|By Brett Weiss
MONROEVILLE, Ala. — Although Harper’s Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1960) and the resultant Oscar-winning movie (1962) have Christmas scenes (Scout and Jem receive air rifles as gifts, for example), To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic of the Southern Gothic genre, is not generally thought of as a Christmas story.
However, the feature film, directed by Robert Mulligan, was released on Christmas day. It cost $2 million to produce, but brought in more than $20.6 million at the box office – a nice Christmas present for Universal Pictures.
Despite some fairly substantial differences, such as the elimination of the characters Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Alexandra, the film, shot in black-and-white, is an adaptation of the book, which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala. during the 1930s. It tells the tale of Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), an honorable and brave lawyer defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), an innocent black man unfairly accused of raping a white woman.
Finch’s preteen children, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), watch the mockery of a trial and otherwise learn some tough lessons about racial prejudice in the Deep South during The Great Depression.
Finch, who is called a ridiculed for defending Robinson, offers his daughter this advice: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
And to his son, he says, “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.”
In 2003, the CBS special AFI’s 100 Years ... 100 Heroes & Villains named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century, beating out such action heroes as Indiana Jones, James Bond and Ellen Ripley (Alien). In addition, To Kill a Mockingbird was ranked second on AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies special (behind It’s a Wonderful Life), and 25th best on AFI’s 100 Years ... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
Studied in schools and widely praised by readers and filmgoers of all ages, To Kill a Mockingbird is a treatise against racial prejudice. As such, it is the subject of an exhibit at The Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, Ala., where Harper Lee grew up. Monroeville is similar to the novel and film’s fictional setting of Maycomb.
Nathan Carter, Director of Sites & Operations for the Monroe County Heritage Museum, is proud of his town. “Monroeville has been designated the Literary Capital of Alabama,” he said. “Harper Lee was born and raised here, and Truman Capote spent his childhood here.”
Monroeville is a small town of only 7,000 residents, but the Old Courthouse Museum, which is maintained and operated by the Monroe County Heritage Museum, brings in 25,000 visitors annually.
“The movie was not filmed there,” Carter said, “but the set designer came to Monroeville to measure, photograph, and draw the courtroom before recreating it on a Hollywood sound stage.”
Visitors to the Old Courthouse Museum are free to move throughout the courtroom (which has been restored to its 1930s appearance), including the balcony, witness chair, judge’s bench, and tables used by the prosecutor and defense attorney.
“Fans of the classic novel come to the courthouse from all over the world because it is the most tangible connection to the book’s fictional Maycomb,” Carter said. “Throughout her childhood, Harper Lee often sat in the balcony as she watched her father practice law in that very room.”
The Old Courthouse Museum consists of three exhibits: the titular courthouse; Truman Capote: A Childhood in Monroeville; and Harper Lee: In Her Own Words, the latter of which contains copies of Lee’s book on display (including many of its foreign language editions), along with images and quotes from the author herself, drawn from early interviews.
For those interested in the collectability of To Kill a Mockingbird, AbeBooks.com, as of this writing, offers some interesting variations of the book for sale: First Book Club Edition ($49 good, $75 very good); First Edition Library Facsimile Reprint ($149.95, like new); Stated First Edition/Asian Pirate Edition ($299, very good); and First UK Edition ($635.99, very good).
RareBookCellar.com and www.hpbmarketplace.com are also good places to shop for rare and unusual editions of To Kill a Mockingbird.
When the semi-autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird was first published, Lee was largely unknown and only 5,000 copies of the book were printed, most of which went to libraries, making the book exceedingly rare, especially in nice shape. To nab a genuine first edition in near mint condition from a knowledgeable dealer, it will probably cost at least $20,000.
According to www.collect2sell.wordpress.com, identifying a true first edition is easy: “The dust jacket was printed in four colors; black, white, green, and brown. The title is in a black band and a tree on a brown background. The back of the dust jacket has a picture of Harper Lee taken by Truman Capote. On the bottom right corner of the photo is Truman Capote’s name. The front inside flap of the dust jacket has the price $3.95 at the bottom of the flap. First editions are also a hard cover (unless it is an advanced paperback). The hard cover is brown with a green spine. The most important identifier is the copyright page will say “First Edition.’”
An old adage states that “Everyone has at least one good book in them.”
This certainly applies to Lee, who is now 86 years old. To Kill a Mockingbird is her only published novel, but it has earned her a significant place in the annals of publishing history. It also earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature, which George W. Bush awarded to her in 2007.