widowed attorney who passionately defends a black man accused of rape by a white woman in a prejudiced, small-minded Alabama town in the 1930s. And then there's Boo Radley, the mysterious recluse that both fascinates and frightens the neighborhood children. Such a rich array of personalities and events coalesce to produce that rare piece of fiction that inspires, educates, and entertains without affectation or conceit.
Filming such a book is always, to put it mildly, a tricky endeavor, and the finished product more often than not disappoints the original work's legion of admirers. The 1962 adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' however, is that rare exception, a movie that humbly honors its source and strives to personify the prose as faithfully as possible. Director Robert Mulligan and writer Horton Foote take great care to express the novel's ideas and themes with a delicate hand, so they gently emanate from the dialogue and characters. We may not be able to identify with all the circumstances depicted, but the spirit and values of those who inhabit the scenario strike several personal chords and touch us deeply. And the film weaves such a deft and seductive spell, it's difficult not to become completely invested in the action on screen and feel a part of the family and community that reside there.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' is all about integrity and restraint. Understatement defined Mulligan's direction throughout his 35-year career, and he's a master at capturing small moments with a minimum of fuss. Lingering on reaction shots for just that extra second or two deepens their meaning and helps lend his stories a languorous quality that mirrors real life. Even scenes of suspense in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are never overwrought or overplayed. The sequence in which Scout (Mary Badham), Jem (Phillip Alford), and their nerdy friend Dill (John Megna), a character based on the young Truman Capote (a childhood pal of Lee's), attempt to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) by creeping up to his dilapidated home one dark summer night possesses all the elements of a taut thriller, but lacks any fancy tricks or manipulative touches. Likewise, the courtroom scenes exude a sober weight based on thoughtful argument, not wild histrionics. Some might categorize 'To Kill a Mockingbird' as slow and too methodical, but ideas and feelings need time to sink in and percolate, and Mulligan provides us that luxury.
If Mulligan and Foote are the film's heart and mind, then the first-rate cast is its soul. Mention actor Gregory Peck and the first movie that springs to mind is 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' Atticus Finch is such a vital part of Peck, it's sometimes difficult to differentiate the man from the role. Resolute yet flexible, firm yet understanding, passionate yet controlled, Peck personifies all the pieces of Atticus, and his performance is a marvel. Subtle, controlled, and brimming with texture, it's both finely etched and utterly natural, and justly earned the star a Best Actor Academy Award. (The film also won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Score.)
Of course, much of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' hinges on the children. The story is seen through their wide eyes, and their intrepid explorations, small yet meaningful discoveries, gradual maturation, and ardent desire to understand the complexities of the adult world frame the film. Unaffected portrayals are essential to maintain the slice-of-life realism, and all the juveniles comply. Their expressive faces always register the right amount of emotion, and their bickering, bonding, and thoughtful reflection never seem forced. In addition, Duvall, in his film debut, is achingly sincere as the gentle giant, Boo Radley. Without the benefit of a single line, he plays the picture's most difficult role, conveying an enormous range of feeling and providing perfectly pitched closure to a richly woven tale.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' is that rare literary adaptation that doesn't demean its source. The book, of course, still reigns supreme, but with reverence and perception Mulligan's film captures its flavor as it explores a tapestry of potent themes. At its most basic level, it's a simple portrait of a middle-class family in a small Southern town. Some of the circumstances they confront are extraordinary, others mundane. Sage advice is dispensed, mischief is made, and relationships change and deepen. The best and worst of mankind is exposed, as characters both overcome and succumb to fear, vengeance, and prejudice. As Atticus says, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, and this great movie makes us appreciate the small and big moments of life, and how both can impact us equally. It's truly one of the most human films ever made.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'To Kill a Mockingbird' comes attractively packaged in a limited edition digibook that contains both Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film, as well as an insert with instructions on how to download a digital copy. The 46-page book is printed on high-quality stock, and opens with a heartfelt introduction by Peck's widow, Veronique. There's also a tribute to Peck by author Harper Lee; selected pages of the shooting script, complete with Peck's handwritten notations; five pages of storyboards; a collection of lobby card and international poster reproductions; excerpts from the film's press book; several rare photos; reproductions of congratulatory letter and telegrams from such icons as Fred Astaire, Charleton Heston, Gene Kelly, and Lauren Bacall; and two pages devoted to Peck's Legends of Hollywood stamp. Video codec is 1080p/VC-1 and default audio is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' 'Pariah,' and 'Being Flynn,' as well as a promo for Focus Features, precede the full-motion menu with music. Disc load time is slow, but the content is worth the wait.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a clean, lush 1080p/VC-1 black-and-white transfer that's "digitally remastered and fully restored from high resolution 35mm original film elements." As one of the inaugural releases in Universal's 100th Anniversary Collector's Series, this disc possesses a lofty quality quotient that bodes well for subsequent entries in the line. It also vastly improves upon the previous Legacy Series DVD, which looks grainy and flat by comparison, and is littered with faint print marks and scratches.
The Blu-ray hits a homerun right off the bat. The innovative opening titles sequence features crisp close-ups of keepsake items, superior contrast, and a wide gray scale that lends depth and detail to the image. Once the action begins, the picture exudes a pleasing brightness that reflects the hot, lazy days of Maycomb's summer. Light grain preserves the film-like feel, yet never intrudes, and nary a speck of dirt or errant scratch mar the pristine source material.
Black levels are rich and inky, but crush is never an issue, even during nocturnal scenes. Close-ups are sparingly employed, but always make a statement, especially those of Boo Radley. Peck's chiseled features are well rendered, and the children look appropriately fresh-faced and innocent. Background elements are always easy to discern, and no banding, noise, edge enhancement, or other annoyances creep into the picture. A few instances of softness here and there keep this effort from earning a perfect score, but it's impossible to imagine this film looking any better or receiving a more loving treatment.
The addition of a lossless audio track also boosts this release, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies clear, nicely nuanced sound that subtly complements this quiet film. Any age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, have been erased, allowing us to appreciate the many instances of clean silence that add power and impact to several scenes. Surround activity is limited, but Elmer Bernstein's unobtrusive music score fills the room with pure tones and lovely tonal depth. Stereo separation up front is also delicately mixed, with atmospherics, such as chirping birds and rustling leaves, enjoying fine presence.
Dialogue is always well prioritized, but some of the townsfolk and children possess enough of a Southern twang and lazy drawl to make some exchanges difficult to comprehend. Effects are also distinct, and broad dynamic range allows the track to put forth solid audio without any distortion or stress. This isn't a flashy presentation, but it serves the film well, and its invisibility is one of its major strengths.
A comprehensive supplemental package complements this excellent movie, celebrating the material, actor Gregory Peck, and the restoration of many Universal classics. All the extras from the previous Legacy Series DVD have been ported over to this release, with the exception of 12 oversized, beautifully appointed postcards, featuring an introduction by Harper Lee and several examples of international poster art. These items are reproduced within the body of the digibook, but if you want tangible elements, you'll have to remove the envelope from the DVD before discarding it.
This year marks Universal's 100th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and this superior release will make any serious film buff want to celebrate both events. Robert Mulligan's thoughtful, intensely affecting adaptation of Harper Lee's immortal novel receives the red carpet Blu-ray treatment, thanks to Universal's meticulous restoration. Top-notch video, excellent audio, and an absorbing array of worthwhile supplements - all housed in a handsome, beefy digibook - revitalize this classic tale of discovery, enlightenment, and familial bonding. Though not as powerful as it surely must have seemed in 1962, Lee's story can still teach us volumes about tolerance, racial harmony, and standing up for what is just and true. Such words as "rewarding" and "inspiring" don't begin to describe this quiet film that speaks softly, but carries a big stick, and contains arguably the finest performance of Gregory Peck's illustrious career. Without a doubt, this is a must own release. Watch it with your kids, watch it by yourself, but by all means experience 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'