Harper Lee (Getty Images / Harper Collins )
Harper Lee was working as an airline reservations agent in New York City, struggling to write a novel tentatively titled "Atticus," when a close friend gave her enough money to take time off and finish her book. Published in 1960 with an initial print run of just 5,000 copies, "To Kill a Mockingbird" became an instant phenomenon: a critically acclaimed bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, followed by a multiple-Oscar-winning 1962 film featuring the iconic performance of Gregory Peck as courageous Southern lawyer Atticus Finch.
Fifty years and more than 30 million copies of the book later, it's hard to find any American who doesn't know the names Scout, Boo Radley and Atticus. Lee's one and only novel has been translated into 40 languages and is the most widely read book in American high schools. The novel and film are so familiar, in fact, that last month, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Peck, it featured him as he appeared in that Oscar-winning role.
"I can't name another novel that has these kinds of indelible characters, a social statement without being preachy, and good prose," says filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy, whose documentary, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird," opens Friday. "It's a book that many people can relate to in many different ways."
Lee "creates a believable fictional landscape that you can go into," adds Charles J. Shields, author of "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee." "The book asks one of the most important questions facing humans — how to get along with people different from us. It was couched in racial terms back then, but today I believe it's about people who don't believe the same as you — different religious beliefs, gays, straights. There are a lot of things that can be discussed."
And that discussion has meaning no matter the age of the reader. In fact, Murphy, an independent writer-producer who had an Emmy Award-winning career at CBS News, decided to pursue a film about Lee and her book after rereading it as an adult.
That experience, she says, "made a greater impression on me than my adolescent reading. I went exploring to see what I could find out about the novel, the novelist and its impact. And I explored the context in which it was published. The book spoke to me more about conscience and integrity this time than it had before. I began to see the story [for the film] was the novel, the novel was the phenomenon. The novel could be the story, not the novelist."
Besides, she adds, it's not as if Lee — who at 85 hasn't given an interview in decades — "was going to invite me to tea."
Lee was a small-town Alabama native, writing about a corner of the state she was familiar with. She intended her work "to be kind of a regionalist piece," Shields says. "She said she wanted to be the Jane Austen of the South."
In that respect she was successful, painting a portrait of a time and place — a small town in the 1930s, a young girl's coming of age and a fearless lawyer who defends a black man in a racially charged trial — that fits snugly into a classic Southern literary tradition.
The book focuses "on the racial tension, and there's a strong sense of place, painting the portrait of [the fictional town] of Maycomb, Ala., on the first page," says Jill McCorkle, a novelist who teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University. "There's also a compassion for outsiders and those who don't fit into the mainstream that you see in the works of writers like Carson McCullers and William Faulkner. And there's a great emphasis on poverty, the way children are viewed in terms of class issues. It's a microcosm of what the great big world looks like."
This worldview is one of several reasons why "To Kill a Mockingbird" has attracted such a huge audience. And Murphy's film, which includes interviews with such fans of the book as Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash, James Patterson and Anna Quindlen, makes the point that Lee's novel is enjoyed by a mixed bag of genders, races and ages. "What I found fascinating about doing what I did," says Murphy, referring to making the documentary and asking people what they responded to in the book, "what really surprised me was every time I went somewhere, every single time I heard something I had never heard before about this novel."
Murphy's film, which runs 82 minutes, takes a nonlinear approach to Lee's story. Beginning in the 1950s, when Lee was writing her book, "Hey, Boo" jumps around to cover various aspects of her story. Titled sections, which include numerous "talking head" interviews, deal specifically with the characters of Scout, Boo and Atticus; others handle what the South that Lee grew up in was like.