Conversation: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Turns 50

UPDATE | April 6, 2012 — Mary McDonagh Murphy’s “Harper Lee: Hey, Boo” made its PBS premiere on April 2, 2012, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Gregory Peck. Below is a conversation from 2010 about the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s novel.

Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'This week marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s classic, read today in classrooms throughout the country, has sold more than 30 million copies and made a lasting impact on many writers through the years. It was also turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1962, starring Gregory Peck in the lead as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout, the narrator of Lee’s story.

Earlier today I talked to writer and filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird” and maker of the documentary film, “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird.” For her works, Murphy talked to several writers and celebrities about the book’s influence and legacy, including Tom Brokaw, James Patterson, Richard Russo, Scott Turow and Oprah Winfrey. Listen to our conversation here:

Editor’s note: A transcript of Jeff’s conversation with Mary McDonagh Murphy is after the jump. Also after the jump, you watch a trailer to Murphy’s film, “Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird.” And at NewsHour Extra, you can find resources for using “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the classroom.



JEFFREY BROWN: Joining me now on the phone is Mary McDonagh Murphy. She’s a writer and filmmaker. Her new book is “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” Welcome to you.

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us first, how did you come to this project? How did this start?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: This really began when I had an adult rereading of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which made a far greater impression on me than my adolescent reading.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? What hit you? What happened?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: When I read as a grownup, I kept reading it and thinking, did I really, really this book previously? Because I was thoroughly blown away and enthralled, especially by the actual writing itself and all these minor characters I had forgotten all about. So when I looked back on it, I realized that what had happened to me the first time is I was just completely in the tank for Scout, totally besotted, and I really hadn’t, I guess, I hadn’t absorbed many of the other things in it. That’s what got me started, and like Scout I decided to go exploring and see what I could find about the novel and, of course, about the novelist.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the novelist? You talked to a lot people, she is famously out of the public eye, no interviews, all of that. What do you learn about her?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: What I learned is that she’s had a very full life, and that not giving interviews for 45 years should not be confused with being a recluse. Harper Lee is not holed up like Boo Radley in some house somewhere. She’s got a fantastic family. I was very fortunate to spend quite a lot of time with her older sister Alice F. Lee, who is 15 years Harper Lee’s senior and a practicing attorney, can be found every day at the firm her father helped found in Monroeville, Alabama. It’s called Barnett, Bugg & Lee. And I learned a lot about how they grew, which I think their father was very tolerant and very accepting. And I can also tell you that Harper Lee has fantastic friends, too. It was interesting to find that all out and to also find out how very, very overwhelming, I think, the success was for her.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that of course goes to this question of why she wrote only the one book. Is that why? Is what you’ve come to think?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Without interviewing her or talking to her, which I did not, I can only tell you what her sister told me. And her sister Alice told me that she heard that Nell, Harper Lee, at one point had said that she simply couldn’t top what she had done and that she had nowhere else to go but down. And Alice says there will be no second book, which of course is a frightening thing to other novelists especially to think about, that anyone that wrote that beautifully and told that story would stop and not publish again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of her keeping out of the public eye and not doing interviews, you talked to a lot prominent folks about their experience with Harper Lee and one was Oprah Winfrey, right, who tried to get an interview?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Yeah, Oprah Winfrey tried to coax Harper Lee onto her talk show, and they met for lunch in New York City. And Oprah told me that within 20 minutes she knew that there was no way in the world she would be getting an interview. And in fact Harper Lee had said to her, if you know the character Boo Radley, then you know why I won’t be giving you an interview. And Oprah said she immediately thought, ok, Boo Radley is not coming on my show.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the end of that, right? Might as well enjoy lunch.

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Right. And I think that immediately made me think of Sheriff Tate from the novel, who said of Boo Radley, you know, you can’t go shining a light on these people that don’t want it. And I think that’s certainly the case with Harper Lee, although the more reclusive aspects of Boo I think do not apply to her.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you were taking to Oprah Winfrey and many other people about the book and really about its influence, what did you hear from people about why it’s endured or why it’s had the impact it’s had?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Well, what was really endlessly fascinating to me is that every time I picked up — I mean, this all started as a documentary and it still is a documentary and the book came second — but every time I picked up my crew and we went somewhere and I would be rounding the bend, you know, my 21st, my 22nd interview, I would think, you know, what is it that anyone else can tell me? Is someone going to tell me something new? And invariably they always did. And whether it was Oprah calling this our national novel for a lot of different reasons, or it was Tom Brokaw talking about life in a small town, as he had grown up in a small town, or Roseanne Cash, the singer and memoirist, discussing what a great parenting manual “To Kill a Mockingbird” is or Jon Meacham, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Andrew Jackson, talking about the way it applied to race in his Tennessee town when he read it, which was actually not that long ago, everyone had something new to say. Wally Lamb said it taught him how to write a novel, Richard Russo talked a lot about parenting, as well, and about Atticus being the father he yearned for, but everywhere I went somebody had something else to say about its influence. And I think the fact that these were all different things tells you a little bit about why this book endures. It’s because it’s about so many things and so many people can relate to it in many different ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, in thinking about this it occurred to me that of course a lot of people have read the book, but the film was also hugely popular and stuck with a lot of people, me included. Do you get the sense that they mesh in people’s mind somehow or — ?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Yes, I do. I think for many people it’s hard to think about Atticus and not picture Gregory Peck, and certainly or Scout and not see Mary Badham, the delightful young child in the overalls. And I think it’s especially rare that the two, the book and the movie, are such masterpieces. That rarely happens. Usually you have a bad book that makes a good movie or the reverse. If I were picking, I would pick the novel over the book, just because Scout is a hilarious narrator and that doesn’t necessarily come through in the movie. The movie has a very sober kind of narration, but it’s — and I’m not the only person who has said this — it’s one of the greatest screen adaptations ever. And I think that’s largely because Horton Foote did such a masterful job, and it was of course his very first screenplay.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, I didn’t know that. One last thing, because as you were talking to people about how it’s influenced them, do you think it is read any differently now than in past decades, or as you look forward do you expect it to remain and be read in new ways?

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: I think it is read a little differently than it was, say, when I read it. For instance, in the documentary I follow two eighth grade classroom discussions when they are reading the book for the very first time. Anna Quindlen, Adriana Trigiani, Lee Smith — these are all novelists, they clung to Scout as a character when they were young readers. And I think Scout growing up in the ’30s — Jean Louise Finch had actually more freedoms than most women did in the ’60s when this book was published. Scout spoke her mind, she wore overalls, she played with boys. All these things were very, very important to young female readers. Anna Quindlen, said there were hardly any not-girly-girl people in real life let alone in books. And this really mattered. I notice now that girls don’t cling to Scout the way I did and the way others might have, but they do read the book in a completely different way. Scout doesn’t mean as much to them because they have had plenty of Scout-like examples in their lives. They read and talk about judgment and how you form judgments, and this is one of the reasons I think we’ll probably still be talking about this book for decades. And, you know, it’s about tolerance and it’s about how you judge, and they are very interested in Sheriff Tate and other minor characters that maybe that some of us didn’t zero in on when we were reading it the first time. But I think that age group will always read it and it still tells the tale we know is true, as long as there is racial profiling or discrimination based on race or class or judgments made about people like Boo Radley, this book is always going to mean something to people.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. “To Kill a Mockingbird” 50 years later. Mary McDonagh Murphy, thank you for talking with us.

MARY MCDONAGH MURPHY: Sure thanks for having me.

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