Remembering Harper Lee on Screen, From ‘Mockingbird’ to ‘Capote’

To Kill a Mockingbird
Courtesy of Universal

Nearly a decade ago the movies gave us two different, equally well-etched portraits of Nelle Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener in “Capote” (2006) and by Sandra Bullock in “Infamous” (2007). In both films Lee emerges a picture of sturdy, soft-spoken grace as she accompanies her childhood friend Truman Capote to Kansas, where he is researching his future true-crime masterwork, “In Cold Blood.”

Her role in the process proves far more important than either she or the fluttery, self-absorbed Capote lets on: She is there to grease the wheels of his investigation, to inoculate the locals against their prejudices toward this East Coast outsider, and to nudge open doors that might otherwise be slammed in his face. By standing alongside Truman (and, when necessary, putting him in his place), she builds a bridge between him and the townsfolk — and also, crucially, between him and the audience. Her quiet, homespun goodness vouches for him in a way that he never could.

Over the 56 years between the publication of her own masterwork, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and her death last week at 89, Lee was known for steering clear of the limelight as stubbornly as Capote embraced it. Her reputation for reclusiveness even earned her comparisons over the years to one of her more memorable creations, Boo Radley — reductive armchair psychoanalysis, perhaps, though in some ways it’s fitting that we should have to return to her work for insights into the life she lived. Her work, after all, was all that she offered of herself, and it was enough.

If there’s a reason the performances of Bullock and Keener (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) struck a resonant note, it’s not just that they put a pleasing face on a great literary enigma, but also that they seemed fundamentally true to our public conception of the woman who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” If there was anything one could glean from Lee’s classic 1930s-set Southern parable of racial intolerance and liberal compassion, it’s that its creator was surely a defender of decency, a champion of empathy, and a protector of the misunderstood.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Lee famously wrote, though chances are you remember those words being spoken by Gregory Peck. Indeed, for those who have seen Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation, it’s impossible to hear the name “Atticus Finch” and not visualize Peck with his owlish specs, three-piece suit and unshakable air of father-knows-best. Not for nothing did Atticus Finch top the American Film Institute’s 2003 list of the 100 greatest heroes in movie history; he was a fount of kindness and a pillar of rectitude all at once.

Without Peck’s indelible, Oscar-winning interpretation of the role, would readers have felt so shredded and betrayed by the cruel revelation in Lee’s second novel, “Go Set a Watchman” — published just last year, amid great anticipation and controversy — that the Atticus Finch we thought we knew and loved had aged into an embittered old segregationist? Some, of course, rejected that interpretation outright when it was revealed that “Watchman” was not a sequel to “Mockingbird” but an early draft of it, one that Lee in all likelihood hadn’t intended to see the light of day.

This is not the moment to resurrect that debate. For those willing to accept the legitimacy of “Go Set a Watchman” as a cultural artifact, the spectacle of a beloved literary and cinematic icon besmirched by his maker provides, at the very least, a timely and provocative experiment. At the end of “Watchman,” Atticus’ daughter, Jean-Louise — better known as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — grasps the importance of becoming her own person and standing by her principles, rather than dwelling in the shadow of her father’s. To the extent that Atticus Finch has been a surrogate father to many of us, there is something unmistakably powerful about the way Lee metaphorically severs the cord, casting a beloved, saintly figure in a new light that is as harsh as it is undeniably human.

And while “Go Set a Watchman” will never eclipse “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the pantheon of great American novels, much less in the hearts of readers, its darker, more discomfiting vision nonetheless casts an illuminating beam upon its predecessor. Atticus Finch may have been a great proponent of considering things from another character’s point of view, but as many have pointed out over the years, the point of view that “To Kill a Mockingbird” never really grants us is that of Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black man at the heart of the story. Atticus’ goodness and suffering — and the goodness and suffering of his once-innocent children — serve as a welcome balm for the horrors of African-American life in the Jim Crow era, but they also serve to muffle those horrors — on the page and, to an even greater extent, on the screen, where the black residents of Maycomb, while duly depicted in their lowly and oppressed circumstances, somehow seem to exist beyond the reach of the camera’s interest.

As Roger Ebert noted in a 2001 re-review of the film, Lee’s book shielded itself from this criticism in part by adopting Scout’s 6-year-old perspective. But to revisit “Mockingbird” the movie — as I did a few hours after learning of Lee’s passing — is to encounter a work that continues to speak to the present moment, even when it seems increasingly out of step with it. As the industry slowly awakens to the need for more black stories told by black voices, Mulligan’s film remains an important marker on a long and difficult timeline of cultural progress. It is a stirring, beautiful movie and also, in many ways, a quaint, limited one — a reminder that consolation, one of the great and enduring pleasures of fiction, is not always so far removed from complacency.

In dreaming up a deeply flawed 1950s version of Atticus Finch in “Go Set a Watchman,” did Lee perhaps recognize that we might experience a shiver of not just revulsion but recognition — that we might understand a hero’s complex humanity as an affirmation of our own? Assuming it was her decision to publish, did she perhaps understand that the destruction of a sacred idol might compel us to view the cause of racial justice as our shared burden, rather than one man’s crusade? Loath as she was to discuss her books even when she was still with us, Harper Lee is not about to supply any answers now. But as her small yet enormous body of work can attest, and as her friend Truman Capote surely knew, she was nothing if not a master of tough love.