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Horton Foote, Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Joan Lownds

In 1960, a novel was published about racial injustice in the sleepy Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama — told through the eyes of a spunky, six-year-old tomboy. The author, Harper Lee, never expected it to sell, but the transcendent story about courage and conscience upended the publishing world, becoming an instant best-seller and eventually selling more than 40 million copies. The novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” won the Pulitzer Prize and was already an American literary icon when Hollywood attempted
to bring it to the screen in 1962.

Producer Alan Pakula offered Lee the opportunity to write the screenplay herself, but she declined, saying she was busy with her second novel. (which was reportedly never finished). So Pakula asked the highly regarded playwright, Horton Foote to adapt Lee’s classic story for the film.

At first, Foote wasn’t interested, according to his daughter, Hallie Foote, in an interview with Christianity Today in 2012. “He told me that at first he wasn’t inclined to write it because he just doesn’t want to adapt someone else’s work. He just wanted to do his own things,” Hallie Foote said. But Foote’s wife, Lillian Vallish Foote, insisted that Foote read the novel, which quickly convinced him. “From the moment I read the book, I felt that Harper Lee’s town was just like my town,” he said. “I knew these characters.”

When Foote met Lee, it was a meeting of kindred spirits. “He just fell in love with her, and said they had this instant shorthand because they both came from small towns in the South. He understood the people she was writing about,” Hallie Foote said.
After their meeting, Lee expressed complete faith in Foote. “Go home and write the screenplay,” she told him. The two became lifelong friends.

Foote’s childhood in the small Texas town of Wharton, and his talent with vividly drawn characters and understated dramatic intensity were a perfect match for the novel. For the immediacy of the screen, Foote condensed the novel’s three year time span into one. But his script so closely paralleled the essential spirit of the book that Lee said, “If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic.”

For his pitch-perfect screenplay, Foote received the Oscar in 1962. He would later receive another Academy Award in 1983 for his own drama, “Tender Mercies,” and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1995 for the play, “The Young Man from Atlanta.”

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