So, last night (at around 0200 hours, so more like this morning), I finally finished my first reading of the Harper Lee novel To Kill A Mockingbird. I originally purchased this copy of the novel about two weeks ago, so my reading speed is quite sluggish as you might have noticed. I tend to get distracted and turn to other tasks in mid-read, so this should surprise nobody. The irony here is that considering I could read at what you clowns call an adult level when I was three years old, unless the literature in question is of a certain quality, I find it terrible and painful to try and read it.
That is a pretty sweeping statement, and I know how it sounds. But unless the text is engaging or written in an extremely compelling fashion, it hurts to read. One Terry Pratchett / Neil Gaiman collaboration, Good Omens, took me a whole year to read once because of how utterly uninvolved in the story I became. So when I tell you that the only reason it took me two weeks to complete To Kill A Mockingbird is because I became engaged in other tasks, I need you to understand my full meaning.
By the way, if you have not read the novel or seen the film, this article will discuss things about both, so if you are planning to see/read them soon and wish to remain surprised, stop reading now.
To Kill A Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1961, and I am here to tell you it was for a good reason. Harper Lee touches upon many things in the story, including the inherent racism of the rurals in the 1930s and how even the most noble folk can be shockingly ignorant of some things. But the central cake under all of the icing is the deaths of the innocence of the children who are central to the action. These being Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch. Their widowed father, Atticus Finch, is one day engaged by the court to defend a black man who has been accused of raping one of the town’s women, a trashy woman by the name of Mayella Violet Ewell.
The novel was adapted into a film in 1962. But what struck me hard about the novel is that it is far more detailed about the townsfolk depicted than the film could ever be. Probably the biggest difference is in how much Scout discusses things about what she hears or sees with Atticus and Jem. In the novel, much is said about the ignorance of townsfolk and why Atticus is working so hard to defend a client that the town has presumed to be guilty. But probably the biggest difference lies in how the Finch children grow during the novel. As the novel is set during a three-year period, Jem grows from a bratty ten year old to something starting to take tentative steps toward manhood. Lee‘s writing of this transition, as seen through Scout’s eyes, is one of the many reasons why this novel was, and still is, worthy of a Pulitzer. She captures a point in the life of a boy where he is staring across the room at manhood perfectly.
Another character that warrants a comparison between film and novel is Arthur “Boo” Radley. In the film, he was the first “major” role for one Robert Duvall. In the novel, he is pretty much as he is in the film, although we read about Scout communicating with him a little more than we see in said film. We never really learn what Arthur went through in order to become the town boogeyman that we see in film and novel, but it is very clear in both that society has failed him, and he simply sits in the background, forgotten by all but a few. The stories that are told about what he has done in past points of life, such as stabbing one of his parents with a pair of scissors or being confined in a dank part of the courthouse, are easily inferred during both novel and film as being mere childish speculation. But in the most memorable moment of the film, we learn that Arthur killed Bob Ewell in order to protect Scout and Jem, essentially making him the hero of the story. The mockingbird of the title is a metaphor for innocence as well as, to a lesser extent, the sanctity of one’s own privacy. Hence, when the official record of Ewell’s death is written as the result of having fallen on his own knife whilst trying to murder the Finch children, it is done this way because “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird”.
Also noteworthy is that the explanation of why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird (they are not pests, and basically do nothing other than make beautiful music for we Humans to listen to) differs quite a bit from novel to film. In the novel, Atticus touches on the subject, but does not go into detail. Another character, Maudie Atkinson, a friend of the Finch family, delivers the explanation of how the mockingbird is one of the most perfectly innocent creatures in the world of the story. In the film, Atticus delivers the whole explanation in one short but very well-written scene around the dining table.
Worth noting, too, is that in the film, Atticus Finch is portrayed by one Gregory Peck. Peck is often described by the people who knew him as a model of integrity, and now that I have seen three different films with him in a starring role (these being To Kill A Mockingbird, The Omen, and The Guns Of Navarone), I can only agree. Perhaps my own anger at my male parental unit over his repeated failure to protect me from abusers and those who would keep me in a position where people can continue to abuse is best seen in how I describe him as “the anti-Peck“. Some years ago now, I made a video of film captures that match things that I do not doubt my fellow Powell types would like to tell Suzanne Wright. Fifty-five seconds in, you see Gregory Peck’s voicing of what I, personally, would say to Suzanne Wright (amongst other things): “Now I’ve heard you… I want you to hear me”. You can see the full video here if that tickles your fancy. I do not doubt for a second that had Gregory Peck lived to see the movement against Autism Speaks that is on YouChoob like a rash, he would be very vociferously all about it.
So the question that springs to mind is… in the numerous years since To Kill A Mockingbird was first published, how far have we really come as a society? There are people out there who will point at such things as the Civil Rights act, affirmative action, or a ton of other legalese, and say we have come very far. I call bullshit on that. As there is no law mandating that we teach our children why it is wrong to discriminate based on things people cannot help, or that skin colour, language, or physical form is not nearly as important as how we think in terms of our differences, I say we have not come very far at all. Whatever else you might think about the American Bible Belt as it is depicted in the novel and film, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the problems shown are problems everywhere, not just in rural shitsvilles. Oh, do not get me wrong. Rural shitsvilles, I call them such because saying that their brains close at four in the afternoon is an understatement. Whilst you might think that everyone should aspire to be a farmer or a gardener, the reality is that they actually need us, the scientific and intelligentsia, a lot more than we need them. You see, hands that labour over fields or soil can be easily replaced, even if the new possessors of those hands may need time to adjust to properly perform the task. But try to get a farmer to learn how to chemically compose the fertilisers that increase his yield to the point where he can feed hundreds, and you have a bit of a problem.
This is what I mean when I say that the mockingbird is dead. Not just dead, in fact, but rotting. Innocence is an ironic thing. Not because you can only lose it once, but rather because when you lose it in violent circumstances, having people like Tipper Gore et al try to force it back into your life feels like being violated all over again. Well, my proverbial mockingbird has not just died. It had struggled with cancer, diabetes, and AIDS for more than twenty years, and decided to kill itself rather than suffer any further. The main difference is that I did not have an Atticus Finch around to cushion my landing. I just had the asshole who calls himself my father.
In closing, I would like to urge anyone who has not already read To Kill A Mockingbird, and/or seen the film based on it, to do both. The film was recently re-released on Blu-ray Disc in a very restored version by Universal Studios as part of their celebrations of the fact that the company is a century old as of this year. The disc in question treats the film with the pride that Universal clearly have that they made it. And I kid you not when I say that in this case, the pride is very justified. Both novel and film should be sent on the next probe we send out into space to point out to the aliens that we are not all complete write-offs.
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