The story of bringing To Kill a Mockingbird to the screen is—as with any great film adaptation—the story of an awful movie trying unsuccessfully to be made.
After Universal Studios bought the rights to Lee’s novel, they first offered Rock Hudson the role of Atticus Finch. But producer Alan Pakula didn’t want Hudson for the part; he wanted Gregory Peck. When Pakula sent a copy of the novel to Peck, the tall, dignified Californian read it in one night and accepted, and the studio agreed to finance the film.
With Peck on board, the next piece of business was turning the novel into a screenplay. Pakula offered Harper Lee the chance to write the screenplay, but she wasn’t interested. She pleaded responsibility to her second novel and, with characteristic humility, said she would welcome an experienced screenwriter’s trimming.
When playwright Horton Foote landed the screenplay assignment instead, all worked out for the best. Foote’s upbringing in a small Texas town and knack for scenes of quiet dramatic intensity were ideal for the project. At Pakula’s urging, Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one in order to give the film a sense of unity. As Foote has said, “That decision was very freeing to me. It gave me a chance to explore the architecture that she had created for the novel and not feel that I was ruining anything or tampering with anything essential.” He also heightened the intensity of the novel’s social criticism, reflecting the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.
In spite of these and other significant changes, Lee later praised Foote’s screenplay: “If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic.”
Next, the producers had to find the perfect set for Maycomb, Alabama. They wanted to film in Lee’s native Monroeville, which between the book’s setting in 1935 and the shoot in 1961 had lost much of its architectural charm. Wisely, the design team instead transplanted a street of shotgun shacks to the studio back lot, and recreated Maycomb in Southern California.
The set designers would win Academy Awards for their work, as would Peck and Foote. Nominations went to actress Mary Badham, cinematographer Russell Harlan, and composer Elmer Bernstein. The picture itself lost only to Lawrence of Arabia.
"To Kill a Mockingbird is about bigotry.... For me the most beautiful scene is the moment when the Judge drops by to ask Atticus to take the case in defense of Tom Robinson. Casually put and casually answered, the question needed no answer. The judge knew it would not be possible for Atticus to say no. As for Jem and Scout, they learn a sense of honor from Atticus."