The Up Too Late Film Club #3: It's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Harper Lee passed away recently, and like nearly everyone who had ever read To Kill a Mockingbird, the news made me sad because it was an amazing book.  Seeing and reading numerous remembrances of the woman and the book reminded me that I had never seen the (arguably) equally acclaimed 1962 movie adaptation despite always meaning to get around to it.  Seeing as it was readily available via Netflix and I had a free night (and as is the case for most of the movies I watch these days, a heartbreakingly early morning ahead to which I paid no mind), I figured it was time to fix that.

So let's get the easy part out of the way: yeah, of course I loved it.  It's beautifully shot; the script captures the look, feel, and flavor of the novel note-perfectly despite the inevitable cuts that are the sad necessity of screen adaptation; and the performances are all amazing, career-defining work.  It's considered a classic, and justifiably so says I.

So with that out of the way, let's talk about monsters, because that is what I think this story is about.

Everyone - regardless of gender, race, belief, or age - deals with monsters in their lives. Miss Leebreaks those down into three major categories.

The first is the monster we imagine.  This could be something that is purely unreal - the thing we're convinced is waiting in the closet or under the bed - or it could be based on something or someone very real that has been built up by a story that wanders a little further away from the truth with each retelling.  Boo Radley's legend is spread by scared kids and nervous grown-ups alike, a few unfortunate events in his life being blown out of proportion to the point where he's seen as the sort of Thing Chained in the Basement, only a torch- and pitchfork-wielding mob away from starring his own B-movie.  Tom Robinson is similarly cast, placed on trial for a crime he physically could not have committed and convicted in the court of public opinion (and eventually a court of law) just because the story fits the prejudiced narrative that was therefore easier for many to accept than the truth, even if that truth was obvious to any who would consider the facts for even a moment.

The second monster is the one of coercion, bolstered by a combination of fear and the anonymity of a crowd.  There's the terrified Mayella Ewell, of course, the woman who falsely accuses Tom and clearly fears her father Bob (more on him in a minute), but there's an arguably better example a little earlier in the story.  As Tom spends the night in jail awaiting his trial, the jailhouse is descended upon by a mob seeking what they consider to be justice.  They are united in a common belief that one of their own has been hurt, and they are taking it upon themselves to right a wrong.  Atticus Finch holds his ground in front of the building, attempting to keep them from storming in and outright murdering the man inside. He doesn't have much luck turning the tide, and it isn't until the kids show up and Scout addresses one of them by name that anything changes.  Instead of being a faceless member of the crowd, he's now Mr. Cunningham, the farmer who brought them some hickory nuts one time, a man who was a client of Atticus's, the father of the schoolmate who came home with the Finch kids for lunch one time.  Returned to the role of being an individual, he skulks away, as does the rest of the crowd.

These first two types of monsters have something in common: they disappear in the light of day.  A willingness to accept the truth, or a reminder of one's own humanity is usually all it takes to vanquish them.

The third type of monster is harder to slay.  This is the one who has chosen to be the monster.  The causes and aims can vary wildly, but in the end it all comes down to the same thing: the desire to seek out and destroy anything and anyone different, which is what they most fear.  We can speculate all day about what made Bob Ewell the way he is - what motivates his racist attitudes and violent outbursts against not only anyone he determines as Other, but also those who would support them - but it is abundantly clear that he is rotten to the core, as monstrous in the light of day as the dark of night.

Bob is the monster that cannot be reasoned with, only fought and, eventually, destroyed.  So much so that (and I'm sorry if I'm spoiling a nearly 60 year old story here) when he attacks the Finch children and is in turn killed by Boo Radley in the latter's effort to save them, no one really cares.  Atticus, the very picture of reason and nobility, of course worries about the legal ramifications because he venerates the system of justice above almost everything else, but the Sheriff repeatedly urges him to drop it... Jem Finch (initially feared to have killed Bob) was innocent, Boo Radley was protecting the children and has had enough problems in his life as it was, and Bob Ewell terrorized pretty much the entire town and no one would miss him anyway.  It might not be good, it might not be just, but it was probably capital-R Right.

Sometimes the monsters need to be fought.

I think this is what makes this story, no matter what form it takes, resonate for so many people even decades later.  It's a hard lesson to learn, and often harder to accept, that monsters are real and that we face them from childhood and onward throughout the rest of our lives, but it is true and it takes a story like this to drive that point home.  Yes, it says a lot about race and the South and a specific time in our history, and that is important but ultimately it's set dressing.  Sadly, it is a timeless story about humanity as a whole, and we're lucky that we have it to remind us that all of this is real and happening around us all of the time.  In the wake of the current election cycle, it seems more important than ever.

There are monsters. Reason with them if you can, but fight them if you must.

Thank you for the reminder, Miss Lee.  I hope we can eventually make you proud.

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