Tribute-Harper Lee

Harper Lee quote posterAs many of you know, we lost a true literary great yesterday—Harper Lee—author of the iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird died at the age of 89.

Born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, Miss Lee later worked as an airlines reservations clerk while pursuing a writing career. It was at this time she wrote and later published To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel about a small-town lawyer named Atticus Finch defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird was not told from Atticus’s point of view, but of his tomboyish daughter, Jean Louise, better known as Scout.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and was both a critical rave and successful bestseller. In 1962 the film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout was released. Like the novel, the film was both a critical and commercial triumph.

Harper Lee TKAM

However, Miss Lee did not take to celebrity. She was a quiet and very private person who found fame quite off-putting giving her a bit of a Greta Garbo mystique, which is quite refreshing in our age of table-turning “real” housewives and people with the last name Kardashian.

Lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird pined for Miss Lee to write another novel and for decades this wish seemed like a pipe dream. But in February of last year, the world was shocked when the publishing giant Harper Collins imprint Harper’s announced they were going to publish a manuscript of Miss Lee’s that she had written in 1957. This novel, called Go Set a Watchman also became a best-seller.

But it is To Kill a Mockingbird that will truly be Harper Lee’s legacy. It has been translated into countless languages, has been called the best novel of the 20th Century by Library Journal, read and discussed in most high schools and has countless fans, both famous and unknown. To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired many related books, stage plays and documentaries.

It’s no secret to my readers To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee are close to my heart, inspiring both a Retro Reads and a Reading to Reels post. There are no words I can find at this time to express my love and appreciation for Miss Lee’s talent and her iconic novel other than a mawkish paraphrased quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Stand up, people. Miss Harper Lee has passed.”

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Reading to Reels: To Kill a Mockingbird

to-kill-a-mockingbird-movie-posterAfter the huge literary success of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird it only seemed fitting Hollywood would make a movie of Ms. Lee’s classic novel. And since its 1962 release the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic itself. The American Film Institute named it one of the top 100 films of all time. And Gregory Peck won a much-deserved Oscar for his laudable portrayal of Atticus Finch. I decided to revisit the movie. I’m glad I did.

As To Kill a Mockingbird opens, we are introduced by Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) Finch. They are being raised by their widowed father, Atticus, who makes his living as a lawyer in small-town Alabama, and minded by Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the Finch family housekeeper. Jem and Scout have just made friends with Dill (John Megna) who lives down the street. Most of the story is shown through the eyes of the Finch children, especially the tomboyish Scout.

The Finch children are rambunctious and curious, and they desire a chance to explore the world. And in their tender years, their world is their neighborhood. Scout and Jem are very intrigued by the Radley house, a house that always seems to always be dark and shuttered. It is rumored that in the Radley house lives a monster, a monster named Boo (Robert Duvall in his first movie role). According to Jem, Boo is a towering 6 and a half feet tall, drools, and has a large scar on his face. He lives on raw squirrels and cats, and his father often has him chained to his bed. What would happen if Boo escaped his chains? Would he hurt little kids?

And in the midst of all this speculation, Atticus is called to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). Tom has been accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Though there is ample evidence that Tom didn’t harm Mayella in any way, in the Jim Crow south an innocent black man means nothing compared to the opinions and bigotry of white people. The people of Maycomb let know Atticus should not defend Tom, doing everything from nearly lynching Tom to inadvertently threatening the Finch children. Atticus knows he has a monumental mountain to climb, yet he knows he must defend Tom. It’s the right thing to do. And before long, Scout and Jem realize it is the right thing to do.

The court scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird might be some of the most compelling committed to celluloid. Atticus tries valiantly to bring out the inconsistencies in Mayella’s story while also showing her empathy. The trial rivets the town bringing even Jem and Scout to the courthouse to witness their father in action. When the verdict is finally read, there is no jubilation or cheers. There are no tears of anguish or screams in anger. There is just an unsettling silence. As the white folks leave the courtroom the black folks stay behind standing in honor of Atticus brave defense of Tom Robinson. And a minister utters one of my favorite movie lines ever, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’.”

Bad things continue to happen. Tragedy beyond the trial befalls Tom Robinson’s family, and Atticus has to deliver the bad news to Tom’s wife. Jem and Scout are attacked my Mayella Ewell’s father Bob, but mysterious man saves the children from harm. That mystery man turns out to be Boo Radley. The man Jem and Scout fear the most turns out to be a savior.

Jem and Scout learn some very important lessons. Life isn’t always fair, but there are things worth fighting for. Parents, in all their wisdom, are only human. People aren’t always what they seem.

Directed by Robert Mulligan with a script by Harold Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird is filmed in black and white. It is a drama that feels fully human and real. Though I came of age of a much less “innocent” time than Jem and Scout, I recall a time when I thought grownups had all the answers, justice and fairness would prevail, and I had to fear the great unknown. I also remember telling stories to my friends, coming up with fun games during lazy summers, and worrying about my first day of school.

But of course, I’m also from a generation that was defined by assassinations, corporate and political scandals, unnecessary wars, terrorism, polarization and divisiveness, and family strife. I found myself weeping for a more innocent time that Jem and Scout were living in soon reminding me that no child has lived in a completely innocent time.

As mentioned Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. But I was also blown away by the performances of both Philip Alford and Mary Badham. Badham is especially remarkable as Scout, natural, inquisitive, brave and smart. I truly believe Badham gave one of the greatest child film performances. She’s right up there with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” Henry Thomas in “E.T.” and Victoire Thivisol in the French film “Ponette.” Badham never made another movie after To Kill a Mockingbird but what a tiny legacy she made. Her performance is both timeless and timely, and so is the film.

Retro Review: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a MockingbirdWhen I was younger I looked at classic literature the way I looked at eating my vegetables, good for me but not exactly fun. I much preferred to read my Judy Blume books and other assorted YA novels, trashy reads like VC Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic or copies of Rolling Stone, Spin and Star Hits.

Then for some reason I decided to read Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird proved to me that classics weren’t just something I had to read; classics were something I wanted to read. (And yes, I now eat my vegetables, thank you very much).

Published over 50 years ago, To Kill a Mockingbird portrays a very specific moment in time, the deep South in the era of Jim Crow and years before the Civil Rights Movement. It is also the story of a family living in a small town in Alabama, and told through the point of view of one singular little girl, Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout.

Scout Finch lives with her brother, Jem, and their widowed father Atticus Finch, a local attorney. The Finch’s black maid, Calpurnia, is a stern yet loving presence in the Finch’s lives.

Scout navigates her small world of school, family life, her budding friendship with a boy named Dill and admonishments from her concerned elders about her unladylike ways. However, she’s also becoming aware of a bigger world around her. She and her brother are both intrigued and frightened by the town recluse Boo Radley. Is he truly as horrible as the townspeople claim? And Scout and Jem are also learning that life isn’t always fair and just.

Their father has just been assigned an insurmountable task-defending a local black man named Tom Robinson against a false rape charge. This was time when a black man could be lynched for even looking at a white woman. In the court of public opinion, Tom is guilty and should probably fry.

Tom’s accuser is Mayella Ewell. Mayella, and her violent and abusive father, Bob, are considered the town trash. Just like many of the black families in town, the Ewells are looked down upon, yet the false word of one white woman takes precedence over a black man’s innocence.

Mayella may be a liar, but she is also a victim of both her viciously cruel father and a time when potential rape victims were often treated as criminals themselves . Atticus treats her with decency while questioning her about the crime, yet is stalwart in getting out the truth and defending his client, a devoted family man. Atticus digs for the truth but is also compassionate and fair. And though Atticus knows getting a “not guilty” verdict will be incredibly difficult, he remains stalwart that this is a case worth fighting-for Tom Robinson and his family and for his own integrity as an attorney and as a father.

Scout and her brother are allowed to attend the trial, and are thoroughly drawn into the proceedings (as is the reader). Just as Scout and Jem learn that Atticus is so much more than just their father, and justice and fairness are worth fighting for. They also learn the importance of empathy, truly putting yourself in another person’s shoes. And it isn’t long before they learn that things aren’t always what they seem when they have a chance meeting with Boo Radley. These are important lessons we must all learn, and To Kill a Mockingbird conveys this with both simplicity and elegance.

What struck me while reading To Kill a Mockingbird once again is how both timeless and timely the story is. We are still dealing with many of the same issues, especially when it comes to race, in 2013 (no racism hasn’t ended because we have a black President).

What is also amazing about To Kill Mockingbird is Ms. Lee’s commendable talent as a writer. She writes with clarity, a certain richness and a lack of pretense. Not one passage rings false, and every character is fully drawn, not just the main characters. I felt as if I actually knew these people. It’s no wonder Hollywood made To Kill a Mockingbird into a notable film just years after the book’s initial release.

To Kill a Mockingbird also inspired several non-fiction books about the book and Harper Lee and the documentary by Mary McDonagh Murphy, Hey, Boo:Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

The famously reclusive Harper Lee only wrote one book, but what a book it is. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book to be read often and completely cherished.