Adaptation is very difficult. And to move from one form, a novel say, to another, like film, is even more difficult. Each form carries its own rules and structure. And within each form achieving a high level of expression requires different techniques and a different kind of storytelling. Coleridge once said that great literary criticism is a poem in response to a poem. With adaptation, the same is true. So, the film of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is quite a masterpiece of both storytelling as a film and of adaptation.
If you speak to most lawyers of my generation and before, I am almost 59, the novel of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD often serves as an inspiration…both for lawyering and for the quiet, gentle, active nobility of spirit and deed for which men strive. Having just reviewed the wonderful documentary HEY, BOO about the novel, film and the life of Harper Lee, it seemed fitting, actually necessary, to review the film of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
I had not seen this wonderful film in many years. The artifice and style of the time made it seem quaint to me when I was a young, arrogant actor. Well, now that I am older and slightly less arrogant, I was startled by the immediacy and contemporary quality of the film, the acting and the story. Of course, there are some moments that seem “old fashioned,” but overall this film far exceeds so much of contemporary filmmaking.
What can lawyers learn from this film? Gregory Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, is the man who defends people no one else will defend. The neighbor, beautifully played by Rosemary Murphy, says something like, “There are people who do all the things none of us wants to do but that need doing…your father, Atticus, is one of those people.” That character trait is what inspires so many lawyers. And yet there is something else to be learned here. Something about telling a story.
What struck me most watching the film this time was how much silence there is. Between characters, within scenes, within exchanges. What is left out, what is not said and not shown has so much impact. The space in between. Silence and gesture where language is felt by us, the audience. The filmmakers have allowed room for the audience to fill in the emotional and narrative story by leaving out words.
Even in the filmmaking itself there is much omitted. It is customary in modern films to usually “turn around” and show the reverse angle in a scene. If we see one person talking, the camera will usually flip so we can see the reaction and watch the other person talking. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD these “reverses” are very rare. We watch the character’s back. We “make up” the response. We hold on the “empty” space of someone’s back or in a wide shot and this allows us, the viewer, to participate; to supply so much of the story. In the silences and in the empty spaces the listener, the audience, the jury, fills in the story.
Of course, this requires a lot from the storyteller. Leading up to and away from these silences, these “empty” spaces, the story must be succinct, compelling and strong. Active, in both an emotional and narrative sense. And if you have created such a story, then you must learn to welcome and value the silence.
TIP: Are you letting the jury particpate and become involved? Do you value the silence and use the empty space as part of your story?