“To Kill a Mockingbird” is the first novel by American author Harper Lee, published in 1960. The book was adapted into a 1962 drama that was directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham. Arguably one of the most influential and beloved pieces of 20th Century American literature, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still widely taught in schools more than 50 years after it was first published.
I’m sure nearly everyone has read this book at some point in their life, but if it’s been more than 20 years, it definitely merits a rereading! I forgot how hilarious some of Scout’s observations are. By telling the story from the perspective of a child, Lee is able to pose uncomfortable questions about racial inequality to the reader, and her father is able to calmly explain: “There’s something in our world that makes me lose their heads – they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
The novel centers around two men, Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, and how they illustrate their society’s sense of justice and compassion (or lack thereof). Both men are the center of much speculation in Maycomb from people who don’t really know them, and both were never able to reach their true potential. Both Boo and Tom went out of their way to help a neighbor in need at a great personal risk, although Tom ultimately paid with his life while Boo was protected. Both men are innocents that have been chewed up and spit out by society: “Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird… They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.'”
Reading this book again, it’s clear why Atticus Finch is an enduring example of morality and reason; he exhibits determination and compassion in everything he does, especially explaining the world to his children (and the audience). Atticus is careful to treat everyone equally, regardless of their race or background, and is an expert at empathizing with their unique situations. “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Some of the interesting things I’ve noticed as I compare books and movie adaptations are how much time elapses between their public releases, how popular the book is when it’s first published, and how involved the author is in creating the film. By all accounts, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was an instant classic, and it’s not surprising that a film adaptation followed almost immediately after. Harper Lee based many of her characters on her life growing up and was very involved in the making of the movie. The art director visited the author in her hometown, where Lee showed him all the details that would make his portrayal of a Southern post-Depression town more accurate, from architecture to collard patches.
Lee also wrote encouraging letters to the actors that were cast as her characters, and invited Gregory Peck to meet her father, lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee, who was the inspiration for Peck’s character Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck “went to great lengths to ensure his portrayal did justice to Lee’s creation,” and he Harper Lee became lifelong friends after their work together on the film; when Peck won an Academy Award for his role, he shared the credit with Lee.
Regardless of what details were omitted in the film adaptation (Aunt Alexandria or the house fire, for example) the heart and soul of the book, as intended by the author, is accurately represented.
The book has won the following awards:
- The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction from Columbia University (1961)
- Brotherhood Award at the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961)
- Paperback of the Year from Bestsellers Magazine (1962)
- Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007) for her contribution to literature; at the time, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was her only publication
- Voted “America’s Favorite Book” by The Great American Read on PBS (2018)
- Named one of the 100 most influential novels by BBC News (2019)
The movie has won the following awards:
- Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences (1962)
- Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor, Best Original Score and Best Film Promoting International Understanding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (1963)
- The Gary Cooper Award from the Cannes Film Festival (1963)
- Atticus Finch was named the #1 hero of 20th century film by the American Film Institute (2003)