“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent, a regular column where every other week we’ll look at the corollary of Sturgeon’s Law: ten percent of everything is not crud. We often look at television and film here in The Ten Percent and we’ll continue to do so, but today we’re going to examine a two-fer; that rara avis even within the Ten Percent – an astonishingly good book that also made a fantastic movie.
Due to the recent – and controversial – publication of Go Set a Watchman, author Harper Lee is once again in the spotlight. Lee is known for writing the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird and has seldom granted interviews or written much more than a grocery list since 1964. Watchman was written prior to Mockingbird and her editors found the flashbacks to the experiences of a younger Scout more interesting. They persuaded her to focus on that story instead, and the result was Mockingbird. Whether Go Set a Watchman belongs in the Ten Percent is a question not yet answered, but I can enthusiastically champion Mockingbird for inclusion – both the novel and the film.
The novel deals with serious issues of racial inequality in both the court system and wider society as a whole. Add to that its use of rape as a narrative device, and you have one of the most challenged book on public school shelves. As is usual in these cases, the protestors reveal more about themselves than the book.
Mockingbird can be seen as a “bildungsroman,” which is a German term translating roughly into “novel of formation.” These are novels that focus on the coming of age of the protagonist, who moves from childhood into adulthood through the events of the novel. Therefore, character change is at the very heart of the piece.
In Mockingbird, we see events in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama through the eyes of Jean Louise (better known as “Scout”) Finch. She is a young child in the 1930s and, through the events of Mockingbird, her childish innocence is replaced by a stronger, tougher view of society and life. She becomes both sadder and wiser.
Mockingbird can also be seen as an example of the Southern Gothic genre, which often features derelict settings (such as the Radley house) and sinister events stemming from crime, violence, and poverty (such as the Ewell household and the entire trial of Tom Robinson).
The events of Mockingbird are somewhat based on Lee’s own observations of her neighbors and her family (famously, her father was the model for Atticus Finch, a compassionate and upright lawyer who has served as a role model for many a law student). Regarding Tom Robinson, critics have pointed out the possibility that Lee may have been influenced by the notorious “Scottsboro Boys” case of 1931. While possible, the case in Mockingbird may have also come from a place far closer to home. When Lee was 10 years old, a white woman near Lee’s hometown of Monroeville claimed she had been raped by a black man named Walter Lett, who was swiftly convicted and sentenced to death. After letters appeared raising the specter of a false charge, Lett’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. Lett died in prison in 1937 of tuberculosis – an innocent man who never should have been there in the first place.
Mockingbird is loaded with memorable characters beyond the extraordinary Finch family. Boo Radley, the tenacious Mrs. Dubose, the sassy Maudie Atkinson, and the quiet center of the Finch house, Calpurnia, are all well-drawn, fascinating characters.
The film version, released in 1962, is quite faithful to the novel, although there are definite changes. (Indeed, one of my favorite scenes, which involves Maudie Atkinson showing true steel magnolia qualities in a ladies’ society meeting, is not in the film.) Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor for his quietly powerful portrayal of Atticus Finch and the film also won an Oscar for Horton Foote’s adapted screenplay. Ten-year-old Mary Badham was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, although the award went to Patty Duke for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Further, Robert Duvall, in his first movie role, plays the mysterious Boo Radley.
Mockingbird is a wonderful book that was made into a strong movie. Written more than 50 years ago, it still seems fresh (and whatever happened to school plays featuring children dressed up as hams?). More’s the pity, that freshness also serves as a reminder that American society has far to go to truly reach racial equality. It would be a mistake to dismiss Mockingbird as a work that only deals with racial issues, for so much more is addressed including gender roles, class distinctions, and compassion.
Mockingbird is often cited by law students as one reason they chose to follow that path. A look at Atticus Finch’s closing statement to the all-white jury shows you why.
Atticus doesn’t win his case – in fact, he knows he’s lost before he begins. Yet he does what’s right, and that effort is not overlooked.
Lee may not be a prolific author. No matter. Any book (or film) as rich with insight,humor, and truth as Mockingbird deserves to be counted among the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.