What happens when you rewrite a classic piece of literature? In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, you might get sued. Author Harper Lee signed a contract authorizing a play adaptation of her classic novel in June 2015, just before she died, and producer Scott Rudin enlisted talented wordsmith Aaron Sorkin to write the adaptation. But given that To Kill a Mockingbird deals with racial tensions and was published in 1960, Sorkin sought to update the story and its characters to comment on the world we live in today.
Per The New York Times, the Lee Estate argues that’s in direct breach of contract, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book. The chief complaint is that Sorkin’s version of Atticus Finch portrays him as a man who begins the drama as “a naïve apologist for the racial status quo.” Rudin and Ms. Lee’s lawyer Tonja B. Carter met in February to discuss concerns about the script, but the “heated” conversation ended without a resolution.
Speaking with the New York Times, Rudin defended Sorkin’s changes saying:
“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.”
Sorkin teased his new adaptation in an interview with Vulture last September, revealing his alterations to the story:
“As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s. He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, 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.”
That certainly draws direct corollaries to recent events. Jeff Daniels is set to play Atticus in the Broadway play, which is scheduled to begin previews on November 1st and open on December 13th. But those dates are now in doubt due to this lawsuit, and if Lee’s estate gets its way, Sorkin’s version of To Kill a Mockingbird won’t see the light of day.
While I understand wanting to protect the sanctity of this literary classic, I also think Sorkin’s adaptation marks an interesting exercise, and I’d be curious to see how it turns out. Moreover, Lee’s estate went ahead and published Lee’s unfinished follow-up Go Set a Watchmen, which was basically an incomplete manuscript, so arguing that this new adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t what Lee would have wanted is a bit strange.