The old Art Deco theatre in my hometown has recently been restored, and Friday night Philip and I went to a movie there. The fact that it was a favorite of mine, based on one of my all-time favorite books made it even more special: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, set to the screen by Robert Mulligan in 1962. The critic that introduced the film for us that night said that Ms. Lee had already turned down several movie deals, but that after being on the set of this film for just a few days, she was so convinced that the director and the actors had captured the spirit of her book that she went home content.
It’s an immortal book, and it’s an immortal film. We were also told that Lee was so pleased with Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the quintessential Southern gentleman, Atticus Finch, that she gave him her father’s own pocketwatch as a mark of her gratitude, an act significant in the light of the watch’s role in the movie. Some have said that Lee actually based Atticus on her father, and, frankly, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Almost fifty years after the book came out, Atticus is still revered to the status of a living person for his integrity, his “Christ-like goodness and wisdom”, his courage. When I first read the book as a young teenager, I saw my own lawyer Daddy in Atticus (and I still do!). And I have every reason to think that he saw his Daddy—not a lawyer, but the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in South Georgia. And a living witness to the God-given dignity of every man, woman and child.
I pictured the town that my Daddy grew up in when I read this book—the yellow brick house across the street from my grandmother’s was Miss Maudie’s, and the decrepit old Victorian at the end of the block, complete with creaky boards on the porch and a yard full of weeds, was the inevitable lair of Boo Radley. My sister and I used to dare each other closer and closer to it. It was with something of the sadness of a lost era that we watched it be bought, renovated, turned into a respectable business. I can hardly pass it now without a shivering memory of the delicious terror with which we used to loiter past it on our walks, hoping and dreading to see a wan face peering out from behind the tattered curtains.
There is a level in this book to which I feel myself a participant. I can literally feel the dust and heat of those sweltering summers, and identify with the ladies whom, “by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum”. I can hear so many of the characters talking in my head for I have known them—or known their types, and the perpetual slamming of screened doors is like music to me. I know, by long association, what Atticus’ law books smelled like and what those mustard greens he dips out in the movie, limp upon the spoon and dripping with “pot liquor”, taste like.
But there is another level altogether in which I can merely receive and digest some very heart-breaking and devilish facts. I grew up in a world in which, thank God, segregation was a thing of the past; a historical fact that I could hardly conceive had ever been a reality in a free nation. But I see the scars of it yet upon my beloved Southland: ugly, jagged wounds that sometimes can hardly seem to heal for all the probing and revisiting of institutions many steps removed from humanity. The scars will and should remain, lest we forget, but I hope and pray that the world in which my children grow up in will find even this day’s painful reminders hard to believe.
Harper Lee did her South and her nation a great service in the gift of this beautiful book. Everything in it is not beautiful, certainly, but there is a beauty in the truth that no amount of sugar-coated moralizing could ever approach. And I believe that only the eyes of Love could look upon a loved land with all its charms and sorrows and faults and paint such a dispassionately accurate picture of a time of such great innocence and such great injustice. I really think it a shame that To Kill a Mockingbird has become such standard fare for high school English classes, subject to all the critical analysis which should only be reserved, in my humble opinion, for dissections in the biology lab. This book is so honest, so straightforward and truthful, that a thirteen year-old girl can stumble across it and open her heart effortlessly to the appeal of it. And twenty years later, still be moved to tears by it.
When we walked out of the theatre that night, I sensed an extraordinary vividness in every little thing: in the spent storm clouds tearing and shredding across the sky and the benevolent moon shining down on our old-fashioned Square; in the wet bricks of the well-known sidewalk, glinting in the sheen of the street lamps and the brisk wind the storm had left behind. Such is always the hallmark of great art upon my soul, this keenness, this love for the things around me, all the more remarkable for their familiarity. Be it film, novel, poem, painting or song—anything that has the gift of life in it, escorted into being by a human creator and yet bearing the stamp of divine originality—they all have a life in them that is re-creative. That, in turn, yearns and pleads for expression.
I suppose that is what is meant when someone says that a book ‘lives’. For me, in that little hometown theatre Friday night, To Kill a Mockingbird lived all over again, in glorious black and white upon the silver screen. And in even more glorious black and white upon a printed page.
I was to think of these days many times. Of Jem, and Dill, and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird