Opus the Penguin told us this would happen.
Back in 1994, the miniseries “Scarlett” was about to hit the airwaves, based on the why’d-they-do-it sequel to “Gone With The Wind.” About a month before it aired, Opus discovered in his comic-strip world that another American classic was getting a second chapter as well, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.
The name of this deathless piece of Hollywood literature? “Kill Mo’ Mockingbird: Boo Radley Loose in the ‘Hood.”
Well, we never got to see Bruce Willis as Atticus Finch and Dennis Hopper as a heavily-armed Boo. But from the recent ripples in the book world, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
In case you missed it, the much-loved Harper Lee returned to the bookshelves this week with a long-unpublished manuscript: “Go Set A Watchman.” Seen through the eyes of an adult Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch, the book features numerous changes to the familiar world of “To Kill A Mockingbird” – not least, Scout’s discovery of the racist attitudes of her father, Atticus Finch.
That caused a bit of an earthquake, and understandably so. After all, “Mockingbird” fans are a devoted crew and Atticus is one of the most adored literary creations ever. Turning him into a segregationist is almost on an order with carving the Golden Arches on Mount Everest – so unthinkable as to be almost obscene.
And yet, that’s not quite right.
Before deciding to avoid the new book forever – and plenty of fans have declared their intention to do just that – consider this. “Watchman” was written first. It’s not a sequel. It’s an early attempt, written and then abandoned when Lee decided to approach the story of Scout and Atticus from a different time and perspective, the one that has endured for decades.
In short, it’s a first draft.
Many things can happen in a first draft.
Some regular readers may recall that I’m a longtime fan of J.R.R. Tolkien. Several years ago, Tolkien’s son Christopher wrote a series of books about his father’s creation of Middle-Earth, including the evolution of “The Lord of the Rings.”
The early drafts featured a hero named Bingo Baggins. Treebeard appears as a villainous giant rather than a mighty forest-guardian. And while there’s no sign of the courageous Strider, the reader is treated to a Hobbit ranger known as Trotter, running around the countryside in wooden shoes.
There are false starts. Uncertain tones. Details of the world that seem almost ludicrous compared to the epic we’ve come to know and love.
But to read it is utterly fascinating. Even illuminating. And my appreciation of the Middle-Earth that finally came to be is all the richer for it.
Very few works of art come to life fully-formed. They’re born in struggle and frustration, with all the ungainliness of a toddler learning to walk or a teenager growing into their body. The results aren’t often pretty and many of the early efforts are often well-abandoned.
But without those efforts, the final beauty could never be.
That’s encouraging, not just as a reader, but as a writer – or, indeed, a creator of any kind. It means you don’t have to be perfect from the start. It means you can find your voice, make bad choices, create pieces that fall to earth with a “clunk.”
It means you can learn. You can grow. You can master the skill that no one else can: the skill of your voice, your vision.
And that’s when the mockingbirds fly.
So when you read “Watchman,” read it in that spirit. This isn’t a second verse to an old song. It’s a map of roads not taken, the earliest sketches before the final canvas.
Come to it with those eyes. And you may just love Atticus – the one and only Atticus – more than ever before.