Most people I know consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be the greatest novel ever written. Perhaps Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby is in the running for some (not me) but it would certainly be in my top 5. I’m sure just like with everything else there will be a few comments about how To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated and I’m sorry but I just don’t get how anyone could think that.
It is so well paced and builds momentum until the moment of the verdict which is completely devastating and yet triumphant at the same time. And then a lesser writer would have stopped there but the story continues till the reveal of Boo Radley and the attack.
I tend to be a bit of a speed reader because I want to find out what is going to happen (even if I’ve read it before!). But with To Kill a Mockingbird I slow down because I love being with these people so much I don’t want it to end. There are not many books I can say that about. Part of that attachment is the complete charm of Scout as the matter-of-fact narrator and Jem as his little idealistic heart is broken.
But in the end the person I most want to stay in my life is their Dad, Atticus Finch. Never was a more noble character put to pen and paper. He reminds me of my Grandpa who I loved dearly and has passed on. I hope we have all known someone like that. I hope we all know someone who is worthy of standing for when they pass by.
I feel like many modern novelists are afraid to write noble characters- afraid they will seem ‘unrealistic’ or ‘too perfect’. It seems like a modern novelist would tag on some negative qualities to Atticus making him weaker and supposedly more complex. And yet I know many people who are like Atticus, who by no means is a perfect person but he is just trying to do what is right. I certainly hope we all know people who fit that description.
In fact, in my life the alcoholics, philanderers and crooks are the minority thankfully. I relate to the struggles Atticus has where his kids and family pull him one way and his desire to stand up for what is right another. He knows he is putting his family in danger by representing Tom but he can’t stand to sit by and do nothing and let evil prevail. That makes him a complex character because you see the conflict in his eyes. Also he knows he is fighting not only a losing battle but one that will hurt his career and name amongst the town but he is anchored by his own moral compass and nothing else in the end matters.
When they went to adapt To Kill a Mockingbird to the movies they certainly had a Herculean task before them. Fortunately it is in my opinion the finest adaptation from book to screen ever produced. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus and it was such a favorite of his that he kept in touch with the child actors and Harper Lee (a famous recluse) until he died.
After reading the book he said:
“”I got started on it and of course I sat up all night and read straight through it. I understood that they wanted me to play Atticus and I called them at about eight o’clock in the morning and said, ‘If you want me to play Atticus, when do I start? I’d love to play it.’ I thought the novel was a fine piece of writing and of course I turned out to be right about that, because it won the Pulitzer Prize and it’s still being read in high-school literature classes and the paperback goes on selling. But more than that I felt it was something I could identify with without any stress or strain… And I felt that I knew those two children…So I fell into that very readily, both as the father and with an understanding of the children.”
You sense that love in his performance and it feels like a real family. The kid actors are so good and it is kind of amazing this was their first and only role if I’m not mistaken. Peck is so loving and sweet with them while still being honest. It is the mix of showing them the world while shielding them at the same time that makes him a parenting hero.
I love the closing arguments because you know he is certain of the outcome and behavior of the jurors but he still hopes and says with complete conviction they will do the right thing. That’s a main message of To Kill a Mockingbird is hope. Whether it is in the innocence of a child, the honor of a good man or the persecuted souls dreaming of better things, there is always hope to cling too.
When Atticus finds out that Boo is responsible for saving the life of his children he looks at Boo and says simply ““Thank you for my children, Arthur,”. It’s so simple and beautiful. A lesser author might have made a big speech but 6 words is all that is needed. It’s a beautiful contrast when a jury of strong able bodied men fail to have courage but a timid fearful Boo Radley does the right thing.
It’s the culmination of all Harper Lee and Atticus have been trying to teach us. He tells Scout:
“”Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
Some may consider that a sad look at human nature but I see it as incredibly hopeful. Hopeful there will always be people who can say like Paul “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”
So Atticus to me is the most noble and complex character in literature and film. If by some travesty you have not seen and/or read To Kill a Mockingbird stop what you are doing and get it done. Luckily most of us read it in school (and most of us still like it which usually school ruins most books!). It is a movie I frequently watch on Sunday and consider it the equivalent of a hug from my Grandpa who I miss terribly. He was such a man as Atticus.