Tuesday 29 April 2014

DOUBLE REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (5*)

~ THE BOOK (5*) ~
Published by Arrow Books, 1997.

"There's something in our world that makes men 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."

I can honestly say that I don't remember how long ago I acquired this book.  I know I got it for Christmas at around the age of 12 or 13.  I know that my mum and possibly my sister read my copy within a year or two.  I know that in my entire reign as bookseller at our shop I never felt so ashamed of a bookish shortfall as I did when customers happily pointed at our giant TKaM book cover poster and tried to engage me in conversation about one of their favourite books, and I - a lifelong reader, English student and bookshop owner - had to admit that I'd never read it.

Having decided that I must finally pick it up this year, and having recently seen positive reviews from Mercedes and Barry on BookTube, this month I FINALLY plucked it down from my shelves and started reading.  I have to admit, despite its small size I was surprisingly nervous about tackling this one, mostly because I have a track record of loathing big American classics that everyone else loves.  Happily for me, this one completely lived up to the hype, exceeded expectations and won me over completely!

As anyone who was around Twitter when I started reading will know, initially I was a bit sceptical.  The first sixty or seventy pages are slow-going, and I was struggling to see what all the fuss was about.  Young Scout Finch, little sister to Jem and daughter of the iconic Atticus, is recounting anecdotes about her neighbours, about her experiences at school, about her summers spent playing with Jem and their friend Dill, and about the mystery surrounding the Radley house next door.  One of the few things I already knew about the book was that there was an important character called Boo Radley, and that he was somehow meant to be sympathetic, so I was definitely getting a bit impatient when the children's interaction with the house seemed to mainly involve running past the gate at high speed and poking at the windows with a fishing pole. 

HOWEVER.  I now fully appreciate that what Harper Lee did so beautifully in these early chapters was to build up such a rich picture of the neighbourhood, of the characters that live there, of the dynamics within the Finch family, of the attitudes and proclivities of the local women in particular, that from that point on she's pretty much free to weave her story uninterrupted.  Because we already understand the people, their politics, their idiosyncracies, and the way each of them relates to Scout and her family, the author doesn't need to hold up the increasingly riveting plot twists explaining other people's motivations.

I don't want to say too much about the actual plot, because as someone who had never seen the movie and knew only the bare basics going into the book - Atticus Finch, Scout, Boo Radley, a rape charge, racial tension in a southern town, a compelling court case - I was gripped anew by each twist and turn of the local politics, each moment of violence, each terrible incident of wilful prejudice.  Seeing everything through the eyes of young Scout made everything that much richer, as she understands certain things very differently to her well-heeled neighbours (Tom Robinson's innocence, for example), yet fails to understand the significance of other events, so we have to read between the lines and see what she can't.  I also liked the fact that her tomboyish nature and hatred of all things girlie introduced feisty discussion of gender politics into the mix alongside the expected questions about race discrimination and racial equality.

I don't really know what else to talk about, because it's To Kill a Mockingbird, what is there to say?  It tackles huge themes like race, class, feminism, family, sexual abuse and the loss of innocence, and does so perfectly.  I just loved this book, and I urge everyone who's been inexplicably putting it off (like me!) to just read it already.  There are so many memorable moments and images in this book (and yes, Atticus is just as heroic and perfect as I wanted him to be; his closing statement to the jury made me want to stand up and applaud), and the characters felt so real to me as I was reading, so complex and rounded, that I felt almost bereaved when the book was over.  There were twists I didn't expect and horrors I sadly did, and I read the last quarter of the book through a thin veil of tears that shifted from happy to sad to horrified and back again as the story of one man's heroism and the fall-out in a traditional southern neighbourhood reached its close.  It's beautifully written, very accessible, thought-provoking, compelling, heartbreaking, and frequently - thanks to young Scout and her wonderful way with words ("Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.  He was the most boring child I ever met.") - very funny.  READ IT!

Two Questions

1.  Did Bob Ewell rape his daughter?  That's what I read somewhere afterwards, but I didn't interpret it like that at all.  I read it as Ewell beating his daughter when he caught her 'tempting' a black man, whether sex was involved or not - but I saw no hint that he'd raped Mayella.  According to the court case no doctor was called to examine her, so how do we know there was any sex involved at all?  That Ewell didn't just catch Mayella making advances on Tom, beat her for it, then accuse Tom of rape in order to bring down 'justice' on his head in revenge?

2.  Why is Jem not a more famous character?  I didn't even know Scout HAD a brother - you hear about Scout and Atticus every time someone discusses the book, but I've never heard anyone talk about Jem!  Which is a shame, because he's basically a mini-Atticus.  He's brave, and thoughtful, and understands things that Scout doesn't yet; he was the character that inspired most hope in me, the one who seemed to represent the dream of a less prejudiced and more equality-driven future generation.

Notable Quotables:
  • "... sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of - oh, of your father... if Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn't be as hard as some men are at their best.  There are just some kind of men who - who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one."
  • "The things that happen to people we never really know.  What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets..."
  • "Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire.  I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches: when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing things that required pants.  Aunt Alexandra's vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life.  I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well..."
  • "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

Source: I've had this book on my shelves for over a decade; I think I got it for Christmas one year?

~ THE MOVIE (4.5*) ~
Starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham. Directed by Robert Mulligan, 1962.
Okay, the first thing to say about this movie is READ THE BOOK FIRST.  It's wonderful in its own right, but I think I got more out of certain pivotal scenes thanks to the background knowledge and additional detail I'd gleaned from the book.  The second thing to say is that this segment of the post will be a bit spoilery, because I HAD FEELS AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THEM.
So, I was very, very impressed with this film.  I thought that it was very faithful to the book; there were significant exclusions that maybe wouldn't have translated to the screen, or would have dragged the whole thing down (like a lot of the neighbourhood gossip and drama), and the time period between Tom's trial and the aftermath was tightened, but there were no major changes.  Considering the fact that the movie was never going to be inside Scout's mind in the same way, I thought the atmosphere and tone of the film stayed remarkably consistent with the book.  There was a warmth about the Finch family, about their little unit of Atticus, Jem, Scout and Calpurnia, which translated beautifully, and worked to offset the violent moments and the spooky intrigue of the Radley house next door.
The thing that really makes this movie, of course, is the acting.  Gregory Peck is wonderful as Atticus, and his dry reactions to his childrens' quirks made me chuckle a few times, just as they did in the book.  I thought his closing statement to the jury, which, as I said above, made me want to give him a standing ovation in the book, was a bit overblown and filled with dramatic huffing and puffing, but everything else was spot on for me.  You know how even if you're not a kid person, occasionally you will see someone, whether in real life or a fictional character, and get this overwhelming feeling that you could have children with that person?  That was how I felt about Atticus Finch.  He was perfect.  Props also go to Brock Peters, whose testimony as Tom Robinson nearly broke my heart, it was so powerfully and quietly played.

The children's acting was also excellent, very natural and full of fun.  Mary Badham's Scout is so mischievous and determined to be just as good as her brother, and she made me laugh a few times with her quick retorts and absolute horror at having to wear a dress for school.    Phillip Alford, playing Jem, was the perfect big brother, defending Scout one moment and soundly chastising her the next.  You could see Atticus in him, just like in the book.  I read somewhere that Mary and Phillip were actually very much like brother and sister on the set, constantly bickering and playing off each other, so maybe that's why they have such good sibling chemistry on-screen!  Likewise their family chemistry with Gregory Peck was fantastic.  It was like watching a real family, no sense of awkwardness at all, just affection.  In fact, as Mary Badham wrote later, she and Peck stayed in touch and called each other Atticus and Scout until the day he died.
So, shall we talk about the feels now?  As I gushed on Twitter last night, this movie made me SOB.  Just like the book.  At least one tear-worthy moment didn't appear in the film, but there were several here-come-the-tears moments, and two serious-crying stop-the-film-until-you-can-see-again parts.  This was the first:

It's just as perfect a moment as it is in the book, that show of respect for the one man in town who dared to defend an innocent man despite the fact that he was black.  When I mentioned how hard I'd cried on Twitter, Liz immediately tweeted back the Reverend's immortal line ("Miss Jean Louise, stand up... your father's passing"), and I knew I wasn't alone.  And then there was the real tear-jerker...

This was the moment that finished me off completely, in both the book AND the film.  This was where I really benefited from having read the book first, I think, because there was more background between Boo and the Finches in the novel (during the fire, for example, which doesn't appear in the film), and also Scout's insight at the end into how much Boo could see from his house: how he'd been watching over 'his' children for a long time, finding solace from his lonely existence in these two good and vibrant young people.  I thought Robert Duvall played this moment beautifully.  He never has to say a word, but he is PERFECT.  His fear, followed by that moment of relief and happiness as Scout recognises and accepts him... ALL THE FEELS.  At the moment Atticus says, "I believe he already knows you..." and the gorgeous Elmer Bernstein score swells, I absolutely fell apart.  I'm welling up just thinking about it, and I think that moment from the score will probably make me cry forever more.

Okay, I'm going to stop rambling now, because I'm never going to be able to do either the book OR the film justice.  Just, please... if you've been putting off this book because of the overwhelming hype, or if you've just not been sure it's for you, and if you haven't seen the film yet... PLEASE GO AND DO IT.  RIGHT NOW.  You won't regret it.  This is what books and movies are supposed to be, you guys.  This is the real deal.  Go!  Read!  Watch!  Cry!