In a boon for the film, Murphy obtained interviews with Lee's 99-year-old sister, Alice, as well as her New York friends, Michael and Joy Brown. There is also material involving Lee's friend Truman Capote — who, jealous of her Pulitzer Prize, claimed he had helped write the book — and speculation as to why Lee never wrote another novel (fear of failure after a monster debut is one possibility).
For all its effect, it's not as if "To Kill a Mockingbird" has never courted controversy. The book was published practically at the dawn of the civil rights movement, before such seminal events as the freedom rides, the Birmingham church bombing, the Selma to Montgomery march and the march on Washington. In this respect, an honest book about Southern racism, written by a 34-year-old white female, can be seen as an almost revolutionary act.
"I find a writer like Harper Lee extremely brave," says Jocelyn Chadwick of the National Council of Teachers of English, "because she is a Southern woman. I'm sure people felt, 'How could you betray the South in such a way?'"
"I think [Lee] understood segregation very well from a white liberal point of view, and she's sympathetic to blacks and the problems they face," adds Lisa Dorr, who teaches history at the University of Alabama, which Lee attended for several years. "The book opened the eyes of whites, and made them see how segregation worked."
But the book has also been criticized for the many times the N-word pops up, despite the historical accuracy of the term's usage. And Lee's two prominent black characters — Calpurnia, the Finches' maid, and Tom Robinson, the man unjustly accused of rape — have been condemned from a number of quarters.
"They're sentimentalized," says Shields, who notes that when he gives talks about Lee and the book, "I see very few black faces. Tom Robinson is well-meaning, and Calpurnia is always available. It's very much a white patriarchal view of blacks as children."
Yet interest in the book, and its author, seems never to have waned. "To Kill a Mockingbird" sells about 100,000 copies a year, the film pops up on TV on a regular basis, and it just screened in Los Angeles last weekend as part of Turner Classic Movies' Classic Film Festival (The American Film Institute has also named Peck's portrayal of Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century). And even today, there is controversy over a new biography of the author from writer Marja Mills, who says she had the full cooperation of both Alice and Harper Lee, though the latter now denies she participated.
The mystery of Lee and why she never wrote another novel perhaps helps keep the book alive, but there clearly is more to it than that. "At the heart of this novel is a philosophy that speaks to humanity and a kindness and compassion that crosses all the lines," McCorkle says.
Adds Murphy: "I am always impressed by the transforming power of reading, and this is a novel that has made a difference to millions of readers. For all this discussion about social networks, the people who read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' are one of the greatest social networks of all time. In this film, I wanted to address the impact that one book can have."