Brow Beat

The Harper Lee Estate Is Suing Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird Stage Adaptation

Atticus, Scout and Jem share a familial embrace in the 1962 To Kill a Mockingbird film.
Atticus, Scout, and Jem were never meant to speak Sorkinese. Universal Pictures

There are few works as indelible as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been nearly 60 years after the story of racial inequality in small-town Alabama came out, but the novel is still a fixture in most classrooms, and its 1962 film adaptation, starring an Oscar-winning Gregory Peck as upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch, remains a faithful and beloved adaptation. But the keepers of the text are currently fighting a Broadway production that hopes to bring it into the 21st century.

On Tuesday, Harper Lee’s estate filed a lawsuit against an upcoming theatrical adaptation of the play. The script, penned by Aaron Sorkin, supposedly misrepresents the book’s hero. While in the book Atticus is painted as an unrelenting stalwart for racial justice, fighting to exonerate his black client despite the town’s ridicule, Lee’s estate claims that Sorkin’s play takes a different tack. They claim the script, co-produced by Scott Rudin and Lincoln Center Theater, initially paints Atticus as passively racist—think Bradley Whitford in the first half of Get Out, or most New Englanders.

Producers and Lee’s estate signed a contract agreeing that “the play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” according to the New York Times. Still, Scott Rudin thinks shrouding the play in the past would be a disservice to its original message:

I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics: It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.

As the Times reports, Rudin expressed surprise at the estate’s decision, given that they were instrumental in publishing 2015’s Go Set a Watchman, an early draft of what would become Mockingbird, in which Lee depicts an older Atticus as openly racist. Sorkin apparently changed the Mockingbird narrative to reflect an evolution towards redemption for Atticus, aided by the family’s black maid, Calpurnia. In an interview with New York magazine, Sorkin claimed that Atticus “becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play.” The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, features Jeff Daniels as Atticus, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, and Will Pullen as Jem.

Though Lee herself signed the contract for this play eight months before her death in February 2016, lawyer Tonja B. Carter who runs her estate is not on board. In a series of letters sent between the estate and Rudin’s office, Carter claimed that this Atticus was “rude and selfish” and “more like an edgy sitcom dad in the 21st century.” The lawsuit seeks to undercut any deviations from Lee’s original vision, stating:

Based on Ms. Lee’s own father, a small-town Alabama lawyer who represented black defendants in a criminal trial, Atticus Finch is portrayed in the novel as a model of wisdom, integrity, and professionalism.

In a letter responding to Carter, Rudin’s lawyer Jonathan Zavin responded:

Aaron Sorkin is one of the leading writers in America. He would hardly be needed to write the play if the intent was to merely do a transcription of the novel on the stage. Presumably Ms. Lee was well aware that Mr. Sorkin would be bringing his perspective and talent to the play, and that the play would not be identical in all respects to the novel.

Sorkin actually might not be the best person to adapt To Kill a Mockingbird given his own dubious acknowledgements of American racism. It’s also hard to imagine Atticus and Scout engaging in a hallway walk-and-talk. Still, there are issues with the original novel that could produce great conversations given a few updates, particularly as it relates to the Jim Crow phenomenon of white women falsely accusing black men of rape. And in 2018, it seems more than a bit naïve to continue to cling to the image of Atticus Finch as the unblemished, practically perfect white savior he is in the original book.