Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman (First Run Features, NR)

Harper Lee 75The experience of watching Harper Lee is less satisfactory than that of watching Hey Boo.





Harper Lee 500

Harper Lee is a bona fide literary phenomenon. Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize, and has been adopted by school systems all over the country. It’s a literary classic that can be enjoyed by both adults and young people (were it published today, it might well carry the YA label), and succeeds both on literary terms and as a novel of social significance. Mockingbird was also adapted in 1962 into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck, and on the strength of this single novel, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

The other aspect of Lee’s fame is that, as far as anyone knows, she never wrote another completed book. That’s an intriguing mystery in itself, and when you add in the fact that Lee by choice led a very private life, the result is a large fan base that wants to know something, anything, more about her life and work. Into this void in 2010 came the documentary Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Mary McDonagh Murphy. It’s a modest and enjoyable little documentary that presented what was known about Lee, combining interviews, archival clips, and clips from the 1962 film, and was happy to steer clear of controversy while gratifying Lee’s substantial fan base.

That, of course, was before the discovery of the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, published this July by HarperCollins. The decision to publish what appears to be a first draft was controversial, with some suggesting that the story of the manuscript’s “discovery” might not be exactly true, and possibly that the publisher was taking advantage of Lee’s advanced age and the death of her older sister Alice, who had previously managed her business affairs. The content of Watchman is also controversial—instead of the almost godly Atticus Finch as seen through the eyes of his young daughter in Mockingbird, Watchman presents an Atticus who speaks before a local white supremacy organization, and is seen through the eyes of his horrified adult daughter.

The publication of Watchmen is the obvious reason Hey, Boo was updated and released under a new title: Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman. There’s some additional material, particularly about Watchman (with this film firmly of the opinion that it was the manuscript for a different novel, not just an early draft of Mockingbird, a judgment not universally accepted). That aside, it’s mainly a straight walk through what was known about Harper Lee and her work at that time, making good use of archival recordings (and there’s not much even of that) and other materials, along with interviews.

There are certainly no major shifts in tone this time around, nor has the basic approach of the documentary to its subject changed. The new film is five minutes longer than the 2010 version, but that could be accounted for by the material about Watchman. And yet the experience of watching Harper Lee is less satisfactory than that of watching Hey Boo, with the addition of the new materials seeming like a desperate attempt to capitalize on headlines. One thing that did annoy me this time around, although it was also a feature of the 2010 film, was the seemingly endless parade of celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Anna Quindlen, and Scott Turow among them) talking about how much Mockingbird meant to them.

The only extras on the disc are a video about the discovery and publication of Go Set a Watchman (13 min.), and a gallery of other films distributed by First Run Features. | Sarah Boslaugh

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