As a long time reader, it may surprise some that I never read Harper Lee’s 1960 best-selling novel To Kill A Mockingbird. I offer no excuse, really. I know a lot of people who've read in high school, where even today, it’s still considered mandatory, especially for AP students. But for some reason, the book -and the film version- remained unread, unseen. That changed this past week when PBS aired on their American Masters series, a documentary on the novel.
Of course, the funny part was, I owned a copy of the novel, bought it a few years ago. Like so many books that I buy, I knew eventually I would get to it. Granted, it was not high on my list, but I was going to get to it. I’ve been reading The Count of Monte Cristo for the last few weeks, and am finding myself struggling through the 19th Century prose. I’ve read where some readers will give up on books that don’t hold their interest, but I feel once I start one, I have to finish it. But Cristo –in this Modern Library version I’m reading is 1426 pages, and I’m only 210 pages in after about three weeks or so of reading. Logically, I guess, with all else I have yet to read –and just got the new Christopher Moore title- I should just abandon the book (like I did Charles Dickens). But I like a challenge, so I will continue to read Dumas, but may take time to read something else, like Moore (and at the end of April bring’s Stephen King’s next Dark Tower book, plus a Star Trek book I do want to read).
So after the PBS special aired, which I thought was fabulous, I got it into my head that I finally needed to read the novel (and a day later, I was in Target and saw the Blu-ray version on sale for $14.95, so I purchased that). Needless to say, I devoured the novel in a day.
I can’t review a book that has been done so much better by others over the last 50 years, but I will say while the novel is basically an old fashion tale of the happenings in a small town in Alabama, it’s themes of courage, family and the ugliness of racism resonates even today. And by telling the story through the eyes of a child, a brilliant stroke if there was any, it’s able to bring its metaphors sharply into focus without being preachy.
Jem, Scout, Dill and Atticus launch off the page, and become living, breathing characters. Through those innocent eyes, we see children trying to comprehend a world that is changing around them, but it’s also a town caught-up in the crossroad of history. Lee’s prose drags you in, forcing you (unintentionally, of course) to re-evaluate the perceptions of people.
As a child, our universe is pretty small. Most of us grew-up where our neighborhood were divided by homes where I parents said this far and no further. And how many of us had a creepy, mysterious how that harbored some person who for reasons we never fully understood then, was a boogeyman? Boo Radley is Jem and Scout’s boogeyman, but we learn that the one we need to be afraid of is not the person we cannot see, but the one that stands in the light of a God’s world.
In 1961, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and on Christmas Day, 1962 the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird was released. As with any adaptation of a novel, there some changes to narrative to fit a films linear nature. And while some subplots and characters are dropped, the adaptation by Horton Foote is close to perfect (he would win a well-deserved Academy Award for it). The performances are perfect, including a brilliant, Oscar winning performance from the legendary Gregory Peck. He acts with the greatest of ease and watching him glide through this movie version is amazing. His ability to teach his children what is right, especially Scout, about the evil of men without condemning them, without sounding preachy, is what makes the difference between a trained actor and someone who reads lines.
The child actors are also extraordinary, with both Phillip Alford (Jem) and Mary Badham (Scout) showing the true innocence some child actors possess; even the late John Megna (who seemed to have the stereotypical Hollywood story of a bad post-childhood life, dying in 1995 at the age of 42 from complications from AIDS) breaths a life into young Dill, even though his character changed much between the page and the screen.
Then there was Brock Peters as the stoic Tom Robbins and in his film debut, Robert Duvall as the mysterious Boo Radley.
So yes, it took a long time for me to read the novel and see the movie. And while I’ve been reading since I was 14, it just sometimes takes me a while to set my mind to something like this (especially since I have a tendency to read more popular fiction than anything else). Yes, PBS’ American Masters finally got me to read the book, and a trip to Target had the movie on sale, but I always knew I would get to them.
I’m happy that I finally did.