immortality: harper lee

Harper Lee, author of one truly great novel, momentarily put aside her penchant for privacy and spoke briefly with a reporter.

To Kill A Mockingbird remains the only book Lee has ever written. I wonder if I wrote a book as perfect as that, if I'd be satisfied to never write another word.

Among the many reasons I love Mockingbird is its great accessibility. As a writer and appreciator of young-adult fiction, I've always thought the best young-adult books were not specifically written for young people. They are just great books that are also straightforward and engaging enough for a young reader. I can name dozens of books that fit the bill, but Mockingbird would be my first example.

To Kill A Mockingbird is also one of my favourite movies. To my mind it's one of a very few films to do a great novel justice. Horton Foote, who wrote the screenplay, is also an excellent writer, and as prolific as Lee is reclusive.

A six-degrees-of-separation note: Horton Foote's son, Horton Jr., owns one of my favourite spots in New York, Tavern on Jane. You can usually find him behind the bar, serving drinks, chatting with the regulars, and welcoming all.

Here's Harper Lee at the annual essay contest that pays tribute to her work.


Wrye said...

Loved the book, but I'm not sure the film has aged as well as we would wish.

Roger Ebert looked at it in 2001, and makes the argument that

The novel, which focuses on the coming of age of three young children, especially the tomboy Scout, gains strength from her point of view: It sees the good and evil of the world through the eyes of a six-year-old child. The movie shifts the emphasis to the character of her father, Atticus Finch, but from this new point of view doesn't see as much as an adult in that time and place should see.

A small change, we'd think, but it has a great impact on the film:

The courtroom scenes are the most celebrated in the movie; they make it perfectly clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, that no rape occurred, that Maybelle came on to Robinson, that he tried to flee, that Bob Ewell beat his own daughter, and she lied about it out of shame for feeling attracted to a black man. Atticus' summation to the jury is one of Gregory Peck's great scenes, but of course the all-white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty anyway. The verdict is greeted by an uncanny quiet: No whoops of triumph from Bob Ewell, no cries of protests by the blacks in the courtroom gallery. The whites file out quickly, but the blacks remain and stand silently in honor of Atticus as he walks out a little later. Scout and her brother sat up with the blacks throughout the trial, and now a minister tells her: "Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father's passin'."

The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch. I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: "The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn't stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man."

That Scout could believe it happened just like this is credible. That Atticus Finch, an adult liberal resident of the Deep South in 1932, has no questions about this version is incredible. In 1962 it is possible that some (white) audiences would believe that Tom Robinson was accidentally killed while trying to escape, but in 2001 such stories are met with a weary cynicism.

It's worth a read, I think--Ebert wrote it when TKIM was selected for a city-wide reading program. Interesting stuff. Made me think about the book afresh.

tomlaureld@yahoo.com said...

I read the book first and then saw the movie. Both are incredibly great and very powerful.
Two of my favorite’s combinations the (book and movie) are The Prince of Tides and Cannery Row (I read the books first.)

laura k said...

Roger Ebert looked at it in 2001, and makes the argument

I disagree with him entirely. I think the movie holds up beautifully. And most of it is also told from Scout's POV.

when TKIM was selected for a city-wide reading program.

In Chicago! That was the coolest thing. I believe that started in Seattle. New York tried to imitate it, but couldn't get it off the ground. (No consensus could be reached. Of course!)