The future of the forthcoming Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” now rests in the hands of a federal judge in Alabama after Lee’s estate sued the play’s producer this week, saying the script deviates too far from “the spirit of the novel.”
Before her death in 2016, Lee approved a contract with producer Scott Rudin, granting him the rights to her enduring 1960 masterpiece in exchange for $100,000 and a promise that the play would remain true to the original story. To write the script, Rudin brought on Aaron Sorkin, best known for writing “The West Wing” and “The Social Network.” And what has emerged, “as far as Atticus and his virtue goes,” Sorkin told New York magazine last fall, “is a different take on ‘Mockingbird’ than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s [1962 screenplay].”
Too different, in the eyes of Lee’s estate.
Headed by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, the estate complains that Rudin and Sorkin have significantly altered the main characters — the ever-righteous lawyer Atticus Finch and his two inquisitive kids, Jem and Scout. The legal proceedings waged against Tom Robinson, the black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, have changed, too, the lawsuit says. And the script, the lawsuit argues, no longer “presents a fair depiction of 1930s small-town Alabama.”
The estate claims that all of this violates the contract between Lee and Rudin.
Rudin, however, has said in response to the lawsuit that he “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,” he told the New York Times, which broke news of the lawsuit Wednesday. “The world has changed since then.”
In the lawsuit, lawyers for Lee’s estate say that Carter and the estate first grew suspicious of Rudin and Sorkin’s big ideas for the play after seeing an interview that Sorkin gave to Vulture.com in September 2017.
Asked whether Jem, Scout and their neighbor friend Dill were going to “speak Sorkin,” Sorkin responded, “Well, they’re gonna have to, because I didn’t write their language like they were children.”
He also described an evolution Atticus would go through from start to finish. Whereas in Lee’s novel Atticus is resolute in his morals and worldview and delivers even-tempered monologues denouncing racial injustice, in Sorkin’s version — or at least the draft he described last September — Atticus first has to come to terms with how racist his neighbors really are before he achieves the kind of righteousness “To Kill a Mockingbird” fans expect of him.
“He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play,” Sorkin told New York magazine, “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 jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.”
Sorkin said that the events at a rally with white nationalists in Charlottesville, in which a driver plowed a car into a crowd of people protesting racism and killed a woman — and after which President Trump told Americans that there were “some very fine people on both sides” — made him all the more confident that the changes to Atticus would jibe with viewers today.
As he told the New York Times in 2016, after the plans for the play were announced: “You can’t just wrap the original in Bubble Wrap and move it as gently as you can to the stage. It’s blasphemous to say it, but at some point, I have to take over.”
Lee’s estate has pushed back strongly against the changes. Just one day after Sorkin gave the New York magazine interview, the estate’s literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg, emailed Rudin to say he was upset that Sorkin shared information about the play with a reporter “before sharing his thoughts (and text) with [Lee’s] family.”
“I am aware that this is early days, and that the current script is not definitive, that you will still be working on this with Aaron,” Nurnberg wrote to Rudin, according to the lawsuit. “But for this classic, it really is important that any spin put on the characters, not least Atticus, does not contradict the author’s image of them and their Weltanschaung,” German for worldview.
The estate contends that, although the parties all reached an agreement that “the Atticus of the play must remain the Atticus of the novel,” the estate didn’t have another opportunity to review a new draft of the script until February. Instead of solving Carter’s concerns, the new script “exacerbated” them, the suit says.
The estate’s attorney, Matthew Lembke, did not immediately respond to a request for comment seeking more information about Carter’s concerns.
In a statement sent to The Washington Post, a spokeswoman for Rudin’s company, Rudinplay, criticized Lee’s estate for its past “litigious behavior” and its handling of Lee’s work before and after her death.
“This action undertaken by the estate of Harper Lee is an unfortunate step in a situation where there is simply artistic disagreement over the creation of a play that Ms. Lee herself wanted to see produced, ” the statement, from spokeswoman Annie Ehrmann, said.
She continued: “The estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits, and has been the subject of considerable controversy surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both during her illness and after her death. This is, unfortunately, simply another such lawsuit, the latest of many, and we believe that it is without merit.”
Before Lee’s death in 2016, Carter had represented her in lawsuits over copyright issues involving “To Kill a Mockingbird” and another over whether the Monroe County Heritage Museum profited off “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” trademark with its exhibit in the Monroe County courthouse, a setting in the movie, and its T-shirts displaying mockingbirds. In 2016, Carter successfully sealed Lee’s will in an Alabama probate court, but the Times, seeking information about Lee’s final wishes, persuaded the judge to unseal it earlier this year.
But the will did not shed much light on the mysteries that unfolded in Lee’s final years — primarily related to her last book, “Go Set a Watchman.” Believed to be an early draft of “Mockingbird,” “Watchman” cast Atticus Finch as an aging, griping racist who clashed with Scout’s views on civil rights, puzzling fans of the unflinchingly virtuous Atticus.
Carter was the target of controversy after the book was published, particularly after she wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal titled, “How I Found the Harper Lee Manuscript.” Critics have speculated about whether Lee — who, in her 80s, had suffered a stroke and could barely see or hear — really wanted that manuscript published, given she had maintained for more than 50 years that she would never publish another book after “Mockingbird.”
Rudin, too, told the Times he was surprised that Carter was so upset by Sorkin’s rendition of Atticus Finch when she had no problem with the racist one in “Watchman.”
Should the play go forward, it will be directed by Bartlett Sher and star Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Previews are supposed to begin Nov. 1, with the opening on Broadway Dec. 13.
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