‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: The book, the movie, the documentary
A little while back, one of the DVDs arriving in our mail from Netflix was Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, the 2010 documentary which also aired on PBS’s American Masters this past April. It occurred to me that, before viewing the disc, I should probably first read To Kill a Mockingbird, and maybe even watch the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck. I had never read the book before, and although I have seen countless clips as part of Academy Award montages and documentaries, I had never viewed the film, from beginning to end, either. Amy may have seen the movie; she’s not sure. But Amy did not realize that her sister has occasionally called her “Scout” for as long as I can remember. Amy’s tomboy childhood in Wisconsin had some similarity to Scout’s in Alabama, and she pretty closely resembled the young Scout Finch of the movie (Mary Badham) right down to the haircut.
So, beginning the weekend before the Fourth of July and ending the weekend after it, we sat in backyard lawn chairs and in the living room, taking turns reading chapters of the book to each other. Then, this past Saturday, we watched the movie, followed by Hey, Boo. The documentary was my least favorite of the three. It mostly amounted to a kind of infomercial for the book, with people like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw touting it for its greatness. While there was some insight into author Harper Lee and how the book came to be written, I would have preferred much more of that and fewer celebrity accolades. It was good to be reminded that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were friends from childhood on (Capote was the model for her Dill Harris character), a relationship that was soured by her book’s success. It was also interesting to learn that, like Atticus Finch, Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee was a respected lawyer and state legislator, and that the movie’s courthouse was pretty much an exact replica of the Monroe County Courthouse, which is now a Monroeville, Alabama museum. Hey, Boo does note that Harper Lee’s original manuscript was repeatedly rejected, and only found its final form through the help of editor Tay Hohoff over more than two years.
In the documentary, author Diane McWhorter says, “One of the things that’s very powerful and instructive about the book is that even though it’s such an indictment of racism, it’s not really an indictment of the racists, because there’s this understanding there that that was the normal then.” I would urge her to read the book again. In Chapter 24, one of the finest sketches in the book, Harper Lee details a gathering of Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle — heavily powdered and highly superior local church ladies — at the Finches’ house. Their ugly haughtiness gradually pervades the room like a foul odor until the more liberal attendees (basically Miss Maudie Atkinson) are silently seething, and able to compose themselves only through an astounding feat of will. If this chapter is not a virtuoso indictment of racists, I don’t know what is. This, to me, is the deep tragedy of the book. The Finch family is among the exception — a small “handful of people in this town,” as Miss Maudie says — in a place where vicious racism is the rule.
It’s difficult not to despair when you look around and realize that the people in your neighborhood, the people you see every day, hold views intensely at odds with your own. In the book, the Finch children have to steel themselves against neighbors and even relatives who call their lawyer dad a “nigger lover” because he’s representing a black man. These days, such racism may be slightly more covert, but it still exists. It’s not unusual at all to hear innuendo and slurs from people in unguarded moments. Alienation can also stem from issues other than race. Some folks these days have to live with the fact that many of their neighbors don’t think they deserve health care. Here in Wisconsin, steamrolling Republicans have driven their wedge so hard that certain neighbors and relatives are no longer speaking to each other.
This profound alienation is largely lacking from the watered-down movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. As Atticus, Gregory Peck is taciturn, but why this is so is less clear. Oh, the N-word is spoken a couple of times, and there is some brief discussion of race, but for the most part the town seems nice enough. It’s mostly just one super-angry drunken racist, Bob Ewell, causing all the grief. A small lynch mob of movie extras assembles at the Maycomb jail, but their hearts are not in it. The missionary circle scene is not included, nor is Aunt Alexandra at all. The movie does not include Scout and Jem’s visit to the all-black First Purchase African M. E. Church. No explanation is given for how Scout knows Reverend Sykes when he gets her seated in the courthouse balcony. Maybe they hang out?
The movie version of Maycomb comes off almost as innocently as the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life. Because it does indict the town, the book version of To Kill a Mockingbird is much more powerful stuff than the film. To think that it was published in 1960 — exactly 52 years ago tomorrow, preceding so much of the civil rights movement — is downright shocking. Harper Lee did not hold back in this book, and a lot of it must have come as a well-deserved slap in the face to many readers. Lee’s portraits are keen and her humor is subtle The book is at once a cozy reminiscence of small town life, and a horror story of living there. The Finches may be paddling against the current, but as Atticus teaches, that’s the only way to achieve progress, and the only way to maintain self-respect. In a brief discussion, our neighbor — who also recently read the book — remarked on the valuable lessons it contains for young people. That’s true, but perhaps compassion is worthwhile at any age.