So I recently bought my own copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, something I’ve been contemplating on doing since I listened to and reviewed Go Set a Watchman last year (more on that later). Reading the book, which I hadn’t read since eighth or ninth grade, I realized two things: one was that a lot of my memories of the Mockingbird book had been clouded and confused with the Mockingbird movie. The other was that this merited discussion. And where better to discuss it than on my blog?
I finished the book on Tuesday and watched the movie that night, but couldn’t really blog about it till now because I only have so much time, and what little I have goes by rather quickly (dammit Time, you’re still a quick bastard, aren’t you?). This article will be part review, part reflective essay, but all about what is obviously one of the best pieces of American literature ever written. So without further ado, let’s get into it.
The Book. To say the least, I’m glad I reread the book. I’m not sure if I just didn’t absorb the details as well the first time around, or if I just have a worse memory than I thought, but a lot of what made the book so wonderful hit me like it was my first time reading it. The text is beautiful, full of a smart child’s observations about events that an adult might have trouble absorbing, and all with a somewhat poetic innocence and beauty. You find yourself discovering all sorts of ironies and hypocrisies with Scout Finch, and you find yourself also wanting to explain to her these ironies and hypocrisies that, to her, are too confusing and that the adults can’t seem to explain to her very well.
And like I said earlier, I had quite a revelation about how much I confused the book and the movie. For instance, Scout’s a lot girlier in the book than in the movie. Yes, she’s still quite the tomboy in the book, but the movie emphasized that more, even to the point where she says she hates dresses. In the book, Scout doesn’t seem to outright hate dresses, she just prefers overalls. She also wants to be a good housewife when she grows up and take care of her husband, and she dreams of being a baton twirler when she’s in high school, which are something I can’t imagine Mary Badham’s Scout ever wanting to do. Yeah, these aren’t big differences, but they’re differences nonetheless.
What really surprised me though was the difference in Atticus’s character.* I’ve had this image of Atticus being like this perfect being, a giant of a man with the wisdom of Merlin and the morals of Abraham. However, this is only the movie’s version of Atticus. While Atticus is definitely a moral force, he does struggle in the book. You see it, every decision he struggles with. At times, you can feel him trying to figure out what’s the best move, whether it’s raising his children or trying to be a good lawyer and a good citizen. It was quite the surprise, but I like this version of Atticus more. A character who struggles to do the right thing is always easier to identify with and root for than a character who always does the right thing without question, and that makes the story all the more powerful.
The Movie. I love how the movie started with Scout just humming and coloring. It embodies the innocence that Scout somehow manages to maintain throughout the story. The actors all do very well in their roles, though I thought that the actor who played Bob Ewell could have looked a bit more unkempt and hateful, because he looks like just a regular farmer here. The film is smart in how it sticks to the most important points of the story, namely the trial and the children’s relationship with Boo Radley, as well as the family moments that allow the audience to get to know the characters. I would’ve liked to see more of Dill Harris, as his role is really scaled down in the film, and his exit from the movie is abrupt and not commented upon. Still, it is a really wonderful film. I’m glad I watched it again, and I hope it never gets remade (though if Hollywood is desperate enough to do so, cast Zachary Quinto as Atticus. He’s a bit young for the role, but he’s just an amazing actor. He could pull it off).
Overall thoughts. This book is just as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1960. Now I know to some people, that seems like a no-brainer. After all, the book is taught in schools every day, illustrating the racial climate of both the 1930’s and 1960’s. And yes, that is true, but Mockingbird‘s themes can be applied today. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement: it’s a movement that’s fighting against racial injustice in the justice system, trying to keep black men, women, and children alive when many are accused and sometimes even killed for crimes they did not commit. And people who would readily smack down Adolf Hitler have called these protesters thugs, criminals, terrorists for wanting things to change, and to not have to feel fear while walking down the street. Exactly like Mockingbird. And all too often, you hear people make sweeping generalizations about minorities, especially minorities who are “dangerous,” or a threat to social order. This happens in Mockingbird as well, and it’s scary to see something in a novel about the past happening in my present. And it makes you question how far we’ve really come since then.
One of the best lessons from Mockingbird is that you can’t really know someone until you walk in their shoes. I don’t remember if this point was emphasized as much in my classes back in the day (and as students at an all-Jewish school, we’re all-too familiar with what it’s like to be a persecuted people), but it’s something that should be emphasized more in examinations of Mockingbird. Because it’s all too easy to be scared of someone, but it’s difficult as hell to empathize and see things from their point of view.
Whether it’s the book or the movie, really, To Kill a Mockingbird is just a powerful story. It’s beautifully written and told, the characters are timeless, and its lessons are things we can all take to heart, no matter what age it is. I’d be lucky to write something just as earth-shattering someday. Because Mockingbird isn’t just a great example of American literature. It’s an exploration in what it means to be a human being.
That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. My next post will be at some point Saturday, so keep an eye out for it. Until next time!
*Speaking of Atticus’s character, something I just want to talk about real quick. When Watchman came out last year, there was all this controversy about Atticus being revealed as having racist leanings. Not the best thing to have in a sequel, is it? Well, I didn’t know this when I wrote my review, but apparently Watchman was not a real sequel. In actuality, it was most likely a very early draft of Mockingbird. This makes all sorts of sense to me, especially in light of my rereading Mockingbird. For instance, Watchman spends a lot of time going back and forth between events in Scout’s childhood and in her adulthood, which doesn’t happen at all in Mockingbird. A weird move for a sequel. That, and Atticus isn’t the only character who’s changed a bit: Uncle Jack Finch is portrayed as more eccentric in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which seems unusual as I’m sure Scout would have noticed his uncle’s oddness as a child. Most damning of all, though, is that the trial in Mockingbird is only barely in Watchman, and Boo Radley, who’s so essential to Mockingbird, isn’t even mentioned in Watchman! Very odd, to say the least.
And from a writer’s experience, I can tell you that stories can change dramatically between drafts. Some of my own stories have gone through great transformations from first draft to final publication (I should do an article on that!). That’s why Watchman, an early draft, is so different from Mockingbird, the final product.
So fear not, folks. Atticus isn’t really racist. An early version of him was, but I think the final version, who defended Tom Robinson and who said cheating a black man was ten times worse than a white man, isn’t a racist at all. He’s still a great idea of what we can be. He’s human, he struggles with his decisions, he’s not perfect. But he is a good man without prejudice. And that’s the version we love the most.
And Watchman? Well, it’s a pretty blatant attempt to capitalize on an already-famous book, but it’s good in its own right. Just remember its origin and don’t get too depressed over certain characterizations when you read it. That’s all I can say at this point, friends and neighbors.