To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird fits into the small class of books where I like the movie as much or more than the book, while also liking the book a lot. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and This Boy’s Life come to mind as others in that category.)

In fact, the movie is such a favorite of mine, and it’s so much a part of my consciousness, that it was on my mind the whole time reading the book. I was constantly picturing Gregory Peck and the others, seeing the movie scene in my mind that corresponds to a given section of the book, noting all the differences between the book and the movie.

Actually, the movie sticks pretty closely to the book. There are certainly differences though.

A lot of it’s just a matter of there not being enough time in a conventional length movie to include everything, so various characters and scenes have to be cut. Perhaps most notable in this regard is the elderly Mrs. Dubose’s struggle with morphine addiction, which is not in the movie. There’s also quite a lot about Atticus’s family in the book that is missing from the movie, including his sister coming to live in their house about midway through the story.

There are also more subtle differences. The book to me puts more focus on how the children change. I don’t think in the movie you get quite as much of a sense that several years pass in the course of the story, perhaps in part because it’s the same child actors so they really aren’t any bigger. Yes, in the movie they do learn lessons and such, so that at the end the narrator–Scout–has a more mature view of the world, but in the book you observe on a more continuous basis the changes, such as Jem becoming a difficult adolescent and largely turning away from Scout.

The author’s decision to tell the story through Scout mostly works. It’s tough though, because she’s trying to juggle the viewpoints of Scout as a six year old, Scout as an older child (I think nine by the latter stages of the story) and Scout looking back as an adult. I’d have to go back through the book carefully with this point in mind to be sure, but I had the sense that occasionally that’s a little off, that maybe the child Scout is manifesting something closer to the insight of the adult.

There are also times that maybe the age difference between the children isn’t fully taken into account, like they are of roughly the same level and mature together. For instance, in their play early in the book when Scout is six and Jem is ten, they’re frightened of the Radley house, and their imaginations run wild with all kinds of childish scenarios and schemes. Two or three years later–even before she meets Boo Radley in person–Scout is able to look back on that time as silly because she’s outgrown such attitudes. But of course this older Scout is still considerably younger than the Jem of the beginning stages of the book, who certainly had not outgrown those attitudes.

The story itself is very well done, definitely effective in keeping the reader’s interest.

I read this book back-to-back with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though it may be sacrilege to say it, since Huckleberry Finn is one of the classics of American literature (though this book is very highly regarded as well), I think this is the superior book. I like both, but I like To Kill a Mockingbird more.

Lee’s book is a lot more realistic, yet it’s not like she has to sacrifice some of what Twain achieved by giving himself the liberty to not be realistic. To Kill a Mockingbird has at least as much humor. (Though it’s aided in my mind because I’m invariably picturing the corresponding movie scene when I read the funny parts. Scout is such a wonderful character, and it’s laugh out loud stuff when she, for instance, tortures poor little Walter Cunningham for his eating habits–“What in the Sam Hill are you doing!?!”) It captures the disturbing ignorance of regular folks at least as well. It makes more points about racism and makes them at least as effectively. (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn hammers home the dehumanization of blacks, but I feel like To Kill a Mockingbird covers a lot more specifics about race relations in its time and place.)

Twain’s tongue-in-cheek style is fun, but it does wear on me just a bit by the end. Lee’s way of telling the story is at least as fun and insightful without that.

The book arguably takes the easy way out by making the victim of injustice totally innocent. The hard, and interesting cases, are when principle demands supporting unappealing folks, e.g., freedom of speech for Nazis, a fair trial for terrorists caught in the act, etc. It’s easier to rally folks against oppression when you portray the oppressed as harmless and good, but in the real world, they aren’t. They’re a mixed bag like anyone else (or maybe a little worse than average, since hating and oppressing people is more apt to cripple them and stunt their moral development than to make them better).

But that’s OK. That just would have been a different book. It doesn’t detract from the quality of this one.

I’ve never been crazy about the title metaphor by the way. Killing a mockingbird is condemned on the grounds that killing for sport and sadism should have some outlets, but shouldn’t be directed against something completely harmless and inoffensive. Then at the end of the book, Scout realizes that’s why they shouldn’t subject Boo Radley to unwanted attention.

I mean, the message about not killing harmless things is fine, but is it really the main theme of the book? Especially as it applies to Boo Radley? (I could see Tom Robinson, though even there it would only make it seem more like the author is saying that the reason he deserves a fair trial and fair treatment is because he’s such a good person, rather than because everyone deserves those things.) Is telling the truth and thereby making people want to show appreciation to Boo Radley in a way that–speculatively–could make him uncomfortable really all that analogous to killing a harmless animal in cold blood for sport?

The book is a pleasure. I’ve probably seen the movie all the way through at least five times; now I want to see it again.

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