It’s still the same Atticus Finch – decent and good

6 mins read


It is Friday night and I’m sitting in the first balcony of the Shubert Theatre having just seen Aaron Sorkin’s rendition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For Southerners of my generation, Harper Lee’s novel was the fictional narrative that forever defined the complexity and the tragedy of race relations in the American South. When the movie was released in 1962 it gave a much wider audience a heartbreaking, hauntingly beautiful portrait of the characters who populated the Southern landscape in 1934. For many of us who saw this movie (in 1963) it didn’t seem all that fictional or dated.

At the center of the novel, and the movie, is Atticus Finch. He is a middle-aged widower trying to raise two precocious children (Scout and Jem) with the help of their African-American maid, Calpurnia. In the movie this small town lawyer living in lower Alabama is played by Gregory Peck.

Gregory Peck became — the instant we saw him in the role — the personification of a dignified, decent, conflicted Southern white man trying to remain dignified and decent in the segregated, unquestionably unequal, undeniably unfair society then existing in Depression-ravaged Alabama.

When I first learned that Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame) was doing a remake, I assumed he was coming after Atticus Finch in an effort to diminish his dignity. I assumed he would use Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, and rumors about Lee’s actual father to portray Atticus as less than noble. I assumed that Sorkin was going after the notion that there were decent, dignified white men living in the American South in 1934.

I was wrong.

I am here to say that the current remake of To Kill a Mockingbird has preserved the Gregory Peck persona — the notion there were Southern men who risked their livelihoods, the lives of their children, to protect their wrongly accused African American kinsmen. But I know that this notion (of decent and dignified White men) runs counter to the current commonly held view that no such men existed.

In Sorkin’s version, Atticus is played by Jeff Daniels of Newsroom fame. Daniels is the same troubled lawyer that we got in Gregory Peck. 

But in Sorkin’s re-telling there is real tension between Atticus and his son, Jem. (In the movie it was Scout, the daughter, who was the ‘fighter’). In the play Jem is appalled when his father will not condemn or physically fight the play’s fulminating, frothing racist, Bob Ewell. He sees his father as weak. A coward.

Calpurnia (in the play) is also angry at Atticus for his insistence that everyone, including the racist villain, deserves respect. In one hard-to-hear exchange, Atticus talks about the desperation of white farmers (this is the Depression) and how one must ‘crawl into their skin’ to understand their desperation and anger. 

Calpurnia is not buying any of this and makes her exasperation with her boss clear. Her persona is a dramatic departure from the sweet-talking, substitute mother character that we got in the movie version. Both Jem and Calpurnia believe the Bob Ewell is the personification, the essence of evil.

Years ago — this is a digression — I was working in Africa with my Congolese friend, Herve Miabiligana, and asked, “How do people like Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin happen? Why do they seem to happen most often in Africa?”

“In this world, Scott, there is something called evil,” he said. “And evil has found a home in Mugabe and Mobutu.”

“Really, Herve? Evil?” I said.

“Yes,” he replied. “There is simply no other way to explain the horror they have brought to my people.”

But there is a danger in accepting the notion that some people are evil. That means that there is no negotiation, no compromise, no redemption for these folks.

If someone is evil, then you simply kill them. And in the novel, the movie and the play, Bob Ewell is dispatched, without regret, in the final scene.

Throughout history we have seen what happens when political leaders persuade the public that some group — think Jews, Tutsis and Chinese Uygurs — is evil. This is not to say that people are never cruel, or catastrophically wrong. 

But I’m not ready to believe that anyone, including the hate-spewing Bob Ewell, is acting under the direct influence of Satan. I cannot believe that Satan, or evil, can work his or its way into one’s subcutaneous tissue.

Aaron Sorkin’s play — like the movie — is narrated by his children, Jem and Scout. Their simple, child-like voices give the play an honesty and innocence. (I would have liked to have the musical score we got in the movie.)

But In the end, this version paints the picture of a thoughtful, decent man trying — trying his damnedest — to do the right thing.

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