Saturday, July 17, 2010

To Kill A Mocking Bird (is a sin)

Its some sort of rite of passage in itself. The reading of To Kill A Mockingbird.

"Shoot all the bluejays you want, but it is a sin to kill a mockingbird"

A novel authored by Harper Lee, it tells the story of Jem and Scout  - two young white children growing up in the 'tired old town' of Maycomb County, Alabama. Their father Atticus Finch - an upright lawyer but simply Atticus to them - is a paragon of virtue in no small way. One summer, he is appointed as the lawyer for a 'coloured' man accused of raping and assaulting a young white woman. Meanwhile the children are preoccupied by their mysterious neighbour whom they call Boo Radley and try to tempt him out of his secretive lair, not knowing that when it does happen eventually, so much would have changed.

I read the book many years ago, when I was still in school. What I remember most is not the unfair trial of Tom Robinson and his steadfast defense by Atticus Finch. It is the ominous yet timorous figure of Boo Radley and the vivacious Scout. While the book is set in a time when racial discrimination was at its peak, the issue of race is only one of the strands of life and all its glaring contradictions that inform the actual story. The story of Jem and Scout.

I recently had the chance to see the film version of the novel directed by Robert Mulligan, with Atticus Finch played famously by Gregory Peck.

It is Scout - Jean Louise Finch - who leads us through the narrative. As the events unfold in Maycomb County the children observe all this from a place of innocence but also, of the kind of understanding that only children possess. The kind of simple cold logic that can prompt cruelty but can also unseat prejudice. From their eyes - from Scout's in particular - we encounter all the characters. We 'get into their shoes and walk around in them'.

Scout, her brother Jem and their spindly little friend Dill have been well-cast. Dill is pitch-perfect when you factor in the the little nugget of information, that the character may be based on Haper Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. even Robert Duvall in his small part as Boo is arresting. But the real reason for anyone to watch this film is Mary Badham, who plays Scout with incredible charm and uncanny confidence. And it is a difficult part to play.  For Scout is no girl. At least she does not seem to care much for the conventional physical trappings of a girl She makes her discomfort apparent when she appears in a pretty little dress, having been forced to shed her overalls and plaid shirts for school. How will Scout's tomfoolery stack up against lace and gingham? One only needs to watch her gait, as she strides up to little Walter Cunningham, arms swinging, hands fisted and brow furrowed, to realise that Mary Badham's Scout will not be undone by some silly little dress.

Some of the moments between Scout and Atticus are crafted with great dignity, making them especially poignant. Atticus is put on the spot by his daughter as she demands to know what will be left to her if her father's pocketwatch is to be Jem's. Atticus says, with the slightest hint of grief but just enough melancholy, that her mother's pearl necklace and ring, are hers to keep if she chooses to have them. Scout is reassured. And as Atticus is left with his own thoughts out on the porch swing, we hear Scout asking Jem a million questions about their mother.

The strength of the relationship between father and children is that nothing is hidden. Atticus never tries to conceal the ugliness of the world from them and in return they never leave his side when push comes to shove. It is the kind of mutual respect that is rarely there between an adult and a child. And Atticus listens to his children when he could just hear them. He sees them when he could merely look at them. His defeat in the courtroom is particularly hard on Jem. In the film, Tom Robinson is led away and all we see, as the courtroom empties, is a view of Atticus Finch from the high balcony where the coloured folk sit alongwith Jem and Scout. He simply clears up his desk. The shot remains wide. And a man trying to do the right thing is left alone with his lofty ideas of equality and fairness. And it is lonely on the side of righteousness. Much like when he must shoot the mad dog and face its madness alone, but also rid the town of it.

There are many great things about the film. The title sequence is easily one of the best, setting the scene for what the film will really be about. Anyone who feels the film is a pithy testament of racial discrimination, needs only to watch the opening titles to understand the true meaning of it. The scenes with the children trying to penetrate the Radley property are tense and quite scary. I have a feeling had I been all of 10 years old while watching this film, Boo Radley's shadow would have done some serious damage. The film changes tone when you least expect it. Scout's hilariously clumsy ham costume is suddenly transformed into a death trap when they are accosted on their way back from the Halloween pageant at school. The humour that precedes the scene when the children are attacked, makes the violence even more horrific.

The 'black' characters are thinly imagined and remain peripheral at best. Save Tom Robinson who is allowed a moment in the courthouse scene. But I was only really disappointed at the flimsy characterisation of Calpurnia - the housekeeper at the Finch household - who I remember to be a definite force in the book. Perhaps if Cal had depth in the film, it would have added great value to the underlying narrative about race.

The issue of race is oversimplified no doubt both in the novel and the film. But it is incidental to both. The real discovery is not that Tom Robinson died in vain or that racism clouded the truth and overtook justice on more than one occasion. That is a given. The real discovery is that Boo Radley is really Arthur Radley. That Jem and Scout find compassion where they thought they would find only suspicion and fear. That truth does not always triumph but it is much better to be truthful. That people are victims of circumstance and the greatest tragedy is that everyone has their reasons. That childhood is fleeting and growing up is painful.

Atticus Finch says to Arthur 'Boo' Radley in the end 'Thank you Arthur. Thank you for my children' And you know then, that though Atticus may not have known it, he is grateful to Boo for much more than saving the lives of his children.

Later Scout looks out on her street from the Radley porch and its a whole other view.

No comments: