Harper Lee and Umberto Eco legacies continue, unexpectedly, on the big screen

Harper Lee and Umberto Eco legacies continue, unexpectedly, on the big screen
A scene from 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird," based on the Harper Lee's a classic novel. (Universal Pictures)

Before they died on the same day, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco were not authors with a lot in common. She came of age in the Jim Crow South; he in Mussolini's Italy. She was a populist where he was an academic. She was terse and rarely productive. He had the writerly gift of gab.

When it came to film, however, both Lee and Eco conjured the same spirit: a forgotten ideal of big-screen literary adaptation.

Lee, of course, made possible "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 1962 Oscar winner about small-town life and childhood memory that epitomizes smart and socially conscious Hollywood entertainment. Eco was the man behind 1986's "The Name of the Rose," an atmospheric mystery starring Sean Connery that brought an intellectual rigor to a film genre not particularly known for it.

It's logical, then, in wake of the authors' deaths, to reflect soberly on what once was. When reading about the Lee and Eco adaptations from the perspective of the modern moment, many of us find ourselves with a sadly familiar reaction: Why can't they make films out of books like that anymore? Many such ambitious works are still being written. Yet it seems harder than ever to bring them to the screen, and harder still to make them good once they arrive.

It's an understandable response. In the past, good books dominated the movie zeitgeist --  "Mockingbird" was a phenomenon, and "Rose," though a flop in the U.S., was a blockbuster around the world. (To say nothing of "Sophie's Choice," "The Color Purple," "A Clockwork Orange," "Gone With the Wind" and countless other smash hits.)

In contrast, the most popular films in the modern, Marvelized day come from far outside a literary realm.  

Many of the book properties that do vibrate through the year-end box-office chart are so sequelized and removed from their ‎novelistic origins that they offer but a faint echo of them -- a "Spectre" here, a "Jurassic World" there.


And even when blockbusters are more directly derived from the written word, they don't exactly aim for a level of Eco-ian ambition. The three highest-grossing literary adaptations in 2015 were "Fifty Shades of Grey," "The Martian" and "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2" -- each a satisfying experience, perhaps, but with source material that's unlikely to contend for a Pulitzer.

As with most such reactions, though, these feelings are both partly true and a little glib.

For one thing, the highest-grossing franchise of the 21st century is, of course, "Harry Potter," which gave the world seven classics of no small literary acclaim. Comparisons to the quality or inflection of "Mockingbird" may not be as far off as one might think; it's worth remembering that when it was first published, some thought "Mockingbird" was  not suitable for adults either.‎

In a quote that's been widely cited since Lee's death, Southern author (and Lee stylistic rival) Flannery O'Connor wrote sharply of "Mockingbird" in a letter, "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book." The slippery line between children's and adult literature may not be as recent an invention as we suppose.

Meanwhile, the past film year has given us "Brooklyn," "Room" and "Mr. Holmes" -- all based on novels‎ of a certain regard and all movies that found their niche.

But maybe what's most notable about the modern book-to-film world is how much it has expanded. The ambition that Lee and Eco were known for on the page, and that came to further light on the screen, now takes all sorts of new forms and shapes.

Among the adapted screenplay nominees at next Sunday's Oscars is "The Big Short," an innovative take on a nonfiction book. It follows other innovative takes on books by the same author, Michael Lewis, including  "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side."

Not nominated next Sunday: "Steve Jobs," in which Aaron Sorkin found an inventive way to dramatize a dense 650-page biography, by Walter Isaacson. It's a coincidence, but an evocative one, that Sorkin was just announced to be working on a new stage adaptation of a certain classic book. The title in question? "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Even movies not based on books can still retain the aura of serious literature. The original-screenplay nominations at this year's Oscar include Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer's "Spotlight," a script as meticulously researched as the best nonfiction book and featuring the propulsive rhythms of the most finely wrought thriller.

One could even argue that "Deadpool," with its wisecracking central character, is a descendant of Elmore Leonard and others who have a flair for comic anti-heroes. (Though I won't go that far; even populist art and contrarian arguments have their limits.)

Thematically, Lee was  interested in worlds -- particularly that of the small-town community -- that she felt were disappearing in America. In one of her last interviews before she withdrew from public life, in 1964, she said she wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" to try to preserve these feelings.

"There is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing." When it comes to film works, at least, Lee need not have worried. What's passed may deserve some lamenting. But what's replaced it is equally worthy.