How to Remake To Kill A Mockingbird

Rewatched To Kill a Mockingbird this weekend. My wife had never seen it, and I hadn’t seen it years.

Apparently my memory of the movie is vastly different from what’s actually there.

For example, I don’t remember Scout’s older brother, Jem, at all. Ditto Boo Radley and his plotline.

In my remembering, the movie is basically Scout and her father talking about the evils of prejudice, then a courtroom battle where Atticus defends Tom – accused because of his skin color, and nothing else – then wins the case, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is not what happens at all. The movie spends most of its time following Scout and Jem, not in the courtroom. Atticus loses the case, and Tom commits suicide by cop. Boo Radley emerges from hiding to kill another man, and gets away with it because the Sheriff lets him off.

It’s a dark, dark movie, that deals head-on with many of the issues of its time: segregation, the struggle for justice in the face of prejudice, the failure of our system of government to protect minorities against the depredations of the majority.

So how could it be updated?

We could shift the court case from race relations to a different battleground: reproductive rights.

The courtroom case is part of the fallout from a divorce. The couple had two children normally, and was in the middle of trying to have a third with the help of a fertility clinic when they split. The husband wants to keep the multiple fertilized embryos they have from their time at the clinic, while the wife wants to have them destroyed.

Who will get custody of the embryos? Are they property, and so should be divided between the couple? Or are they children, and so should be given to the parent that will best care for them?

To keep things from getting two cliché, we put the husband and wife on opposite sides of the abortion debate as well. The husband is generally pro-choice, but will be tempted to argue that the embryos are children, and so destroying them would be murder. The wife is more religious, and inclined to be against abortion. But she’ll be pushed to argue that the embroys are just property, with a monetary value that she could pay as compensation to the father, so she can dispose of them as she wishes.

Our “Scout” and “Jem” are the couple’s existing two kids. Through them we see the fault lines through the town: the anti-abortion protestors that gather into a mob at one point to try to burn down the fertility clinic, the pro-choice groups that can’t decide whose desires – the man or the woman – should trump the other, the judge that doesn’t want to end up trying two cases for the same divorce.

Our Boo Radley subplot is a woman from the poor part of town that has just discovered she’s pregnant. She’s not married, and the father isn’t around anymore. Should she get an abortion? In the southern town they live in, that’ll mean a long, expensive trip to the nearest large city. But keeping the child will mean an even longer, painful pregnancy followed by a very expensive mouth to feed.

The conflicts in this remake will push on multiple issues: abortion rights, women’s rights, the way the law treats the wealthy (the couple that could afford fertility treatments) differently from the poor (the woman that can’t afford to keep or get rid of the baby).

None of the solutions will be obvious or straightforward, despite the rigid way these issues are usually viewed. In fact, by filming the remake in black and white, we can visually undermine the simplistic approach that’s usually taken.

Even when we try to frame the events in black-and-white, we end up with nothing but shades of grey.

Ron Toland @mindbat