Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Birth of Atticus Finch

"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 see it through no matter what."

Atticus Finch
"To Kill a Mockingbird" (published July 11, 1960)

Great books and plays eventually wind up on the big screen.

From ancient scribes to modern writers have come great literary works that have produced brilliant tales, admirable heroes and detestable villains.

Half a century ago today, such a book — Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" — was published. And, although it told a story to which most people could relate, I have always felt that it had a special significance for people who were raised in the South.

For it told a tale of the prejudice that the American South still struggles to overcome, of a white lawyer who was called upon to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It was a story of honesty and integrity, of coming of age amid terrific economic anguish and severe cultural growing pains.

Still a timely message, wouldn't you say?

Lee herself (still alive, by the way, at the age of 84) has said that the movie that was based on her book is "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made."

And I'm inclined to agree with her. So, too, is the American Film Institute.

AFI ranked the movie 25th on its Top 100 list and first among courtroom dramas.

AFI also felt that "To Kill a Mockingbird" was the second–most inspiring film of all time.

And when it comes to heroes, no film hero — not Indiana Jones or James Bond or anyone else — nor any of the actors or actresses who portrayed the great heroes of film history ranked higher than Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Not even Gary Cooper, who played heroic characters frequently.

So if Lee was satisfied with the film version of her book, that's good enough for me. Not that I needed her endorsement. I've read the book and I've seen the movie.

I still believe that books are almost always better than movies. That one certainly was. But both the film and the book were remarkable — and certainly worth revisiting a number of times.

The story was semi–autobiographical, but Lee changed the names of the people in her story. It's important to keep in mind that she wasn't telling a fictionalized account of an actual event. Rather, she was taking inspiration from real people and events. Some of the characters were composites of people she knew. Others were inspired by people and events far from her home.

I don't think she created the character of Atticus with Peck in mind. In fact, I think Atticus was inspired by Lee's father, an attorney who unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder years before Lee was born.

But today, nearly 50 years since the making of the film, Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch in our collective minds. He was a great actor, and he played many great roles, but it is almost as if he was born to play Atticus Finch.

If Lee's father was anything like Atticus Finch, he must have defended his clients with an eloquence that one normally doesn't expect from Southerners — and that apparently failed to sway the jurors. But I suppose, being a Southerner herself, Lee knew only too well how wrong that stereotype was.

Indeed, the character of Atticus may well have been the first time that people outside the South had entertained the notion that there were any whites in the South who were not racists — at least minimally.

The racism that was presented in the book (and later the movie) was somewhat stereotypical by modern standards. It certainly isn't representative of the South today. But it isn't meant to be. It is a portrait of the South that existed nearly eight decades ago.

But there has been a price to be paid — albeit a ridiculous one — for its realistic depiction. Mark Twain encountered the same thing with his book about Huckleberry Finn in the 19th century.

In their blind pursuit of political correctness, some school districts in the United States and Canada have banned Lee's book for its use of the so–called "N word." Many of those same school districts, I have no doubt, were behind similar moves against the story of Huck Finn, completely ignoring the fact that the "N word" was part of the accepted language of the time.

(That isn't meant as a defense of that word. It is only meant as an explanation for why the word is used as much as it is in both books. It was the word my grandparents used because that was the word people of their generation used to describe the members of a particular racial group. Around the time of my parents' generation, the word of choice seems to have become "Negro."

(By the time I came along, the socially acceptable word was "black" — which is the word I still use today whenever it is necessary. Some of my friends have taken to using the phrase "African–American," which seems a little imprecise to me. We have other hyphenated ethnic groups, of course, but the hyphens in those instances link nationalities, not continents. It would be more precise, in my opinion, to hyphenate American with the nation of origin — but that kind of documentation is hard to come by.

(For that matter, I must confess, "black" never seemed adequate to me, either, because I knew very few people when I was growing up whose skin could truly be said to be black. Most were brown.)
"Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that 'To Kill a Mockingbird' spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is 'immoral' has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink."

Harper Lee
Letter to the editor in Richmond, Va., 1966

Students in school districts where both "Mockingbird" and Twain's tale of Finn's adventures are available should be grateful they have access to these literary gems that paint such a vivid picture to remind us of how far we have come — and how far we still must go.