Quite by chance I stumbled across a small-print footnote on a website I was visiting the other day. I’m glad I took a second look. It led to a double-take when I realised 2012 marks the Golden Anniversary of the release of one of Hollywood’s greatest ever films, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Did I hear someone say “what’s the big deal?”
Wash your mouth out! We’re not just talking about a film here – great though it is – we’re talking about a literary classic; a masterfully scripted tale that found its way into school curricula across the world and is still being read with respectful awe by newer generations.
The author, Harper Lee, won a Pulitzer for her work, originally published in 1960, two years before the film hit the screens. Surprisingly, it was her only novel.
Here’s another surprising stat – the film earned Gregory Peck his only ‘Best Actor’ Oscar. Despite enjoying one of Tinseltown’s most glittering careers, he was to say in his later years: “Hardly a day passes that I don’t think how lucky I was to be cast in that film.”
Peck’s leading role was so powerful and compelling that in 2003 the American Film Institute named his lawyer character, Atticus Finch, as the greatest movie hero of the 21st century.
The same AFI voted the film as best overall film ever in the courtroom genre, and 25th overall among the greatest movies of all time.
The film also won an Oscar for the screenplay produced by Horton Foote, whose work was described by the original author as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.”
One last piece of interesting info about the film is that it marked the big screen debut of Robert Duvall, who played the part of the mysterious Boo Radley.
Okay, let’s move on from the film to the real star of To Kill A Mockingbird – the author Harper Lee.
The story is based on events from her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama. She was a schoolfriend and neighbour of Truman Capote, and originally studied law before deciding to try her hand at writing. Her mother’s maiden name was Finch, hence the obvious choice of name for her hero.
Although she penned a number of essays, it’s still hard to believe that Mockingbird was her only novel, for which she was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature (she’s pictured here receiving it from George W).
The title was taken from an old proverb that warned it was a sin to kill a mockingbird because: “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, they don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
The story is about growing up, combining the innocence of childhood with the ugliness of racism in a tale with more than its fair share of twists and turns. It was a story that resonated immediately with Peck: “The characters of the novel are like people I knew as a boy. I think perhaps the great appeal of the novel is that it reminds readers everywhere of a person or a town they have known. It is to me a universal story – moving, passionate and told with great humor and tenderness.”
Regular readers of my blog will know I’m a sucker for great dialogue and memorable lines. Like all great works, you’ll find this one laced with some gems:
“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Or what about this one?
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
My favourite from Mockingbird is the following:
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Not surprisingly, most attention over the years has centred on Atticus Finch’s final summation to the jury. It has been analysed intensely in literary and education journals, in various legal papers, and in countless blogs. Here’s an excerpt from the original:
“The witnesses for the state have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber. Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men cannot be trusted around women, black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
The full scene ran for almost nine minutes, and is remembered by those who were there for the flawless one-take run-through provided by Peck.
Harper Lee loved Peck’s interpretation of her hero and the two became firm friends, so much so that Peck’s grandson is named Harper Peck Voll after her.
Lee herself has kept out of the limelight for most of the past 50 years, although she has been fictionally portrayed on the screen by Catherine Keener in Capote (2005) and by Sandra Bullock in Infamous (2006).
The actual release date of the film which brought her work to the masses was December 1962, but the whole year should be marked as a celebration of one of the truly great literary works of our times.
Happy Anniversary, Harper Lee.
Happy Anniversary To Kill A Mockingbird.