- Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird
“I never expected that the book would sell,” said Harper Lee in a 1964 radio interview, “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers. But I was hoping that maybe somebody might like it well enough to give me some encouragement about it.” The quick, merciful death never came, for the book in question was To Kill a Mockingbird, which upon publication became an immediate critical and commercial success. It won a Pulitzer Prize and soon became a staple of high-school English classes. It has long remained a best seller and is regarded as one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century. It also made Nelle Harper Lee an overnight celebrity. In the immediate wake of the novel’s publication in 1960, she made public appearances and gave a number of interviews, discussing both the novel and its 1962 film adaptation. She published a handful of nonfiction articles in the 1960s, and then effectively vanished from public life. [End Page 127]
As impactful as the novel has been, the mystery of Harper Lee has also stoked fascination. Where kind of person was/is she? Why did she stop speaking publically? And most importantly: why has there been no second novel? Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird serves to lift the veil a bit, if not completely obliterate the mystery, on the character of Harper Lee. This documentary, written, produced and directed by Mary McDonagh Murphy, creates something of a collage, by turns dealing with the novel, the author, the historical context, and the legacy, as well as with personal responses to the novel.
Interviews make up much of Hey, Boo. Included are Tom Brokaw, Rosanne Cash and Oprah Winfrey. While each interview adds to the conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird, they at times seem to offer simply personal reactions, which, while not uninformative, tend to say more about the reader than the book. The various writers interviewed, such as Wally Lamb, James McBride, Anna Quindlen, Richard Russo, Allan Gurganus and Scott Turow, come off somewhat better, as they speak about the craft of writing and the narrative strategies of Lee’s book, as well as how those strategies influenced their own approaches to fiction. Lamb is given abundant screen time, during which he speaks not only from the perspective of a novelist, but also from that of an educator, addressing To Kill a Mockingbird’s use and reception in the classroom.
Hey, Boo also uses various media to craft its portrait of its subject: photographs, both public and private, clips from television news broadcasts and talk shows, and snippets from a 1964 radio interview with Lee, which would prove to be her last. Also included are clips from motion pictures, such as 2005’s Capote (in which Lee was played by Catherine Keener), 2006’s Infamous (in which she was played by Sandra Bullock), and, of course, Robert Mulligan’s 1962 production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Considered by many to be one of the finest novel-to-film adaptations, this last provides much of the visual material for Hey, Boo. The film, winner of three Academy Awards, has become so iconic in its own right that it is difficult to consider Lee’s novel without Atticus Finch evoking the image of Gregory Peck, or of Scout evoking Mary Badham, who also appears as an interview subject. Consequently, Hey, Boo also addresses the production and impact of the movie in some detail. While this is certainly appropriate, given the film’s legacy, it also complicates the documentary’s narrative, making it difficult, at points, to tell if interview subjects are discussing the novel, or the movie, or both.
For those already familiar with the novel, its historical context, and its impact, much of the documentary will cover well-trodden ground. However, where Hey Boo really digs into the personality of the author behind To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a...