Conventional wisdom holds that one should always read the book, then see the movie, but for much of my formative years, I didn’t follow this wisdom. I saw quite a lot of movies from the Classic Era (1920s through mid-1960s), and if I liked such a movie and learned it was based on a book, I would make a point of tracking down the book. I knew that as much as I’d loved the movie, the book would give me more — more details about and more insights into a story that had already engaged my interest. So it was that I read Harper Lee’s wonderful novel To Kill a Mockingbird after I’d already seen and fallen in love with the 1962 film. My experience with the novel in no way diminished my love for the movie, but I have to love the book a little more, because, well, it gives me more.
So, five things I love about To Kill a Mockingbird:
First, it led to the movie that turned out to be the gold standard by which all book-to-film adaptations should be judged.
We all know Gregory Peck is the definitive Atticus Finch; he was Harper Lee’s first and only choice for the role. He’s also the only bankable name in the cast. The filmmakers chose to surround him with less well-known but no less superb actors who fit their roles to perfection: Frank Overton as Sheriff Heck Tate (who shines in his final scene with Peck), Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, Rosemary Murphy as Miss Maudie Atkinson, Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, and Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell. (A note on Wilcox as Mayella: having read the book, she knew that Mayella had been sexually abused by her father, and while the movie couldn’t state that detail outright, the actress seized upon it and let it inform her portrayal, so that every bit of body language makes Mayella’s history of abuse clear.) Robert Duvall was so good in his five minutes of screen time as Boo Radley that he became a star thereafter. The children who play the Finch siblings, Mary Badham and Philip Alford, were not child actors but “civilians.” None of them had any glamorous-Hollywood veneer, which is why they made such convincing denizens of Maycomb County, AL. Also, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score simply could never be improved upon — one of the biggest reasons why any effort to remake this film would be a foolhardy blunder of Charge of the Light Brigade proportions.
Scout Finch is a smart, funny, curious, utterly endearing child protagonist.
We all remember her great moments from the movie: her attack on poor freckled Walter Cunningham and her subsequent embarrassment of him at the lunch table; her innocent thwarting of the lynch mob at the jailhouse; her bobbing along in her HAM costume as her brother valiantly tries to keep her upright; and her final encounter with Boo Radley. Yet some of my favorite Scout moments sadly didn’t make it into the film, namely her interactions with her Aunt Alexandra, who is determined to cure Scout of her tomboyish ways and turn her into a lady, and her rebuke of her beloved Uncle Jack, who has punished her in haste for quarreling with her cousin before bothering to find out her side of the story. (He actually has to admit she’s right!) She’s hotheaded and quick to anger, yet she’s so darn likeable throughout, as she makes the mistakes curious children are bound to make and learns by observing and questioning the world around her. She’s one of the first fictional heroines to win my heart.
The book develops Scout’s female mentors.
If you’ve only seen the movie, here’s what you don’t know about Calpurnia, the Finches’ African-American cook: she’s a wise, intelligent, competent woman whose authority is respected in the Finch household and who shows Scout there is “some skill involved in being a girl.” (Thankfully the bit where she chastises Scout for her treatment of young Walter does make it onto the screen, at least.) Miss Maudie Atkinson also sets Scout a strong example of kindness, understanding, and even confidence, as she refuses to give others permission to make her feel inferior; when a gang of religious zealots tells her that she and her flowers are going to Hell, she proudly laughs it off. Scout may not have friends among the girls in her school, but the book easily passes the Bechdel Test thanks to her interactions with Calpurnia and Maudie. In the end, she learns as much from these strong women as she does from her remarkable father, Atticus.
Childhood from days gone by is vividly portrayed.
Once, when I taught the novel to a small group of students, one of them complained about the scenes in which Scout, her brother Jem, and their precocious neighbor Dill (modeled on Truman Capote) played outdoors without supervision, calling the scenes “unrealistic.” My heart nearly broke, and I still sigh at what this criticism says about the world we live in now, where kids like Scout, Jem, and Dill could never make the neighborhood their playground without fear of “stranger danger,” and might not want to in any case, being too busy with their video game consoles to imagine and act out the life stories of the mysterious Radley family. No one, I’d like to think, would welcome a return to the unthinkingly racist adult world Harper Lee portrays, but when I read about the fearless, imaginative play in which the three children engage, I can’t help but regret the growing sense of threat toward young ones in our present day, and feel grateful for the privilege of imagining myself a youngster once again and playing with Scout, Jem, and Dill for a little while.
It’s a classic that melds artistry with humanism.
In a popular culture where cynicism is all the rage, edginess is often assumed to be synonymous with intelligence, and nihilism is often coded as “realism,” To Kill a Mockingbird, with its insight and humor and deft handling of sentiment without lapsing into sentimentality, offers hope in the face of despair and even evil. (It’s worth noting that none of the novel’s characters, with the exception of the repugnant Bob Ewell, are 100% evil.) The book appeals to what is best in us, even though terrible things happen within its pages. I’m convinced this is a big reason why the novel continues to be not only read but re-read. Every now and then, when we’re tired of seeing humanity at its worst with nary a flicker of light in the darkness, it does us good to greet Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, Maudie, Heck Tate, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson as old friends.