It’s 1960. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. is gaining attention worldwide. Four college students from Greensboro, NC, conduct a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s. Similar non-violence protests continue throughout the south.
1961. A 35-year-old writer, after years of struggling, publishes her first novel, set in Depression-era Alabama. To Kill a Mockingbird becomes a literary phenomenon. (To date, it has sold over 30 million copies and is translated into 40 languages.) The author, known as Nelle Harper Lee, feared people would constantly mispronounce her real name, so she made her pen name Harper Lee.
1962. Studios didn’t want to buy the film rights of the novel because they thought it lacked action and romance and the villain wasn’t punished enough. Actor James (“Jimmy”) Stewart had turned down the role of attorney Atticus Finch, claiming the film would be “too liberal.” The producer and the director approached Gregory Peck, who immediately said “yes”— and the movie was on its way to become one of the best American films of all time.
2015. Now 89 years old, Harper Lee, on July 14, is going to release her recently discovered second novel, Go Set a Watchman. To celebrate the event, the Book to Movie club of the Henderson County Library (ten years and going strong) is showing the film for free.
It’s 1932 in fictional small-town Maycomb, Alabama, based on the author’s real hometown of Monroeville. The farmers are bitterly poor, and the townspeople face the specter of poverty with a tenacious hold on the miasma of gentility. Six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Fitch (Mary Badham) is an untamed tomboy who uses her fists to settle disputes, and is an exasperating pest to her long-suffering 10-year-old brother Jem (Phillip Alford). Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the family’s loyal black maid, tries her best to teach Scout good manners, but she admits it’s a lost cause.
Their father is widower Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who wears a suit to work every day. He can always “explain things,” his children admit, but he doesn’t seem to have any more worthy qualities. He says things like, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Like all kids, the ones in the movie love to be terrified. They decide to use a strange neighbor to find their scary thrills. This is Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall in his first film role), a mentally disabled recluse who leaves baubles for the children in the hole of a tree. When seven-year-old Dill Harris (John Megna) comes to visit for the summers, the children form a threesome determined to sneak into Boo’s back yard. Dill was based on Harper Lee’s real friend, author Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood).
Small towns, we are reminded, are not free from good and evil, and the Mockingbird children keenly observe how adults handle life’s realities. A black farmer named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) has been accused, falsely, of taking advantage of a young white woman, Mayella (Collin Wilcox Patton). It’s obvious to everyone that her father, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (John Anderson), a slimy villain, is the one who beat Mayella and has probably sexually abused her all her life. Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson. Despite threats to him and his children he fights the good fight, without any violence. His nine-minute eloquent plea for justice in the courtroom, accomplished in one take, is one of the most memorable speeches in film history. It’s the reason the American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch the greatest hero in American film.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Assn) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Assn.) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Kill a Mockingbird, a presentation of the Book to Movie Club, shows at Kaplan Auditorium at the Henderson County Library on July 14 at 2pm. 301 N Washington St. 828-697-4725. Free. Discussion afterwards, hosted by librarian Jean McGrady.