Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye
On this day in 1926, Nelle Harper Lee was born. She was the youngest of four children born to Frances Cunningham Finch and Amasa Coleman Lee. Had she not passed away in February of last year, Ms. Lee would be ninety-one years old today.

I was almost at a loss for words when it came time to write a birthday tribute to “Nelle” Harper Lee. What more could possibly be said about an award winning, nationally treasured author? This task was almost like searching for a gift for the person that has everything.

Very rarely does an author’s debut novel not only almost instantly become successful, but also go on to become a literary classic. Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird accomplished both of those feats. To Kill a Mockingbird was later adapted into a film version starring Gregory Peck, and the novel won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category.

For more than half a century, it was believed by most that To Kill a Mockingbird was and would continue to be the only book that Lee ever wrote or published. However, in 2015, Lee surprised us with her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which actually turned out to be a prequel to Mockingbird.

Across the globe, To Kill a Mockingbird still has an impact on people’s lives. The classic novel is mentioned or quoted in numerous novels, television shows and movies. Even President Barack Obama quoted Atticus Finch in his farewell speech.

Furthermore, the legacy of Nelle Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird have lived on in Monroeville, even after her death. There are few places you can visit, or even drive past, without a subtle reminder of Mockingbird, or Nelle herself.

And on her birthday, perhaps that is what is best. For us to simply be reminded of her. Divulge yourself in a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or Go Set a Watchman. Not a big reader? Perhaps you would rather watch the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. If you’re a fan of audio books, maybe you would like to listen to either the audio version of To Kill a Mockingbird (narrated by Sissy Spacek) or Go Set a Watchman (narrated by Reese Witherspoon). If you are able, go see a live theatrical performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. If you are local or happen to be in Monroeville, visit the Old Courthouse or take a drive or stroll through downtown.

While it may be her birthday, we were the ones who were given a gift. We have a legacy to remember her by, and to pass on to the next generation. Nelle Harper Lee was once quoted as saying that all she wanted was “to be the Jane Austen of South Alabama.

As a native of Alabama and Monroeville, and as a fan of both To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Austen, I think it is safe to say that Ms. Lee succeeded.

So, we at OCBS ask that you remember and celebrate Ms. Lee on her birthday. She may have passed, but she is most certainly not forgotten.

Happy Birthday, Nelle Harper Lee!

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Book vs. The Movie

To Kill a Mockingbird

Adapting a book into a movie is no easy task. Books are usually packed with details that never make it into the movie—if a film adaptation stayed true to its source it would be incredibly long. A film is a completely different animal, we process differently when we watch something as opposed to when we read it. Plus, filmmaking brings an entirely new set of tools to the artistic process—visual juxtaposition, camera angles and shots, panning and zooming—just to name a few.

Making To Kill a Mockingbird into a Movie

Adapting a book into a film can be risky, screenwriters and directors often must face an already existing fan base and try to make their film “live up to” the book. To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1960—it was a critical success and quickly becoming a beloved novel. In 1961, Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her work, and the pressure was on to make a film that lived up to the book.

According to Life Magazine, “There was a calm contest to make a movie out of the constantly dramatic and intrinsically cinematic To Kill a Mockingbird. Universal won the prize.” Hollywood turned to playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote to adapt the book into a movie. His work is considered a great success—the film, like the book, became a beloved classic and widely praised by audiences and critics alike. Foote went on to win the Academy Award (his first) for his efforts.

How the Movie and the Book Differed

To Kill a Mockingbird paperbackBooks and their film adaptations can differ so vastly that there are entire websites devoted to pointing out their differences. For example in To Kill a Mockingbird, the characters of Miss Rachel and Miss Stephanie are combined into one character—Miss Rachel. Other characters—Aunt Alexandria and Uncle Jack—are left out entirely. This is done to keep the cast of characters smaller and more manageable for the film.

Other cosmetic changes happen as well. In the book, Dill “wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duckfluff.” Yet in the film, Dill has dark hair. Changes like this can be purely practical, Dill’s hair color doesn’t matter in the film because no one is going to say “duckfluff” aloud—it’s a literary gem that works only in the book. So if the actor cast had dark hair, which he did, it didn’t matter—it didn’t change his character traits.

Entire scenes are cut for reasons of time. In the book, the children are told to stay away from the trial. They sneak in and are caught doing so by Atticus and Calpurnia. Calpurnia takes them home for supper, but they are allowed to return. In the film, none of this happens—the children go to the trial and walk home afterwards with Atticus. In the book, there’s room to develop this scene—we understand that Atticus is trying to protect his children, that they have two caretakers that care for them deeply, but that they are curious about the event and willing to break the rules. In the film, these elements can be developed elsewhere, freeing up valuable time for Atticus’ famous courtroom scene.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, movie
To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

Though the film is set in Maycomb, Alabama, it was not filmed in the real-life town that inspired the book’s setting. According to Life Magazine, “There was never any intention of filming in Alabama; [Director Robert] Mulligan knew Maycomb would have to be recreated in La La Land [Hollywood]. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel, was by now famous, and folks wanted a brave attempt, at the very least, at verisimilitude. So Mulligan and his team when to work on the back lot.”

Mulligan succeed in creating the small, poor, Depression-era Southern town. They recreated the courthouse, brick for brick, and the building become such an iconic part of the film that people travel far and wide to Monroeville to visit the real thing.

A Successful Adaptation

To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare case in which the film adaption lived up to, and some would argue enhanced, the book version. Harper Lee herself gave her stamp of approval. According to Turner Classic Movies, after seeing the movie she declared, “I can only say that I am a happy author. They have made my story into a beautiful and moving motion picture. I am very proud and grateful.”

When comparing a book and its movie adaptation, you can find countless differences. These are two very different artistic mediums, with different tools available for creating and conveying meaning. These differences can make for an interesting comparison, but what really matters is whether the movie caught the essence of the book—that essential something that makes the book unique, gives it its character, its soul.

Did the movie To Kill a Mockingbird live up to its source material? Did you like it better than the book? Let us know in the comments section, we’d love to hear from you!

Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird

"Brock Peters 1961" by Donald Young Associates, Chicago-public relations
"Brock Peters 1961" by Donald Young Associates, Chicago-public relations
“Brock Peters 1961” by Donald Young Associates, Chicago-public relations

Brock Peters was born George Fisher on July 2, 1927. He was of African and Indian ancestry, and is best known for his starring role as Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white women in the 1962 classic film adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Brock Peters: Background

The son of a sailor born into difficult times in Harlem, New York, Peters found a love for acting early in his life. He graduated from the famous High School of Music and Art in New York and moved on to the City College of New York to study physical education, but gave up that pursuit to tour with the opera when he won a role in Porgy and Bess in 1949.

Brock Peters: Film and Television

Peters’ first film role came six years later in Carmen Jones, but movies like The L-Shaped Room and To Kill a Mockingbird won him more acclaim. In 1978, he starred in Abe Lincoln, Freedom Fighter, as well as Jack Johnson. Other film credits include Soylent Green, Star Treks IV and VI and Driving Miss Daisy. On television, Peters made appearances on Battlestar Galactica and JAG and the made-for-television movie Roots: The Next Generation.

The Voice of Brock Peters

Peters had a fairly successful musical career as well and would go on to win a Tony Award for Lost in the Stars, a Broadway musical, as well as singing background vocals for a number of Harry Belafonte hits including 1956’s “The Banana Boat Song.” Peters’ voice was also recognizable as that of Darth Vader on National Public Radio.

Brock Peters
Brock Peters in The Locket (photo credit: Michael Tacket-mptvimages.com)

Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird

Brock Peters played the pivotal role of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird and the film proved his brilliance as an actor if others before had not already done so. During the film he forged lasting relationships with other members of the cast, including Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch, and Mary Badham, who starred as young Scout Finch. Peters offered the eulogy at Peck’s memorial service in 2003, recounting how Peck had called to welcome him to the cast of To Kill a Mockingbird when he won the iconic role. Of his co-star, Peters said, “In art there is compassion, in compassion there is humanity, with humanity there is generosity and love. Gregory Peck gave us these attributes in full measure.” Peters made an appearance at an event hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library to honor Harper Lee shortly before his death.

Brock Peters passed away on July 23, 2005 in Los Angeles after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer. Actress Mary Badham—who first met Peters on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird, but became a life-long friend of the actor—said, “He was such a dear friend and one of the most lovely human beings I knew in my life, I am just devastated at his loss.”

The world will remember Brock Peters for his role in To Kill a Mockingbird. What is your favorite part that Peters played and why?

Phillip Alford as Jem Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Jem and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
Phillip Alford and Mary Badham
Phillip Alford and Mary Badham

Born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1948, Phillip Alford won the role of a lifetime playing older brother Jem to Mary Badham’s Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

How Phillip Alford Won the Role of Jem Finch

Having worked in the Town and Gown Civic Theatre of Birmingham, AL, Alford was given the opportunity to audition for Jem Finch. He initially refused the invitation, but changed his mind when he was told he would be allowed to miss a half day of school for the performance.

Phillip Alford: Relationships with the Cast of To Kill a Mockingbird

By all accounts, Alford enjoyed his time on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird. In a 2012 Telegraph interview, Mary Badham mentioned that Alford was also close to Gregory Peck, who played Scout and Jem’s father, Atticus, on screen. The two often spent hours puzzling over games of chess out of the camera’s view on the set of the movie.

Alford himself says his relationship as a child to on-screen sister, actress Mary Badham, was turbulent, although she had noted that she doesn’t recall the same bickering and tension that he does from those years. Alford’s real sister would become the stand-in for Badham on the set of the film whenever needed.

Phillip Alford’s Other Roles as a Actor

Alford also appeared in Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, and had several television credits to his name when he retired from acting. These included Bristle Face in 1964, The Intruders in 1970, and Fair Play in 1972.

Phillip Alford’s Adult Years

Phillip Alford. (Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Phillip Alford. (Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

In 2002, Alford spent some time with Mary Badham abroad in England, speaking to schools and organizations about To Kill a Mockingbird. These engagements were a few of occasional public speaking opportunities that the two have continued to accept into their adult years.

Alford currently resides in Grenada, Mississippi. In 2005, he reported to IMDb that he was working in the construction business, which had occupied his time since his retirement from acting. He described acting as “iffy and tenuous… (not to be) counted on.”

When did you first see the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird? What are your favorite scenes featuring Phillip Alford as Jem Finch?

Mary Badham as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch comforts his daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird

Mary Badham as Scout Finch: A Novice Makes History

Actress Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, was not an established film actress when she took on the iconic role that would commit her to the memories of Mockingbird fans for years to come. The daughter of a retired Army officer turned steel company executive and a British actress, at just ten years old, would become the youngest actress ever nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.

Actress Mary Badham with Gregory Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird
Actress Mary Badham with Gregory Peck on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird

Mary Badham: Other Roles

Badham was later cast in such roles as This Property is Condemned and Let’s Kill Uncle (both released in 1966).  She played a lead role in the final Twilight Episode, “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” in 1964.

Mary Badham: Relationships with the Cast of To Kill a Mockingbird

During the film, Badham forged a lifelong relationship with acclaimed actor Gregory Peck, who played the father to her role of Scout. Badham continued a friendship with Peck until his death in 2003. She always referred to him as “Atticus.” She remains in touch with Phillip Alford who played Scout’s brother Jem and Brock Peters who appeared in Mockingbird as Tom Robinson.

"Mary Badham Speaks to Birmingham Southern" by Thecoiner - Captured it during her speechPreviously published: http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=10151096394022385&set=a.10150280335522385.329253.43199567384&type=1&theater. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Badham_Speaks_to_Birmingham_Southern.jpg#/media/File:Mary_Badham_Speaks_to_Birmingham_Southern.jpg
“Mary Badham Speaks to Birmingham Southern” by Thecoiner – Previously published- Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Badham: Adult Life

Today, Badham, who restores artwork professionally and acts as a college testing coordinator, also makes time for public speaking appearances. She talks about the acclaimed novel that provided the foundation for her breakout role. Badham believes that tolerance and compassion are worth teaching, and she continues to do so.

The world will likely always remember Badham for her splendid interpretation of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and the scenes in which she played an unforgettable role.

When did you first see the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird? What are your favorite scenes featuring Mary Badham as Scout Finch?