NEW YORK — Will Aaron Sorkin’s stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” open in U.S. District Court?
That’s not quite as far-fetched as it sounds. A legal battle between a lawyer for the estate of late “Mockingbird” novelist Harper Lee and Broadway producer Scott Rudin has cast doubt on the fate of the scheduled production and led Rudin to make an extraordinary offer: to stage the piece first in federal court, with actor Jeff Daniels playing Atticus Finch, to prove that the adaptation is true to the novel.
That a courtroom drama may provoke a courtroom drama has the makings of, well, a juicy courtroom drama. The fight, being waged in the chambers of federal judges in New York and Alabama, offers an unusual glimpse into the vituperative backstage wrangling that can erupt over control of a celebrated work of literary fiction when it has been adapted for the stage.
The executor of the estate, lawyer Tonja B. Carter, has objected to what she has characterized as changes Sorkin has made to the book’s well known characters that derogate the “spirit of the novel.” In a lawsuit filed last month in the Southern District of Alabama, the Monroeville, Ala.-based attorney asked for unspecified monetary damages and a ruling that Rudin’s company, Rudinplay, “does not have final authority” to decide whether the script abides by the terms of the original agreement signed between the production company and Lee before she died in 2016.
Rudin, producer of “The Book of Mormon” and, this season alone, several Broadway plays, struck back this week, with a lawsuit in federal court in New York, arguing that the Alabama action should be dismissed, that the script is faithful to Lee’s vision and that it is Carter who is going beyond the bounds of Rudinplay’s contract with Lee, which initially paid her $100,000 for stage rights to the novel, extending into 2019. “Ms. Carter’s conduct, in falsely alleging that the script for the play violates the agreement, has rendered it impossible for the play to premiere as scheduled in December 2018, and unless this dispute is resolved in the immediate future, the play will be canceled,” the suit contends in asking for $10 million in damages.
Even at this early stage, the case seems to underline the adage that everyone’s a critic. (Rudinplay suggests in its countersuit that a separate dispute over theatrical rights between Lee’s estate and the estate of late actor Gregory Peck, who played Finch in the 1962 Oscar-winning film version, is behind Carter’s efforts to cancel the play.) How exactly Finch and the novel’s other characters fail to abide by the novel’s prescriptions is not made entirely clear, although Carter’s suit intimates that Sorkin’s idea of Lee’s Finch — a small-town white lawyer who takes on the unpopular cause of defending a black man accused of rape — is not sufficiently heroic. Her suit quotes a portion of an interview Sorkin gave last September to the pop culture website Vulture, in which he describes his script as “a different take on ‘Mockingbird’ than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s,” the latter having written the screenplay for the 1962 movie.
“He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play,” Sorkin is quoted as saying about his script, “and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County [Ala.] jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.”
Rudinplay maintains in its suit, first reported by the New York Times, that while Lee was granted the right to approve the choosing of Sorkin, neither she nor her estate were given “any approval right over the script of the play, or any right to subjectively determine whether the play ‘derogates or departs’ from the spirit of the novel or its characters. Rather, the agreement provides only that the estate has ‘the right to review the script of the play and to make comments which shall be considered in good faith’ by the playwright.”
The actual degree of license that Sorkin may have taken — recognizing that by its nature, a good play should make an artistic statement apart from its source material — could not be determined; Rudinplay declined to share Sorkin’s script. Reached for comment, Carter’s Birmingham, Ala., lawyer, Matthew H. Lembke, issued a statement quoting Carter as saying the agreement with Rudinplay “included a written contractual promise that the play would not alter the book’s characters. In particular, Ms. Lee would have refused any alteration to the character of Atticus Finch — which, in the play’s current form, is altered significantly.”
Having the matter of the heroic stature of Sorkin’s Finch adjudicated through a performance in federal court would certainly take some of the pressure off an eventual Broadway production’s publicity budget. In that regard, Rudinplay’s lawsuit suggests the judge might have to play critic, too. “Mr. Sorkin,” the suit states, “is one of the leading writers in America … and his participation as playwright would hardly be necessary, or appropriate, if the play were to be a mere transcription of the novel.”