“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.” ~ Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
I know it’s St. Patrick’s day and I should be writing about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or some other book about Ireland, or the Irish experience in America, but I haven’t finished reading Tree yet so that will have to wait for another post.
Instead, I have a confession to make. I did not read To Kill A Mockingbird until about two years ago. I know! How come I was not required to read it in school? Well, perhaps since I had just started elementary school when the book came out in 1960 and the movie came out two years later, it hadn’t become an American icon quite yet even though the book won the Pultzer Prize for literature. So, I was introduced to this amazing story by the movie.
It was probably on one of those Sunday Night at the Movies programs that were so popular back in the dark ages when there were only three TV networks. They were TV “events” showing recently released movies that had received lots of acclaim. The movie won three Oscars and was nominated for five more.
The Sunday Night at the Movies program was a godsend for our family since we lived in a series of small towns most of them with no movie theater. To Kill a Mockingbird became one of our family favorites. Whenever it was on TV ever after, I would watch it sometimes with other family members. But most often I watched it with my father. He and I would discuss the characters, events and main ideas. Loving the movie so much, it’s hard even for me to believe it took so long for me to read the book.
I can’t really say why I never felt compelled to pick up the book. It might be partly because the character of Atticus Finch was so much like my father, the way he interacted with his children was so much like the way my father interacted with my brother, sisters, and me. Or maybe it’s because I don’t understand Southern sensibilities. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where the outlook on life is very different. I’ve read a number of books about the south and I don’t understand the long held beliefs and emotions that divide classes and races. But, in truth, I think that has more to do with the way I was raised than where I grew up. No matter what the reason, I’m so glad I finally got around to reading the book.
I have another confession to make. To Kill a Mockingbird was the movie that began my life long love for Gregory Peck. There was some core of goodness about him, and most of his characters, no matter how troubled they might be that was reflected through to the audience. I love his work so much that I made sure I got an autographed photograph of him at an International Thespian Festival I attended years ago. That photograph hangs on my office wall above a photo of my father.
Just now as I write this I realize that I didn’t want to spoil the image of Atticus I got from the movie, just in case the book and movie characters were different. I was relieved that Atticus retained the same characteristics in the book that I had so loved in the movie.
Several years ago, when I was teaching high school, I was given the opportunity to acquire a course called The Story of Movies, produced by The Film Foundation in partnership with IBM and Turner Classic Movies. The course is designed to help teachers and students understand how to identify the language of film so they can get the most out their movie going experience. The first of what was supposed to be a series used To Kill A Mockingbird as the source material. There were two things I learned from teaching the course that helped me appreciate this beloved movie even more.
The first is that everything that is in a movie, whether it is part of the setting, costumes, music, or even the opening credits, has a purpose. In a way the audience is receiving subliminal information in every frame of a film. The second is what I pointed out before, the camera shows the audience what to focus upon.
The Story of Movies video and materials pointed out something I had not thought about before. Opening credits are important, especially for older movies, and particularly for this one. The camera focuses on a child’s hands opening an old cigar box while she is singing. She takes out each one of the things in the box. As the credits continue the movie theme music begins underneath the images. All the things that are shown in the box during the opening credits are things Jem shows Scout later in the movie. If you are an avid movie fan, those kinds of details are the extras that enhance your movie watching experience.
There is one scene in the movie that I find extraordinarily moving. It’s the scene after Tom Robinson’s trial is over. Everyone has left the courtroom except Atticus and the black spectators in the upper gallery. As Atticus leaves, they stand up as a show of honor for his efforts to save Tom. The camera takes in the wide shot so we see both Atticus and the people standing. Atticus doesn’t look up to acknowledge their tribute. My throat closes up every time.
There have been times when I felt like I didn’t have the right to weep at this moment because I’m a white woman. I think it’s sad that the black people of Macon are thought of as second class citizens, so much so that even a poor white family is held in higher esteem than they are. It’s such a complicated moment. I always think that Atticus can’t look up because of all the history that divide whites and blacks in his community, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to embarrass them, or maybe it’s because he feels that he should have done a better job of defending Tom, or maybe he’s ashamed of the whites in his town for upholding the status quo. All those feelings affect me. I just want the white and the black people to be able to have a clean, open relationship, but for whatever reason, they can’t.
As I said, I felt guilty about my emotion over that moment, until I listened to an interview with a black actor, I think it was with Laurence Fishburn. He nearly wept as he told the interviewer how that same moment in the movie makes him weep every time. He listed the same reasons that affect me so deeply. I felt vindicated. And what he said made me think that no matter how I’m affected by art, that’s a good thing. I should never feel ashamed of expressing my true emotions.
So often we apologize for showing deep emotions, even in our most private moments. When something touches me so deeply that I cry, I feel extremely vulnerable. But it’s in our most vulnerable moments that we have the best opportunity of connecting with others. We don’t apologize for laughing, why apologize for crying? Having come to that conclusion, I’ve vowed not to apologize ever again for weeping when I’m in public.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one case in which the book and the movie are essentially the same. Some of the events and characters are condensed or emphasized differently, but the core message is universal, loving and caring for each other no matter what the circumstances, is extremely important.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting on my posts.
I hope you have a fabulous weekend.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. I you prefer a physical book, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.