PJAS 16-2

Constante Gonzáles Groba
Is It Gender or Is It Race? To Kill a Mockingbird and Its Film Adaptation
Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 16 (2022), pp. 11-28

Abstract: This article begins by exploring the national climate in which Lee’s novel appeared, at the height of the civil rights movement in the South, which had a crucial impact on its composition and reception. The major film studios were not initially interested in the novel, but independent filmmakers Alan Pakula (producer) and Robert Mulligan (director), influenced by existentialism, felt attracted to stories with strong dramatization over the spectacular. The film is famously characterized by the voice-over narration of the adult Scout, which embodies a paradoxical duality of perspective: the events are seen from the perspective of the young Scout but described in the language of a mature and articulate adult Scout. In the novel, the destabilization of gender norms is the central theme, and the protagonist is clearly Scout going through the pains of growing up female in a South with very strict definitions of gender roles. This dimension is not prominent in the film version, which gave in to the demands of the Hollywood star system and made the girl’s father, played by Gregory Peck, the main character, and made racism the main issue. The article concludes with a necessary reconsideration of Atticus Finch, subjected in recent years to the complaint that both the novel and the film convey the historically inaccurate message that heroic whites, instead of blacks, were the leaders of the anti-racist movements of the twentieth century. Atticus Finch no doubt remains tied to the accommodating values of his class and he never openly questions the structural racism of which he himself is part, but moral horizons of previous eras are often narrow in comparison with our own, and we should avoid the excesses of presentism and maintain the historical perspective that allows us to celebrate the courage and success of fictional white liberals like Atticus and real ones like Harper Lee herself, who could only speak as whites, not as black victims. Despite all its limitations, Mockingbird did contribute to making hearts and minds reconsider race in America, and it remains a socially and historically important film. Thus, we should at least acknowledge its merit in taking a stand during a period when many films avoided controversial racial matters.

Keywords: Harper Lee; To Kill a Mockingbird; Atticus Finch; Scout Finch; southern gender roles; race

DOI: 10.7311/PJAS.16/2022.02

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