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Thursday, March 19, 2009

When Jem Waked Up (on Horton Foote's screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird)

Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960)
Horton Foote (screenplay), based on the novel by Harper Lee, Robert Mulligan (director) To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962

Almost every American school child and millions of adults know Harper Lee's American classic novel and the film, scripted by Horton Foote, based on the novel. As Joseph Crespino wrote in an essay in 2000: "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism." Lee's novel and the film, moreover, are etched in American consciousness; the racial violence of 1936 in the small town Alabama it recounts dovetailed perfectly with the changes occurring in American minds and the radical challenges of Southern prejudice which became a major issue of the 1960s. And in this sense the book, perhaps, effected more middle-class Americans than any other of its time. Even at a personal level, I remember being impressed when my mother, who read primarily Romances, hosted a book club during this period; my father, brother, sister, and I were consigned to the basement, but I recall creeping up to the doorway, listening in as one book club member dramatically read the scene in which lawyer Atticus Finch is spat upon by the evil Bob Ewell on a downtown Maycomb, Alabama street. When the movie premiered, I was in attendance.

I believe I first read the book a few years later, in 1964, while living in Norway. I recall devouring it in a single afternoon, wiping away the tears as I completed its last pages. There was no question in my mind that it was extremely sentimental—for most of that year I had been reading the works of Thomas Hardy and Henrik Ibsen—but I recognized it for its high moral tone and its gentle nostalgia nonetheless.

With the news of the screenplay writer Horton Foote's death on March 4th, I decided to revisit both the novel and picture. For the most part, Foote's adaptation of Lee's book is successful, if far moodier and grittier than the more comedic original. Indeed Harper Lee was said to have been pleased with Foote's version. But that is not to say there are no crucial differences between film and novel.

Mulligan's black and white images, helped by Elmer Bernstein's brooding but lyrical score, creates a darker tone than the novel evokes. And Foote's decisions to focus the action on the Finch house, the courtroom, and the back country lanes where the Ewells and Robinsons live, along with his deletion of characters such as Aunt Alexandra and the larger role in the novel played by their childhood friend Dill (based on Truman Capote), further isolates the Finch and Radley families from what is clearly a highly bigoted community. It is almost as if, in Foote's version, Atticus and the children are not given leave to walk the streets of Maycomb. The children's two outings are a nighttime scramble to protect their father from a lynching mob and a hidden attendance in the Black only upstairs gallery of the courthouse proceedings. Even Ewell's open act of hatred, his spitting upon Atticus's face on a downtown street now occurs in front of the Robinson's shack. Given Atticus's moral separation and their neighbor Boo Radley's secretive ways, there is almost a claustrophobic quality to Jem and Scout's life in Foote's rewriting of the work.

That sense of isolation, moreover, changes everything by pitting the people on the Finch's street against the entire community (epitomized by Scout's several school yard scuffles), a fact emblematized in the appearance of a rabid dog, clearly wandering into their cul de sac from some other part of town. To the children's surprise, their father—who notably refuses to play baseball with the other city fathers—shoots the animal dead, amazingly protecting his loved ones.

Similarly, when Ewell attacks the Finch children (Ewell's attacks in the novel also include Tom Robinson's wife), their neighbor Boo, like the father, comes to their rescue. It is notable that the sheriff of this hateful town, argues against his lawful duty, proclaiming that the truth—the fact that Boo Radley has killed Bob Ewell—would harm the mentally retarded man:

I never heard tell it was against the law for any citizen to do his utmost to
prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did. But
maybe you'll tell me it's my duty to tell the town all about it and not to
hush it up. Well you know what'll happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb
including my wife will be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
To my way of thinking, taking the one man who's done you and this town
a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight—it's a
sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head. ...Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

Like the figures of the musical Oklahoma! described in My Year 2003, the authorities of this southern town decide to bend truth, something very near to what Scout has earlier on defined (mistakenly, so Atticus insists) as a "compromise."

Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial, we may find it hard to imagine that the "good" ladies of Maycomb would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has evidently convinced their kind that his daughter has been raped by a Black man. Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus's advice to "not lose faith," runs "like a rabbit" to escape the police? The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy's proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps, inevitable.

Given the events of both film and novel, particularly the more enfolded fiction of Foote's script, it is clear that—despite any moral lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the audiences of this film—the world to which Jem will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both novel and film being the adult Scout's words about her father: "He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning") is no better than the one in which he was nearly killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his actions in such an isolate world, have little effect. And in that respect, the film embraces the status quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee's classic and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.

While it may be true that there were no real alternatives in 1936, and that both novel and the film merely reiterate the truth of that reality, it is the imitation of the facts, the bland realism boiled up with heavy doses of nostalgia and romance, that ultimately disturbs me. Perhaps a more passionate response might be a fantasy where one could celebrate change.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2009

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