Published on October 23rd, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
To Kill a Mockingbird book & film review
Written in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel written by Harper Lee, which is loosely based on her own upbringing in the Deep South of America, Alabama and was quickly adapted into a film released in 1962, both were released to critical acclaim and enduring success and popularity.
The novel is well known for its themes of racial injustice, prejudice and coming of age, and is taught widely at schools all over the world, however, the novel wasn’t featured at my own school.
“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The book is told from a first-person perspective, that of 6 year-old Jean-Louise Finch but colloquially referred to as ‘Scout’ and her experiences growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb County in Alabama. Her brother ‘Jem’ and friend ‘Dill’ who stays in Maycomb during the summer begin to obsess over a mysterious and reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, whom they are both terrified of and fascinated by, the overarching plot concerns the stories and adventures that Scout, Jem and Dill have concerning the Radley house and its occupants, while Scout & Jem’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch is busy with a case concerning a young black man accused of raping a white woman.
The young children undergo many ordeals due to their father being the representation to the defendant, the town still exhibits racist attitudes towards black people and any associates of them, like Atticus Finch. As the case goes on, the children learn about prejudice, social standards and growing up.
The title of the book comes from a quote from Atticus Finch in the book, when he is having a conversation with his children about using guns. As the book is set in the Deep South, guns are a frequent possession and hobby of even children, Atticus, who is opposed to violence, allows his children to have guns and use them, but under the condition that they “Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This is because Mockingbirds do not cause any harm and only entertain people with their song.
The imagery of birds is apparent throughout the novel, the surname Finch and mockingbird allusions throughout the book, however it could indeed be accidental, as the author’s mother’s maiden name was Finch. It is interesting to note that the actor who played Atticus in the film adaptation was named Gregory ‘Peck’. The use of the word sin is also interesting in the context of the quote, as it is noted that despite being southern, Atticus doesn’t use the word sin, indicating that religious views are things he respects but does not brazenly adhere to.
The mockingbird in the novel has been disputed, on first reading I understood the allegorical bird to be the innocent defendant, Tom Robinson, whose trial is a result of his freely helping a young woman with her chores, without payment, and potential condemnation would be ‘to kill the mockingbird’. However some have noted that, at the end of the novel, Boo Radley was the mockingbird as he helped save the young children, not without much personal risk.
The film adaptation was released only two years after the book and has gone on to become one of the crowning pieces of cinematic history. The film stays true to the novel, cutting out only the most time-consuming and unnecessary parts of the narrative, such as the Finch’s visit to the Gospel church and the inclusion of the false-drunk who has married a black woman. There are some parts of the book that were unfortunately taken out that had major impact on the book’s story or the message, for example, the woman’s missionary group meeting and the whole visit of the aunt. It lent much depth to the character and growth of Scout as a woman in the South.
Perhaps one of the key messages that was absent in the film was the development of the character, Mrs Dubose, a vile and hateful woman whose racist taunts and insults to the two young children culminates with Jem’s destruction of some of her prized flowers. Their subsequent reading visits (that they were ordered to do to apologise) were unknowingly intended to help her get off her morphine medication addiction. She wanted to die without the feeling of dependency, as she was a proud and independent woman. With her death, she teaches a valuable life lesson to the pair in courage, despite what other people’s views are or even that not all of one’s actions might be successful. She shows that people are not always what they seem.
In the film she only appears briefly and serves as a way of showing Atticus’ calm and personable manner.
The most famous theme of To Kill a Mockingbird is that of racial prejudice, the handling of the matter is interesting to note, as it is written by a white southern woman who grew up seeing the treatment first hand, as opposed to other works like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, something we did read at school.
To Kill a Mockingbird is satirically condemnatory of the racism prevalent in Maycomb, literally conflicting the humour of the children with the aggression of the adults and their prejudice.
The book can be summarised as about morality, however it vies for the title of the Great American novel in that it handles the wider implications of the era, putting a spotlight on the zeitgeist, all while from a fairly modern viewpoint. Perhaps that might exempt it being considered, however the book still manages to evoke a sense of awareness and immersion that other would-be Great American novels so often express.
Merging the genres of children’s adventure, coming-of-age and gothic drama, To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare feat of understanding, that everyone could find something to love and something to learn from nestled within its pages.
It probably is the last of the true American novels.