LONG BEACH—As composer Elmer Bernstein wrote the score for the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird,’ he struggled with its many issues until he got to the heart of it.
“Once I got the (idea) that all of these things were seen through the eyes of children, it got a little easier,’ Bernstein told a crowd of at least 350 Wednesday night at the Center Theater.
Bernstein shared his experience on the 1962 movie at “Reflections of Mockingbird,’ one in a series of events for Long Beach Reads One Book, which continues into next month.
He was joined by actors from the movie Mary Badham, who played Jean Louise “Scout’ Finch, and Brock Peters, who played defendant Tom Robinson who later spoke on a panel about the making of the film and its historical perspective.
“We were talking about the film long before there was a screenplay,’ said Bernstein, who talked about four musical selections from the film, including the main title, two scenes from the middle and the end theme.
The score came to life later Wednesday night through the sounds of flutes, piano and violins of the 45-member Poly High School Chamber Orchestra.
“I’m sure the city of Long Beach has a lot to be proud of, but this orchestra should be one of them,’ said Bernstein, 80, who won an Oscar in 1967 for “Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and is currently nominated for an Oscar for the movie “Far From Heaven.’ “This is the first time I’ve heard this music, and I’m not conducting it.’
The composer said that the title theme was originally continuous, but later changed to include sounds of Scout playing, to include a child’s perspective, he said.
“The children were kind of living a mystery,’ said Bernstein, who said the score was “married’ to the film. “Boo Radley is a mystery … So that there’s a mystery about it and that’s what we try to reflect in (the music).’
Before some musical selections, actors Badham and Peters described how the scenes were complimented by the score.
The final music selection, the end theme, evoked a theme of going back to the beginning of the story, Bernstein said.
“(It’s) the feeling that it’s never going to end, that life goes on,’ he said.
The music was a magical part of experiencing the movie, said many on a panel during the second part of the presentation.
“I think it has an extraordinary range and motion for film music,’ said Stephen Peck, son of Gregory Peck, who played the part of Atticus Finch.
Badham and Peters said the music still makes them cry.
“I do cry (because) the music is tied to so many memories,’ Peters said.
Badham recalled seeing a recent screening of the movie and telling her daughter to be prepared with a large stack of napkins.
“Brock and I held on through the whole film and boo-hooed through the whole thing,’ she recalled. “We didn’t have a (napkin) left.’
Claudia Durst Johnson, who has studied “Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee, said the movie and book remain powerful to this day because the characters sustain the story and are, in a sense, American icons.
“Also, I think we’re longing for heroes,’ she said. “Atticus and Tom Robinson are both heroes, tragic heroes.’
The event was moderated by Press-Telegram executive editor Rich Archbold and presented through the Long Beach Public Library Foundation.