To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic and well-beloved fiction novel by Harper Lee. The novel is from the perspective of a young girl, Scout, growing up in a small town in Alabama during the 1930s. Aside from experiencing some of the usual adventures of a small child during that time, Scout and her brother Jem must navigate life as their father, Atticus, defends a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. Seen in some way as a story within a story, the trial shows the true character of Atticus and how some bravery and standing up for one’s beliefs and dignity really does matter.
To Kill a Mockingbird is not a perfect novel but it is about as good as it can get. It is my impression that critics of the novel had to really search for problems with the novel. Apart from the social lessons to be learned from the novel, the true beauty of the novel is how wonderfully descriptive and visual Harper Lee makes it. I would credit this aspect in part to the fact that many of the characters and the events in the novel are autobiographical. It is a lot easier to be descriptive about people you know and events that you experienced. I am not sure whether I read the novel or saw the movie first, but, when reading the book this time, I would have sworn that some of the scenes from the book had made it into the movie that didn’t because they left such a strong visual impression when reading them. This might be like the chicken and the egg conundrum where the question is was the book so well-written that it was easy to visualize the scenes as if they were a part of the movie, or were the actors in the movie so adept at portraying the characters of the book that it made it easy for me to visualize them in the scenes from the book.
Because of the descriptive qualities of the novel, it was that much easier, in my opinion, to make the movie. And, just like how Lee was able to effectively portray life in a small southern town because she lived it herself, the actors chosen for the movie were picked because they too knew the characters well and had to do little acting when portraying them. Gregory Peck, who played Atticus, was from a small town in California, the children were, for the most part, from small towns in the south where the extent of their acting careers consisted of community performances. The man who played the father of the raped girl was himself a very typical southern man who slipped into the character of the hateful, racist man very easily. I listened to the commentary of the director, Robert Mulligan, and producer, Alan Pakula, of the movie, and as every actor appeared on the screen they commented how well they were suited for their character. Mulligan even declared that 80% of good directing is casting and their ability to get the actors that they got for the movie is primarily the reason why the movie has become a classic.
The novel was published in 1960 (with the movie coming out just two years later in 1962) during the time of Jim Crow and Civil Rights activism so the themes of racism, prejudice, and civil disobedience were very relevant at the time and in some sad ways still are relevant today. While I had read the book and seen the movie in high school a couple of times each, this time I was impressed with the hypocrisy that seemed rampant in the south in the 1930s. In one scene, Scout confronts her father with what seems a strange contradiction where her teacher one day instructs the class that no one should treat people like Hitler treats the Jews, while earlier that same teacher is overheard explaining to a friend that black people should not be allowed to live with the rest of society. This scene reminds me that we often feel what we want to feel, see what we want to see, overlook the things that make life less comfortable and justify our actions, right or wrong, so that we can sleep better at night. And, the mot intriguing aspect of this revelation is that we, for the most part, don’t live this contradiction purposefully but that we really are blind to the hypocrisy of it. Rereading this novel has caused me to reevaluate my beliefs and stances to determine if and how I may too be contributing to the hypocrisies of our society.
Like so many classic novels and their cinematic counterparts, it is difficult to say exactly why greatness is great. It just is. And it is difficult, as well, to separate nostalgia and personal bias from a review of a classic such as this. I will say that it is as good now to me as it was when I was a teenager, and I can see its continued relevance into the future. It is no great Shakespeare but it is definitely a great novel. Incredibly, until this year, Harper Lee refused to allow her book to be published digitally or in audiobook form. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me at all that when they made the audiobook they wanted to make sure that they did it right by asking Sissy Spacek to be the narrator and play the older, wiser version of Scout. Spacek did a great job with the novel, and because she too was familiar with southern attitudes and had an actual southern accent she did the novel justice. I highly recommend the audiobook to anyone who appreciates the American classic, enjoys a good audiobook, and loves a good historically relevant novel.