By Bill Buchanan
For those who are planning to attend the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa’s Aug. 21 screening of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you are in for a treat. I do not mean just the movie itself, which, of course, is a terrific film — a classic that was far ahead of its time. You are in for a treat seeing one of the movie’s stars —Mary Badham, who will do a Q&A for the movie prior to its showing. Ms. Badham, who was age 10 when she made the movie, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the youngest actress ever nominated in the category at that time.
I developed an instant crush on “Scout,” the lively young daughter of Atticus Finch. I don’t remember exactly when I saw the film for the first time — I was probably around 8 or 10. But I remember three things that struck me immediately — I didn’t understand why the girl was named Scout; I could not believe that she got away with calling her daddy by his first name; and Scout was tomboyish but very, very cute.
I had the good fortune a few years ago to meet Ms. Badham in person. I was active with Theatre Tuscaloosa, which sponsored the Alabama Stage and Screen Hall of Fame. Ms. Badham was a guest at two events, one in 2000, and again in 2001. You would have thought we were her guests rather than the other way around. She was friendly, charming and absolutely delightful. And still very cute.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was a rare “double” — both the book and the movie were outstanding. They are both classics. So many times a great book is made into an average or even disappointing movie. In my opinion, there are very few cases where the movie is as good as the book, and almost none that are actually better. For me, four exceptions come to mind.
The first is “The Shawshank Redemption,” from the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” I don’t know that it is entirely fair to say the movie was better than the book. The book was a novella, very readable, but pretty short. The movie, while being true to the book, goes into much more detail and really fleshes out the characters. The narrator, “Red,” is given particular attention. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that “Red” is played by Morgan Freeman, one of my favorite actors. I would listen raptly to Morgan Freeman reading the phone book for three hours. I thought he was just incredible in this role. The movie also does an outstanding job of providing many memorable minor characters that enhance the richness of the film without diluting the main characters or story.
Next on the list would be “The Godfather.” I read the book long before I saw the movie, which came out a few years later. I thought the book was pretty good, but some of this had to do with my being in high school when I read it. When I reread the book as an adult I tended to agree with the reviewer who said something to the effect that Mario Puzo wrote the first 100 pages of the book, but typed the rest of it. “The Godfather” also has the distinction of being one of the few movies where the sequel was as good (some would say better) than the original. I loved them both.
Then there is “Terms of Endearment.” In this case, I saw the movie first. I enjoyed it initially, saw it a few more times, and liked it even better. I had seen the movie probably four or five times before I finally read the book. What a disappointment — and I, like Larry McMurtry, felt the movie was so much better. James L. Brooks was not only the director, but was also credited with the screenplay. He did a fine job with both. Another big reason for the movie outshining the book was the strength of the cast. What talent with Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Debra Winger, Jeff Daniels, and John Lithgow. Even I could probably make a good movie with that cast. But in my mind, Shirley MacLaine’s performance really stands out. Her character drives the movie, and lifts it up several notches. She certainly deserved the Academy Award she received for Best Actress.
Finally, there is “Forrest Gump.” I will never write a novel, much less one that will become a major motion picture. But if I ever do, I want the guy who adapted Winston Groom’s novel to adapt mine to the silver screen. That guy is a genius. When I saw the movie, I thought it was wonderful — touching, humorous and just plain fun.
Then I read the book, which I thought was meandering, and often silly with several cartoon-like characters. To me, the book and movie are two different animals, and the movie is much better. In preparing to write this column, I looked at a couple of reviews of the book which touted it as “a superb novel,” stated that it was “unfortunate that most people are more familiar with the movie,” and added, “it is not by any stretch a substitute for the book.”
Maybe that guy read a different book than I did. OK, readers, do you have others for the list? Let us hear from you about what movies you think are as good as the book — or perhaps even better. Leave a comment here.