This past weekend, my husband and I had the opportunity to attend a screening of To Kill A Mockingbird at our community theater, and afterward there was a Q&A with Mary Badham who played Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, in the movie. Leading up to this exciting opportunity, I decided to re-read To Kill A Mockingbird. I know that I read it in middle school like many other students have throughout the years and I think I re-read it in college, but either way, it’s definitely been many years since I have read the novel and I am so glad that I re-visited this classic as an adult.
Back in 2015, I read Go Set A Watchman when it was released, and had so many mixed feelings about the novel and the circumstances that lead to its publication as it seemed to be a manuscript that Harper Lee never wanted published. But re-reading Mockingbird was a totally different experience and I had it finished in a couple of days. I have seen the movie many times, and I had forgotten since I was a kid about the various characters and subplots that are lost to time in the film adaptation. Harper Lee really does a wonderful job of creating a rich, realistic feeling atmosphere in the fictional Maycomb and it was enjoyable to re-visit. I genuinely laughed aloud several times at several of Scout’s observations. And of course, the overall themes of the novel continue to hit home reading it as an adult, even more so now that I have lived a little bit more of life. At its heart, Mockingbird is a story of a father trying to guide his children through a world that is filled with darkness, but he’s trying to do so in a way that teaches them to hold on to hope anyway and not to become cynical in light of all the evil they see and encounter. That’s a theme that I imagine I could understand as a middle schooler reading the book, but I feel I can appreciate that striving to hold on to hope in the face of darkness a little more now as an adult who has lived a bit more life.
During the interview with Mary Badham following the movie, she was very engaging and answered questions regarding the making of the movie and all the work that Gregory Peck did to make the movie a reality. She discussed what she viewed as the four major themes in the film and novel that modern audiences continue to find relatable today:
- Opioid addiction- This is probably not the first relevant social issue that most of us think of when we think of To Kill A Mockingbird and it’s one I never really thought about, but it was the first thing she mentioned. If I hadn’t just re-read the book, I wouldn’t have known what she was referring to because I had forgotten the full story of Mrs. Dubose in the novel and her goal to “leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody” and die free from her morphine addiction. Ms. Badham shared that they had filmed these scenes and she could still remember the makeup the actress playing Mrs. Dubose had to wear, but the scenes were cut due to time. I really enjoyed this subplot in the novel though and wish it could have made it to screen. Of course, unfortunately, she is absolutely correct and this is still a very pertinent topic today. On a side note, she also mentioned that she has been asked to play Mrs. Dubose in the play production of To Kill A Mockingbird and made a joke about coming full circle from Scout to Mrs. Dubose.
- Racial Injustice- Obviously this is probably the first topic that most of us think of when we consider the novel or film and ways that it continues to be entirely too relatable today. 2021 America may not look exactly like 1935 Maycomb, Alabama, but the frustrations of experiencing or witnessing racial injustice continue to be all too familiar to modern audiences.
- Legal System Injustices/Inequality- I was glad to have re-read the book prior to watching the film again because it covers the trial a little more in depth. Also, in discussing being assigned the case, novel Atticus basically admits from the beginning that it is an unwinnable case because of the deep-seated discrimination that Tom Robinson is facing. It feels like movie Atticus maintains a bit more of a hopeful attitude or at least doesn’t voice the feelings of helplessness he has facing the trial. The film does reflect that the jury takes a while to come back with the verdict, but the novel also mentions that there was one juror who was a bit of a hold out in not believing Tom to be guilty, and this alone feels like progress to Atticus.
- Mental Health- Again, I was really glad that I re-read the novel because there is more back story on Arthur “Boo” Radley. Boo is such an enigma to the children, but through Scout’s narration in the novel, an adult audience can piece together what is likely going on behind the closed doors of the Radley home. Re-reading as an adult, I now have 13 years experience as a medical social worker, and have witnessed how different families handle loved ones with mental health issues and how detrimental lack of education and refusal of help can be for patients and families alike. Boo unfortunately lived during a time when many families chose to lock up their loved ones struggling with mental health issues, but even today stigma remains and many people continue to refuse help due to lack of understanding or feelings of shame surrounding the stigma of mental health disorders.
I most enjoyed listening to Ms. Badham discuss growing up in Birmingham during some of its more turbulent days. I have done research into the events in Birmingham in 1963 for a writing project and as soon as she first mentioned living in Birmingham as a child, I was intrigued and hoped she would talk more about it and was glad when she did later on in discussions. As a young teen, she had the experience of moving between the vastly different worlds of California and Jim Crow-era Birmingham, and it served to highlight the injustices in her hometown. She shared several stories and discussed that she ultimately was able to move to California to continue school.
Ms. Badham is also clearly someone who loves to read and said more than once if you teach a child to read, “They will never be lonely, never be bored, and always stay curious.” My husband seemed to be most struck by her comments about writing and reading, and said to me after it was over, “I’ve heard you say so much of that before.” He’s not a reader and I think he thinks I’m a bit weird because I can sit down and finish a thick novel in a couple of days, but hearing Mary Badham seemed to make him realize that there are actually other weirdos out there like me.
After the Q&A, we were able to go and meet Ms. Badham and she signed a picture for me. My husband told her his observation that he has heard me make many of the same comments she did about reading and writing and social justice. He told me later that he wanted her to understand that we would be friends if she knew me. There was of course a line of people waiting to talk with her so I didn’t want to take up too much of her time, but the brief chat was wonderful and as I reflected later that night, maybe a providential nudge to keep writing. I never mentioned that I was a writer, but somehow we got on the topic of the novel and Harper Lee. She asked me when I had read the novel and I told her that I had first read it in middle school, but I had actually just re-read it that week to prepare for the screening. I commented that it was good to re-read it as an adult and she agreed and said she always took away something different with each re-reading and said that re-reading it as a grandmother had made her look at it differently also. (Her family was there with her and her grand daughters were sitting a few feet away from us in the front row of seats in the little theater). She told me that Harper Lee had almost given up completely on the novel and at one point had thrown the manuscript out the window into the snow. But with the encouragement and support from some friends, she persisted and in doing so she crafted one of the most enduring American novels ever published.
I’ve been struggling a bit in my own writing journey and not sure exactly where I am going. But I’ve always known it was never meant to be easy. Maybe I just needed to be reminded last weekend that even one of the best authors who lived had her own moments of doubt. But thank goodness she went out into the snow to recover her manuscript and continue writing or the world would have lost something truly special.