Have you finished reading Go Set a Watchman yet? To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s “second” novel about Atticus Finch and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch was released on Tuesday, July 14 to considerable attention and, yes…controversy. Already, controversy. Much, much controversy. A couple of weeks ago, it was (mostly) conservatives who were having pre-emptive freakouts over phantom threats of Gone with the Wind being banned; hot on the heels of that nonsense, it’s liberal-minded culture guardians’ turn now to indulge in unwarranted, apoplectic fits over the release of a novel that reportedly depicts legal crusader and “perfect dad” Atticus Finch as—shock!—a septuagenarian of the 1950s who is less-than-perfectly-enlightened about matters of race. I’m planning here to briefly—as briefly as possible—address what I feel is another ginned-up, much-ado-about-nothing story of obvious interest but questionable import, but then I’m going to get to the matter that really interested me about the publication of the book: Who are perfect actors to play Atticus and Scout in the inevitable Go Set a Watchman movie?
First though, the silliness.
Among those who worship Mockingbird, book and film, there has been an eruption of upset over what they see as a perversion of the character they love, feel they know, and even name some of their children after. It amounts to a cruel betrayal of a beloved literary (and cinema) classic, so they say, to poison the well of the character’s perfect idealism and suggest that the heroic Alabama attorney who defended a wrongly accused black man against charges of rape in court could ever, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, be revealed as a man who two decades later opposes the NAACP, attends a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, and says things like, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”
Without spending the same kind of time and space on the subject as I spent encouraging fans of David O. Selznick’s Oscar-winning masterpiece to Keep Calm and Carry On Watching Your Favorite Confederacy-Friendly Movie, I’m going to explain why the fuss over this so called Anti-Atticus (surely the proper coinage to indicate the blasphemy it’s being made out to be) is confused and overzealous.
Some people are probably still unaware of how this “second” novel’s creation falls on the timeline of real-life history despite considerable pre-release public explanations. Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first; her editors, more taken with the idea of a book focused on the “backstory” of Watchman—when Scout was a child and Atticus was defending Tom Robinson in court—encouraged her to shelve Watchman and instead write an all-new story, set 20 years earlier, with the same lead characters.
The result was Mockingbird, and the rest is well-trod history. Now, however, the release of Watchman will give many a reader the (understandable, I guess) impression that the story represents Lee’s notion of “this is what happens to the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird 20 years later.” This is not at all an accurate reflection of how the author’s creative process took shape.
Despite simple facts to the contrary, there is yet some strangling conviction that the chronology of the “complete” story now represented by these two books somehow parallels the chronology of Lee’s actual work on the books—or, at the very least, that she (and/or those representing her) are violating the good work she did in “purifying” the Atticus character for us by now making public a so-called “first draft” of Mockingbird that reverses that wise decision, appearing to suggest his personal character is, or became, far less admirable.
Due to these curious aspects of its creation, Go Set a Watchman both “is” and “isn’t” a proper sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird—but there is one more very important fact about Watchman’s plot that should be the nail in the coffin for the case some are eager to make in treating the novels as seamless parts of a whole: As everyone knows (or should I say: SPOILER ALERT!), in To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch is unsuccessful in defending his African-American client against the false charges of raping a white woman. In Watchman, the outcome of the case is different: Tom Robinson is acquitted.
So? To but it bluntly, case closed: To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are not, at least cleanly, two parts of the same story. Watchman represents some sort of hybrid alternate-history/continuation of Mockingbird, full stop. It can only be confused as anything other than that by folks who don’t think all too deeply about fact or fiction. And yes, you can easily let that reality sink into your mind and enjoy, or not, what Lee has to offer in Watchman. And yes: Parents, you can explain it to your children. Teachers? You can explain it to your students. On the other hand, maybe it’s the children who will wind up explaining it to all of you grownups—they having no doubt already been well-schooled in thinking about “what-if” and “parallel universe”-type stories made so popular in comic books.
So let’s dispense with this latest nontroversy right now and get on to the real juicy question: Who will play Atticus Finch and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch in the inevitable movie version of Go Set a Watchman? I haven’t yet read anything to indicate that there’s been some kind of overly harsh, Catcher in the Rye-style blockade imposed on adapting Watchman for the screen; it seems to me that the box-office potential of a movie made from this material (unless the tale is somehow too dull or strange to be filmed, and that I doubt) will be profoundly irresistible. Added to that, the usual prohibitions against remakes and decades-later sequels to movie classics can be alleviated somewhat—at least for reasonable folks—by virtue of Watchman’s status as a not-quite-really continuation of the original book and film.
It’ll be inevitable, and oh-so pointless, when movie lovers start scrapping with the same ol’ same ol’:
No One Else Can Ever Be Atticus Finch Except Gregory Peck! There Should Never Be a To Kill a Mockingbird Sequel All These Years Later! They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To!
Look, I understand. I don’t think anybody should be Snake Plissken except for Kurt Russell, but those of us who feel that way need to man up to the fact that someday, they’re gonna remake Escape from New York. It’ll be good, or it’ll be lousy, or it’ll be so-so, but it’ll be. We thought there could never be a new Captain Kirk or Spock, but you know what? Pine and Quinto are doing just fine, thank you very much. There have been Draculas as good as Bela Lugosi, and while a DVD release of the entire series only recently lifted it out of total obscurity, Bogie wasn’t the only person who ever played Rick.
There will always be folks who can argue ‘til they’re blue in the face that no one “is” James Bond except Sean Connery, and there are those who believe that no, we haven’t seen the return of the “real” Superman onscreen because Christopher Reeve is no longer here to play him (guilty as charged), but ultimately, that is just so much myopic noise. I’m betting that in less than no time, we will be seeing Go Set a Watchman on the big screen (or at the very least, the smaller screen), so let’s get used to that and start the guessing game of which actors should be, as Peck’s Finch might say, “walking around in the skin” of these wonderful characters.
At this date of publication, I’m just finished reading Part I of Watchman, so I’m still relatively early in the book. By that point, however, we are already finding out what’s “happening” with Jean Louise (now in her mid-20s) and Atticus (now 72), as well as what’s “happened” with Scout’s brother Jem and Finch housemaid Calpurnia. No spoilers here at all; what I will say is that already, it feels to me like a story that could be easily and well put up on the screen. That could be because by the time I cracked open Page 1, I’d already had it in my mind who I thought should be playing these parts.
That can be a tricky situation, putting that sort of preconception into your head before you’ve even surveyed the full sweep of a story. The way I arrived at my casting ideas for Go Set a Watchman was to re-watch To Kill a Mockingbird, read a little bit about the plot circumstances of Watchman, and then try to picture who would make sense as some halfway mark between “the ‘new’ Gregory Peck” and a logical continuation of Mary Badham’s spunky performance, and the kind of casting that would allow space for “re-imagining” the characters in a fresh way for this alternate-universe type of story.
I’ll challenge you now to come up with better casting than mine:
I’d love to see Ellen Page take on the role of the twentysomething Jean Louise Finch. Sure, it’s a little on-the-nose cute to parallel Scout’s continuing preference for gender-neutral dress with Page’s real-life sartorial choices, but there’s more to this casting decision than life mimicking art.
Page isn’t known at all for period fare, so putting her in this role would provide the actor a fresh challenge well-suited to her “type.” Early in the book, we already get the sense that Scout will be revealed as a person ahead of (or at the very least “out of”) her time in terms of testing social conventions and the prevailing moral order, so putting such a “modern” actor in a period role would make all kinds of good sense.
One of Page’s great gifts onscreen is the ability to appear sharply at odds with the world and yet ready to powerfully assert herself within it. She’s terrific at playing these roles where she is obliged to take in absurdities from others and then decide how to confront them, whether by way of indifference or ridicule or impassioned opposition. My guess is that one or more of these strategies might be key to where Scout’s character might be headed in Watchman—but even if the character might wind up somehow embracing an “establishment” way of thinking in the story (an outcome I so highly, highly doubt), that too would represent an interesting new wrinkle in Page’s filmography. I’m a longtime fan of Ellen Page, and I’m confidently saying I am spot-on with this piece of casting.
Time now to figure out who’s man enough to go where no actor (besides Gregory Peck) has gone before.
Robert De Niro is my choice to portray the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman. It’s tempting to consider the poetic indulgence of casting Robert Duvall in the role (the very young Duvall, of course, played Boo Radley in the 1962 classic)—but he’s about a decade out from Atticus’ age in Watchman and I fear it’d only cause even more confusion, if not irritation, for viewers who will want to try and “meld” the two films together in their mind.
De Niro has been teasing around the edges of a renaissance, receiving “no kidding he’s really excellent and not phoning it in” praise and an Oscar nomination for his work in Silver Linings Playbook; he is returning to director David O. Russell for the 2015 film Joy, for which we might anticipate more of the same. Yes, he has a movie coming out called Dirty Grandpa, but that doesn’t mean he’s not ripe to take on a role that could earn him the kind of critical acclaim that began for him in the 1970s. There is no role too large for a resurrected Robert De Niro to fill; he could easily summon the gravitas of the Finch character and also give him the kind of sharp edges that are reportedly present in the elder Atticus. You need a legend to fill the shoes of a legend here, and I can’t picture an actor of his generation better suited to re-interpret the brilliant work of Gregory Peck.
Top these choices if you can and cast the leading roles in the Go Set a Watchman movie. Are you already finished the book and aware of a reason why these actors aren’t the ideal choices for the parts? Tell me without spoiling the details of the book (at least for a week or so), if that’s at all possible. Have you got better ideas about who could play any of the other characters in a Go Set a Watchman movie? (Jean Louise’s aunt Alexandra, for example, looks like it might turn out to be a meaty supporting role) Play casting director and pitch your choices in the comments.
Whatever you do, just please, please, oh for the love of the God-I’m-agnostic-about-existing, spare us the worn-out complaints about stepping on the toes of unapproachable movie classics, the never-to-be-surmounted performances of the actors you adore, or the impropriety of an author tarnishing her own legacy in your eyes for having the audacity to share more of the fruits of her imagination. To Kill a Mockingbird is safe; Atticus Finch is safe. And when Ellen Page plays Scout and Robert De Niro plays Atticus, and the Oscar trophies are handed out, I can say: I told you so!