March 19, 2018

To Buzzkill a Mockingbird: The Harper Lee estate sues over Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of a beloved novel


The late Harper Lee, photographed here with a war criminal

Mere weeks ago, we wrote about how “the long, weird, and sometimes controversial life of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird” would march on in the form of a Broadway play. We should have known that it too would soon become weird and controversial.

The Broadway adaptation, set to premiere in December 2018, is the brainchild of a crack team: Scott Rudin producing, Aaron Sorkin writing, and Jeff Daniels starring as Atticus Finch. But behind even the the most carefully assembled squad of experts, there is an estate hoping to protect a legacy and shape a narrative. Indeed, the famously litigious Harper Lee estate has clashed with the upcoming show’s production team.

As Alexandra Alter and Michael Paulson report for the New York Times:

In a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Alabama, the estate argued that Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation deviates too much from the novel, and violates a contract, between Ms. Lee and the producers, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book.

A chief dispute in the complaint is the assertion that Mr. Sorkin’s portrayal of the much beloved Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer who represents a black man unjustly accused of rape, presents him as a man who begins the drama as a naïve apologist for the racial status quo, a depiction at odds with his purely heroic image in the novel.

Rudin argues that this spin on the beloved Atticus Finch character is key to transposing a novel published in 1960 into something that would speak to today’s theater-goers. That is, the goal of getting at  “the spirit of the Novel”—its incendiary message—requires some updating, for the play to feel incendiary at all. He brings up an excellent point: why hire a Sorkin-level writer—hell, Sorkin himself—to present a rote adaptation of the novel?

The suit mentions some heated meetings between Rudin and the Lee estate’s real lawyer, the not-obviously-totally-admirable Tonja B. Carter, over not just the representation of a fictional lawyer, but also the new elements of the Jem and Scout characters as well. In a statement on the kerfuffle, Rudin says “while we hope this gets resolved, if it does not, the suit will be vigorously defended.”

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.