A celebration of a beloved novel
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 24, 2011
Oprah Winfrey gets choked up when reading her favorite passage from “To Kill a Mockingbird;” Tom Brokaw is still struck by the novel’s universal depiction of small-town life; and James Patterson finds inspiration in the story’s deft use of suspense. Even 50 years after novelist Harper Lee’s opus won the Pulitzer Prize, people can’t stop lavishing praise on the bittersweet book that remains required reading for American teens.
“Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ ” turns out to be a lovefest of a documentary. Yet between interviews about the merits and courage of the novel and clips from the 1962 film adaptation that earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award, Mary McDonagh Murphy’s directorial debut offers up a few morsels of fresh material.
While much of the movie’s revelations will probably sound familiar to “Mockingbird” fanatics, some viewers might be interested to find out how precarious Lee’s success was. She was able to write the book thanks to the generous gift of a year’s salary from friend and Broadway composer Michael Brown. And while 10 publishers turned down the novel, even after J. B. Lippincott & Co. snagged it, Lee had to spend two painstaking years reworking her story about race relations in the South before it became the masterpiece we know today.
The documentary also looks at the state of the country in the 1960s, the making of the film and the autobiographical qualities of the novel (including the fact that Dill Harris was modeled after Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote) in its wide-ranging examination of all things “Mockingbird.”
The racial inequality still present when the book was published may be readily known, but the documentary uncovers some new material, thanks to interviews with Lee’s sister, Alice Finch Lee. Alice offers some insights into the reasons Lee hasn’t granted an interview in nearly 45 years, as well as why the author never published another novel. The film also examines the curious conditional relationship between Lee and Capote, which couldn’t withstand “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” success.
While the documentary doesn’t offer a lot in the way of revelations, it does prove that one of the great American novels has lasting power and might just inspire viewers to revisit their tattered copies. And if the movie is really just an enthusiastic celebration of one piece of writing, at least Murphy chose a most worthy subject.
Contains nothing objectionable.