Having remained a beloved classic for more than fifty years, the status of Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird was seriously upset when an earlier version of the novel, Go Set A Watchman was published a few years ago. Specifically, readers were floored by the depiction of Atticus Finch as a racist segregationist, rather than the morally upright character depicted in Lee’s first novel.
With our perception of Atticus thus changed, it only makes sense for a playwright to draw on that dichotomy when writing an adaptation of either of Lee’s novels. But Lee’s estate does not appear to agree.
A new Broadway production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is in development, with Jeff Daniels set to play the seminal character of Atticus, and Oscar winner, Aaron Sorkin, writing the script.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Sorkin wants to update this historic character. An adaptation is rarely, if ever, a word-for-word translation, since things that work on the page don’t necessarily work on the stage or on the screen. By the same token, things that had an impact in 1960 aren’t necessarily going to be as effective in 2018. In fact, Sorkin said he deliberately wanted to avoid setting the play in the same political climate as the book, since he doesn’t think that would be as interesting to a modern audience.
But when Tonja B. Carter, the attorney in charge of running Lee’s estate, heard about Sorkin’s ideas for Atticus, she reportedly met with Scott Rudin, one of the show’s producers, to express her concerns regarding the change. The two were reportedly unable to resolve their different interpretations of the matter, and Lee’s estate sued the producers of the show shortly thereafter.
Rudin said he was surprised by the lawsuit, especially since Carter played an instrumental role in bringing Go Set A Watchman to publication (which was itself a suspicious and controversial move, given Lee’s dwindling mental faculties at the time).
But Carter pointed to a line in the contract between the producers and the estate that requires the play to maintain “the spirit” of the book, without altering the characters. In addition to the changes made to the character of Atticus, the play also gives the family’s black maid, Calpurnia, a larger role, allegedly changes the characters of Tom Robinson, Scout, and Jem, and adds two characters who don’t appear in the book.
Representatives of Lee’s estate exchanged a series of letters with Rudin’s attorneys, in which they debated Sorkin’s script before filing the lawsuit. An attorney for Rudin defended the adaptation, saying that, while it is different from the novel, it does adhere to the spirit of the book (as required by the contract) and does not make any changes to the basic nature of any of the characters. He also pointed out that, when she signed the contract (eight months before her death), Lee understood that Sorkin would be bringing his own interpretation to the work and that they never intended to make a play that was identical to the book.
Rudin said he did not believe the lawsuit had any merit, but that if the estate was determined to pursue the matter in court, they would be prepared to defend the script all the way.
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