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Gregory Peck Wasn’t Atticus!

One of the worst things about the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” was the absence of Aunt Alexandra; another was casting Gregory Peck as Atticus.

Yep, I know when you adapt a film from a novel, you need to make choices and you can’t include everything. For a start, they are different art forms. It’s no more reasonable to expect that one can turn a novel into a film than it is to think that one can turn a song or a poem. So the absence of Aunt Alexandra doesn’t hurt the film if one judges it as a film, and forgets the novel on which it was based. Similarly, with “Go Set A Watchman”, while it’s hard not be constantly thinking of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, it would be better if the reader could simply read it, not as a sequel, but as a completely different work.

But Gregory Peck turns Atticus from an average, good man into a Hollywood hero. Strong-jawed, tall, good looking, god-like. In the novel, Scout is surprised to find that her father is a crack shot. In the film, of course, Atticus/Peck is going to be the hero who shoots the rabid dog. And so many people have said that Atticus was just the perfect father…

Of course, this completely overlooks how neglectful he was. To me, it was always worth remembering that it was Boo Radley who saved Scout and Jem. It’s not that Atticus wasn’t a good person; it’s this goodness that shines through when he deals with his children, but to argue that parenting skills are exemplary overlooks a number of his failings.

I’ve always argued that Atticus could be seen as a symbol of the United States itself. He has a good knowledge of the law and espouses sound moral principles. However, when it comes to the putting these into practice, he’s found to be dragging his feet a little. While he shoots the rabid dog (Hitler?), he’s reluctant to do it, arguing that he hasn’t shot anything for years, and it’s only on the insistence by the Sherrif that forces him to act. Similarly, he doesn’t want to take the case of the young negro falsely accused of rape, and, while he intends to appeal, he accepts that the Southern jury will find the accused guilty, even after it’s been clearly demonstrated that the alleged rape victim was lying. And while he makes a stand against the lynch mob, he accepts that they’ll take off their sheets and go back to their daily lives – much like the America of the Sixties.

So the release of “Go Set A Watchman” is a bit like the release of the film. While it uses the same characters as “To Kill A Mockingbird”, it’s not a “sequel”. It was written before and one or two aspects are different. Characters and events don’t line up exactly with “To Kill A Mockingbird” and this may upset some people in much the same way that Aunt Alexandra’s absence from the film removes some of the conflict.

Reading the novel, one can see a skilled writer in need of a good editor. Some passages are far too long for either interest or purpose. And, of course, there is certain amount of assumed knowledge that people not familiar with the time it was written would be aware of. NAACP, for example. If one reads it expecting a hidden masterpiece, then one will be disappointed, but if one reads it as an historical document, then it’s an interesting read. It no more damages the “Mockingbird brand”, as Peter Craven’s article suggested than finding early sketches of Picasso’s “Guernica” would lessen its power.

But for me, the biggest irony was with the discovery that Atticus had several racist ideas seems to be what’s upset a lot of people. And I’m not just suggesting this because of my earlier suggestion that Atticus could be considered symbolic of the US. It’s the fact the fundamental climax of “Go Set A Watchman” comes when Scout realises that the man she so admired, the man she thought of as perfect was, in fact, as flawed as the rest of us.

Can someone be racist and still be worthy of admiration and love? Of course, you might as well ask can one be imperfect and still be worthy. My hero has feet of clay, thinks Jean Louise, and she’s shocked. Atticus is not god-like, think many readers and they have nearly as much trouble than Jean Louise reconciling these two Atticuses.

“Go Set A Watchman” also touches on the dilemmas facing Australia on the subject of free speech. When Atticus is asked why he allowed a person he described as a sadist to address a meeting of Maycomb council, he replied that it was “because he wanted to”. While both the Left and Right frequently argue that while they support “free speech”, both sides of politics also assert that certain people should not be allowed to express certain views because they’re just too extreme. Unless we can agree on a general principle about what makes something too extreme, the free speech issue will continue to be a political football, where both sides approach where the people who are basically on their side of the fence should be allowed to speak. “Because he wanted to”), while arguing certain other views should be shut down because they’re just dangerous or offensive. A bit like the definition of an alcoholic as “someone who drinks more than me”.

Of course, apart from anything to do with the quality of writing and the need for some editing, it does strike me that there’s no way the novel could have been published in the late fifties when it was written. Much of the subject matter, while tame by today’s standards would have been quite shocking at a time when books were regularly banned and sex education was regarded as the work of Satan.

“Go Ask A Watchman” will be disappointing for anyone expecting something another “To Kill A Mockingbird”, but if you read it for the same reasons you’d visit a museum – it gives you an idea of the past and how things developed – then it makes an interesting read.

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  1. hemingway13

    For all those who might feel discouraged from reading this exquisitely written novel, please don’t let this reviewers’ comments about Atticus be the determining factor in your decision.

    There is something far more worthwhile to explore in ‘Watchman’ than merely its characterization and plot, and that is Ms Lee’s scintillating style with her engrossing dialogue and evocative imagery.

    Yes, ‘Mockingbird’ is the better novel, but we can still savour the unique gift of an exceptional wordsmith. I am striving mightily to read it more slowly than most novels so as not to miss the nuances with which Ms Lee enhances every paragraph.

  2. diannaart

    Thank you for this dissemination, Rossleigh.

    To read this novel on its own merit would be the best reason to read it – as I suspected.

    Let “To Kill a Mockingbird” stand alone on its well-deserved merits. Why would anyone expect another such perfect story?

    I will read the earlier work – nothing you said, Rossleigh, appeared to be dictating whether a reader should not read the first novel. I thought your review very honest and reasonable.

    But first, I will dig out my old copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” – I had forgotten about Aunt Alexandra.

  3. wherewearenothiding

    I’m commenting here because this is the first instance I seen of someone else believing Peck as Atticus to be a miscasting (I haven’t gone looking; it’s probably not an uncommon opinion).
    I think this way because of Peck’s general confidence and the way he carried himself. (all of this is from memory) there’s much less a sense that Peck’s Atticus could harbour doubts; everything seemed so clear to him. He plays a fairly typical ‘leading man’ role.

    That said I don’t agree that Atticus of the book is particularly neglectful… nor that his resignation toward the ‘fate’ of the situations in the book show him in a bad light. It might make him more ‘realistic’ than ‘idealistic’ but that’s not a fault in my eyes. If anything, this make his commitment to law and due process more compelling.

    I skipped over the spoilers about .. a watchman.

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