This was written more than a year ago and buried under my drafts and in other people’s emails. So, thought of posting anyway. On To Kill a Mockingbird, book and film.
The phrase “impressionable age” may have come to be used in a throwaway fashion now. But it still packs in deep meaning and context with respect to the human psyche. We are often shaped by people, surroundings and the atmosphere around us. The self-made man in all his literal definitions is more of an exception than norm. The sensibilities associated with the self would often carry a legacy to an inextricable past, tangible or intangible, ranging from family, friends, neighbourhood, society, city and country. These could be positive and negative, stemming from an invisible tutelage of carefully constructed character or destructively sown but seemingly invisible prejudice. One such story was told of a young girl named Scout Finch in the old town of Maycomb, Alabama that became an instant classic, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Harper Lee.
To put it plainly, there is no hot news to offer you on To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Widely regarded as a masterpiece, the only regret it left in the minds of everyone is that Lee never published another book. A semi-autobiographical account of a part of Lee’s childhood, To Kill a Mockingbird, with its eclectic choice of narrative devices drives home a strong message, without the apparent weight of a moral science lesson, and also doubling up as a book written extremely well and enjoyable to read. It won’t be wrong to say that To Kill a Mockingbird owes its thematic notions and with a bit of generalization, its geographical setting to Mark Twain’s classics. As Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris affirms, “I think you can make the case that all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn“. Truer words have never been said. What more, To Kill a Mockingbird has been revealed to be Superman’s favourite book!
The narrative works as a grown woman recalling her memorable childhood with her father, brother and people of her small town and also as an allegory within the broader context with one of her neighbours – Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley. The mysticism that the Radley house holds for the kids and the neighbourhood stands as a testament to the racial tension and apparent apathy to an alternate point of view in the sleepy town of Maycomb. The issues surrounding the Tom Robinson trial and prejudice affecting the Southern town are symbolic of the bugaboo – of which Boo Radley is an obvious derivative of – in the room that everyone shows great interest in albeit for small talk. There is a beautiful symmetry in Lee’s writing that reveals itself in the end when the Robinson trial reaches its tragic denouement while the allegorical narrative ends with undertones of comedy. As tragicomical as the tale is, the conceit and the eventual lessons behind them feed off each other. It’s Boo Radley’s point of view that Scout regrets not to have considered, while it is the sort of innocent enthusiasm for Boo’s life that the kids had, that the parochial people could have done with. The entity that bridges the gap between these two compelling stories is the anchor – Atticus Finch.
The character of Atticus Finch has always stood for everything right in this world. So much so that it is considered to be more an ideal state than a practical one. Frances McDormand playing Elaine Miller in Almost Famous, exults in pride, “I can’t believe you wanna be Atticus Finch. Oh, that makes me feel so good.” when her son, William, claims he is a fan. That’s the sort of impossible moral standards Atticus Finch was always considered to be a symbol of. As a single father he is the guiding force for his young children and as the lawyer defending Tom Robinson, he is the last man standing up for the rights of the “colored” people of Maycomb. In many ways, Atticus Finch is the steadfast Gandhian that you can ever dream to come across. This can be interestingly anachronistic because Atticus Finch walked around in Gandhi’s shoes at a time when Gandhi’s collective consciousness was still seeping through parts of India. It’s probably right to say that we haven’t got the hang of it yet, and probably never will. On the other hand, far from being an anachronism, Gandhi and Atticus Finch existed somewhat in parallel universes that have had incredibly congruent timelines. Just two years after the book was published, Atticus Finch was immortalized on screen by Gregory Peck in a film that does full justice to the book it is based upon.
The book could have very well been a screenplay within itself. Not to undermine the writing (Horton Foote) and direction (Robert Mulligan) but the film pretty much jumps out of the book as you read. It still required once in a lifetime performances and these come in the form of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout. Scout is the narrator and the one who remains in the sidelines as a diplomatic observer, and this is sketched exquisitely with the children’s actions. It’s always Jem and to an extent Dill who run to the courthouse, eavesdrop on proceedings, invade the no man’s land that is Radley porch. Scout follows them into these adventures but her reactions are more often than not incidental. The precociousness of Scout Finch acts as an antecedent of her behaviour that has a disarming innocence associated with it. The episode of Atticus Finch braving the mob that arrives to lynch Tom Robinson demonstrates this trait as much as serving as a parable contained in the larger story. Scout’s seemingly harmless questions for Mr. Cunningham discomfit the mob and they go away. But this is a perfectly natural attribute for a six year old kid like Scout. This demanded an innocent coming of age portrayal from Mary Badham and she doesn’t miss a note. The twitch of the face just before throwing a tantrum when Jem denies her something, the nervous excitement before first day of school and her tomboyish charms out in the open with other students – there was a reason Gregory Peck, while remaining in touch with Badham for the rest of his life, forever referred to her as Scout. There is also a method to Peck’s acting here. Apart from all the effortless underplaying, it is his use of props. It’s in the way he adjusts his glasses and eventually lets go of them before aiming at the mad dog. It’s how he meticulously picks up his lamp and book to go guard Tom Robinson through the night from the mobs. It is the way he picks up his papers and files and arranges them into his briefcase before walking out of the court. The aforementioned Gandhi-sque idealism that comes across when he remains stoic after Bob Ewell spits on him and his only frustration – much later outside his porch – showing up as an incomplete half-hearted dismissal with his hands.
Last year (2010) was the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird. A number of events were organized around the town of Monroeville, Alabama, the town that Maycomb is modelled on. There were readings, tours and plays organized around town. The courthouse in Monroeville, whose replica was created for the film, stands to this day as a museum for the book. A play based on the book, entirely community produced is shown in the museum that runs to packed houses even today. As we continue to revisit the phenomenon in all its forms, there will be one lasting set of frames from the film that will stay in our minds. Rev. Sykes pats Scout in the courtroom – “Jean Louise. Jean Louise, stand up. Your father is passing.”