Definitely Not for the Birds
The Toronto Star recently reported week that Brampton High School in Canada has decided to pull Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from their reading list after a parent complained about the use of racial epithets in the text. (“Complaint prompts school to kill ‘Mockingbird’” by Noor Javed, 12 August 2009).
This isn’t the first time the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about racism in the South has been banned in schools. The book is often treated with, well, ‘hesitation’ due to the use of the aforementioned slurs. Some of the Brampton High School teachers, however, have come forward saying that the traditional classroom staple is helpful in discussions on racism.
To Kill a Mockingbird is more than an enlightening tale of the racial inadequacies in the South during the Depression. Published in 1960, the novel is said to be inspired by Harper Lee’s observations of her family and surroundings, as well as something that happened near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama when she was a girl in 1936.
To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the wry, observant point of view of Scout Finch. She recalls her childhood in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, particularly the years leading up to the night her older brother Jem breaks his arm. She and Jem spend their summers with a mysterious and precocious little boy named Dill who lives nearby. The three children become obsessed with their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley,
Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them.
They make Radley their source of entertainment on slow summer days, daring each other to run up and touch his house (called “The Radley Place”), leaving him notes, and becoming consumed with seeing him in the flesh. Scout and Jem’s widowed father, Atticus, attempts to stop the children’s antics, encouraging them to see the world from another’s point of view before discriminating.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Collector’s Edition) (1962)
Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Brock Peters, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Estelle Evans, James Andersen
Meanwhile Atticus, who works as a lawyer, chooses to defend a young black man named Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell. Most of Maycomb seems to be in blind agreement about Robinson’s guilt, even suggesting he be lynched for his crime, but Atticus Finch takes on the case anyway. When he does this, some of Maycomb’s residents and children admonish Scout and Jem, calling their father horrible names, including “nigger-lover”.
Tomboy Scout’s first inclination is to fight back against those who spatter her father with insults, but Atticus is adamant that she take the high road. He also tries to protect her and Jem from the trial outcome. But the inquisitive children sneak into the courthouse and watch their father valiantly defend Tom Robinson from the “colored balcony” with Maycomb’s black residents.
Atticus attempts to defend Robinson from Mayella Ewell and her father Bob, who are the accusers in the case. Atticus’s case is strong and clearly proves that Mayella propositioned Tom, was caught by her father, and then both accused Tom of rape in order to cover up her dishonor. Despite the strong argument for his innocence, the white jury convicts Robinson of the crime.
This is the moment the children’s belief in good overcoming evil is shaken to the core. It is the pivotal moment they begin to lose their innocence. This scene is foreshadowed earlier when Atticus tells Scout that it’s considered a sin to kill a Mockingbird. When Scout asks why, he replies it’s because they don’t harm anyone, they only make music.
Even though the verdict is in favor of his daughter, Bob Ewell promises vengeance on Atticus for making him look like a half-wit in front of the town. It is after this, on Halloween night, that Ewell, Boo Radley, Scout and Jem come together in a collision, literally, that shakes up their lives and leaves them forever changed.
According to the Guardian, British librarians have ranked To Kill a Mockingbird more important than the Bible as a book “every adult should read before they die”. (“Harper Lee tops librarians’ must-read list” by Michelle Pauli, 2 March 2006) In 1999, it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal. It has also inspired many people to study law.
Despite all the deserved accolades, Harper Lee has removed herself from the flurry of admiration. She continually refuses to make public appearances, give interviews, or come to the annual theatrical adaptation of her book staged in her hometown of Monroeville.
Just two years after it was published, To Kill a Mockingbird was made into an Oscar-winning film by Robert Mulligan(director) and Horton Foote (screenplay). The much-loved movie barely strays from the book. An interesting anecdote comes from Wikipedia, citing a 1998 New York Times article in which the film’s producer, Alan J. Pakula, recalls the time executives from Paramount Studios asked him what kind of story he wanted to tell:
I said, ‘Have you read the book?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘That’s the story.’
The film won three of the five Oscar nominations it was up for: Best Actor, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch and over the years this has become one of his most famous roles. Lee was so taken with his enthusiasm for the part that she befriended him and introduced him to her father who was the inspiration for Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, Lee’s father died before the film was screened, but as a gift for such an incredible performance, Lee gave Peck her father’s pocket watch, which he had with him the night he was awarded the Oscar for best actor.
But the film isn’t all about Peck. The children play a big part, making the film just as much theirs as Peck’s. Mary Badham (Scout) and Phillip Alford (Jem) both make their debuts as Peck’s children. Both hail from the South and bring their childish Southern mannerisms to the screen with seeming ease. John Megan, who plays Dill, is also a delightfully charismatic personality that leaves a lasting impression. It’s been said that the character Dill was based on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote. In spite of the dark issues the book and the film address, the children bring forth the charm and comedy also present in the story.
Robert Duvall is excellent as Boo Radley. Without a line to utter, his pale appearance and hushed, unsuspecting demeanor speaks loudly, echoing that of the Boo in the book.
Another notable performance in the movie is given by Brock Peters as Tom Robinson. He embodies the artless, quiet man who is set up for a crime he didn’t commit. When it’s time for him to testify, Brock is restrained yet passionate, explaining the reason he was in Mayella Ewel’s house was to assist her with hard manual labor and that he felt sorry for her with no help around. In response to this, the prosecutor roars, “You felt sorry for her? A white woman? You felt sorry for her?”
The courtroom scene, while necessary, does drag on a bit. Despite the long trial, there is little more to bemoan here. The movie is a lovely, sad, and heartfelt accompaniment to the book. Both book and film make insightful commentary on discrimination as well as provide the reader and watcher with a warm coming-of-age story. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic that should never be silenced.