Tales of Tuscaloosa: Books and Movies (July 11, 1960)

Nell, a frustrated young writer, struggled with her novel. She was working with multiple versions and felt it was disjointed and episodic. The stress had become more than she could bear. She opened a window and hurled the manuscript, Atticus, into the darkness. The pages fluttered and settled onto the dirty snow. It was the winter of 1958 in New York City.

In desperation, Nell called her editor at Lippincott. He told her to go outside and pick it up. The young writer’s full name was Nell Harper Lee. She went on to finish her novel and changed the title. To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960. It became an instant bestseller—winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Eventually, over 30 million copies were sold, and it was translated into more than 40 languages.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of several novels whose authors have strong connections to Tuscaloosa—all are University of Alabama alumni. Additionally, some of these books became major motion pictures. 

Released in 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a fictionalized version of Lee’s father, attorney Amasa Coleman Lee, and two unknown child actors, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford. The main themes of the book and movie are the coming of age of three children in a small town and prejudice and injustice. The movie won three Academy Awards, including Best Art Direction, Adapted Screenplay, and Peck as Best Actor. In later years, The American Film Institute named To Kill a Mockingbird one of the greatest movies of all time.

President George Bush with Harper Lee at the 2007 Medal of Freedom Awards Ceremony. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mark Childress, like Harper Lee, was born in Monroeville, Alabama. Childress worked initially as a reporter and a magazine and newspaper editor. In 1984, A World Made of Fire became the first of several novels. His fourth novel, Crazy in Alabama, was an international best seller and won numerous awards. In 1999, the movie version of Crazy in Alabama was released, starring Melanie Griffin and directed by Antonio Banderas. The basic plot concerns a woman who heads for California with her abusive husband’s head in a box while her nephew back in Alabama must deal with a racially motivated murder. The movie was an official selection at the Venice and San Sebastian Film Festivals of 1999.

Like Mark Childress, Winston Groom began his writing career as a reporter. His first novel, Better Times Than These, was published in 1978. His fifth novel, Forrest Gump, was not a best seller until it was adapted into a movie. It then sold nearly two million copies. The basic story depicts several decades in the life of an intellectually challenged Alabamian who witnesses and participates in some of the defining events of the late twentieth century.

The movie version starred Tom Hanks as the title character and was directed by Robert Zemeckis. It was released on July 6, 1994, and was an instant hit. It became the fourth highest grossing movie in history—taking in over $600 million. It received 13 Academy Award nominations and won six, including Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Director. The film has been recognized as a landmark in movie technology for its special effects.  

It took Mississippi native Kathryn Stockett five years to complete her first novel The Help, which was subsequently rejected by 60 literary agents. It was finally published in 2009 and spent 100 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. The plot centers upon a young white woman and her relationship with her two black maids during the Civil Rights era in Jackson, Mississippi.

As a movie, The Help was a huge financial and critical success. It opened on August 10, 2011, and within months grossed over $200 million—against a production cost of $25 million. The Help was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Octavia Spencer, a native of Montgomery, won the Best Supporting Actress Award.  

Fannie Flagg is a character actor and writer who attended the University in 1962. Born Patricia Neal (no relation to the actor of the same name) in Birmingham, she appeared in numerous movie and television productions but is best known for her 1988 book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which in 1991 was released as the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. It was critically acclaimed and received two Academy Award nominations.  

William March was a World War I Marine veteran who attended Law School at the University. He is best remembered for his book The Bad Seed, which was released as a movie in 1956 and subsequently nominated for four Academy Awards. March authored numerous other books, including Company K, regarded by many as one of the greatest literary works to arise from the First World War and the equal of Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. British journalist Alistair Cooke regarded March as “the unrecognized genius of our time.”  

William Bradford Huie graduated from the University in 1930. He authored numerous works which became movies but is perhaps best remembered for The Americanization of Emily, released in 1964. The lead actors, Julie Andrews and James Garner, considered their characters to be the favorite roles of their lengthy careers. The Klansman was released in 1974 and starred Lee Marvin and Richard Burton. Some of the other movies adapted from Huie’s work include The Outsider, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, and Wild River.

These novels, and their subsequent movie versions, were written and filmed over a period of half a century. However, they tell stories of people behaving in extraordinary ways in extraordinary circumstances. Although the authors, characters, and settings might be described as “regional,” their appeal and success have been national and international. 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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