“The Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama reminds me of the California town I grew up in. The characters of the novel are like people I knew as a boy. I think perhaps the great appeal of the novel is that it reminds readers everywhere of a person or a town they have known. It is to me a universal story – moving, passionate and told with great humor and tenderness.”
The 1962 softcover edition of Harper Lee’s lauded 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird opens with this statement by Gregory Peck, the star cast as the adaptation’s benevolent patriarch and moral compass, Atticus Finch.
Peck won an Academy award for Best Actor portraying Atticus, and the role went on to become to most recognized of his career. Producer Alan J. Pakula, actor Brock Peters (who played Mockingbird’s Tom Robinson), and Lee herself have leveled dual lauds to Peck and his embodiment of the character by asserting that the actor shared apparent real-life qualities with Atticus Finch. With a celebrated screen adaptation following Lee’s award-winning novel by only two years, Atticus Finch became a beloved literary character in a large part because of his cinematic realization, with generations of high school English courses assigning To Kill a Mockingbird and screening Robert Mulligan’s movie for decades following the release of both. Has any character from literature become so strongly and directly associated with a screen performance such as this?
It should come as no surprise, then, that the recently published Go Set a Watchman’s revelation of a racist seventy-something Atticus has not sat well with readers and viewers who looked up to the page and screen Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird as a venerable role model. Such a character shift seemingly contradicts the Atticus written by Lee and embodied by Peck, threatening the image of a figure seared into the memories of millions as a quintessential American hero, a figure that is even treated – at least within the field of law – as if he were a real person.
Controversies stemming from this apparent alteration in Atticus’s character have not been quelled by Go Set a Watchman’s widely speculated path to publication, framing Lee’s “new” novel as anything from a discarded first draft to a manufactured commercial event attended by a galaxy of questions surrounding the intents of a reclusive author.
One thing is likely: Watchman, as the book Lee first wrote before being encouraged by her publisher to follow her two lead characters in an earlier chapter of their lives, presents an image of Atticus Finch that predates the portrait of him realized by Mockingbird. Thus, Lee’s relationship to Atticus Finch is essentially the reverse of our own. And even knowing that Lee first penned Watchman before the novel that defined her career, it’s difficult to approach the Atticus Finch of Watchman without wrestling with the image of him canonized by Mockingbird and its continually celebrated reception. I assume many readers of Watchman will struggle attempting to imagine Gregory Peck patronizing a Maycomb Citizens’ Council meeting.
But Watchman is not really about Atticus. It’s about Jean Louise Finch returning to Maycomb and having a veil lifted over her prior understanding of her home and her father. In the eyes of a now-grown “Scout,” racism reveals itself to no longer be the practice of a few of Maycomb’s more pitiable folk – it is the lifeblood of a white Southern society reeling in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Although her homecoming is an experience more rarely depicted in literature and on film than the more comforting white savior trope, Jean Louise’s confrontation with a “sickening” reality of her home – as she witnesses a white supremacist Citizens’ Council meeting taking place in the very same courtroom as Mockingbird depicts her father’s defense of Tom Robinson – reflects a relatively common experience of adulthood’s necessary destruction of a rose-tinted past, an experience that may be, for Lee, autobiographical.
The social position of African Americans in Lee’s Maycomb hasn’t greatly improved between the Depression of Mockingbird and the 1950s of Watchman, although the latter’s events are informed by a context in which the subjugated are motivated and organized in their demand for the freedoms that white dominance denies. In being released now as something of an inadvertent sequel to Mockingbird (despite some narrative discontinuities between the them), Watchman asks that we wrestle, as Jean Louise does, with confronting the reality of racism itself without the lens of one respected white figure’s noble efforts.
Despite the fact that Mockingbird the movie is as essential a title to American film history as its source material is to American literature, the screen adaptation rights to Watchman have reportedly not yet landed at any studio (a development that potentially contradicts the rumor that Watchman’s publication is solely an exploitative cash-grab by domineering associates of Lee). That said, it seems inevitable that Watchman will eventually make it to screen in some form and, even beyond the weighted question of who would portray this novel’s Atticus Finch, such a film would have to contend in many ways with the ubiquitous image of that character framed by its predecessor.
Regardless of the novel’s quality in comparison to Mockingbird, seeing the Atticus Finch of Watchman to screen is a probability that should be welcomed.
For decades, Hollywood’s portrayal of racism has operated largely within the model exemplified by Lee’s landmark novel and its adaptation within a trope summarized by Noah Berlatsky as “variations on a single narrative: Black people are oppressed by bad white people. They achieve freedom through the offices of good white people.” Recent years have seen a small but significant complication of the still-persistent white savior trope in films that have, in varying ways, taken the lens of racist history off of white saviors to focus instead on African Americans’ struggles to survive within a society in which racism in not a character flaw but the deep root of the American empire.
It’s a necessary maneuver for the times in which we live, which have seen the reaffirming myths fed by Hollywood transform from a call for white liberal advocacy into quiet comfort that prevents the subtle and not-so-subtle incarnations of contemporary racism from becoming visible. The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird was an aspirational ideal in 1960 profoundly realized onscreen in 1962. But perhaps he isn’t so useful today.
At the end of the film version of Mockingbird, upon hearing of Tom’s death at the hands of a prison officer, Peck’s Atticus laments that, while Tom was in “safe keeping,” the Sheriff Deputy “shot at him to wound him, and missed his shot…The deputy said that Tom ran like a crazy man.” Even beyond literary critiques that have contended the novel’s Atticus to be more “at home” with Jim Crow custom than he seems at first glance, Peck’s Atticus possesses, despite his protestations otherwise, blind faith in the social structures that regulate Tom Robinson’s body despite that those same social structures also convicted him. Atticus does not realize that there is no site of “safe keeping” for racism’s targets. To the Atticus of cinema, the authority of those entrusted with the law to kill a black man is unimpeachable, without question of accountability. Peck’s Atticus, like much of Hollywood history, sees racism as a problem that can be distilled in the attitudes of individuals, not a system that convicts and takes black lives despite the sincere efforts of specific, engaging white characters.
By removing Atticus from the world of Mockingbird’s moral center, Watchman asks its readers to see the complexities of white supremacy through the unvarnished eyes of adulthood. Perhaps a screen adaptation of Watchman could motivate cinematic depictions of racism to grow and mature in turn.