Reinventing Atticus

While Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” may have been the foremost inspiration for lawyers to defend the accused, it’s not a book without issues. It’s fair for people to take issue with its themes, language and, well, message. No one should be forced to read it if they don’t want to.

But is it fair for Aaron Sorkin to take Lee’s book and turn it into a woke vision of what Harper Lee would have written if she was Sorkin? Her estate says no.

One of the year’s most anticipated Broadway plays — the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — faces a legal challenge from Ms. Lee’s estate, which is suing over Mr. Sorkin’s version of the story.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Alabama, the estate argued that Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation deviates too much from the novel, and violates a contract, between Ms. Lee and the producers, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book.

What has Sorkin done to the beloved story?

A chief dispute in the complaint is the assertion that Mr. Sorkin’s portrayal of the much beloved Atticus Finch, the crusading lawyer who represents a black man unjustly accused of rape, presents him as a man who begins the drama as a naïve apologist for the racial status quo, a depiction at odds with his purely heroic image in the novel.

Rather than the Atticus Finch who taught Scout about bravery and integrity, and a nation about how a white women will lie about a rape at the expense of a black man, and a racist system that protected her doing so, Sorkin sought to recreate the story where Atticus was student rather than teacher.

Was this the same story? Was this Harper Lee’s Atticus or Sorkin’s presentist invention, where he took the title and general idea and morphed it into a story that aligned with the ideals of social justice?

Ann Althouse calls the dispute one between sentimentalism and sophistication, though not necessarily in a good way.

It seems as though the question is whether they want a saccharine presentation that draws sentimentalists and children or something modestly challenging that draws a somewhat sophisticated crowd. Apparently the estate wants to preserve what is most memorable about the revered young-adult novel: a wise, beloved father figure. That’s the golden goose of “Mockingbird.” Kill it, and you’ve got nothing. But the Sorkin people think they’ve got something more contemporary than a white male hero. They’ll inflate the role of the black maid… have Calpurnia catalyzing a transformation in crusty old racist Atticus.

How is that not even creakier than the original story?

The question isn’t whether Sorkin’s version is more “contemporary,” meaning conforming to the narrative of the moment preferred by his television fans. That Lee’s story was hugely progressive for its day, scandalous even, is no longer sufficient. Atticus Finch is no longer an icon for the brave defense of the falsely accused against all social norms, but just a rude racist who needs to be taught. And a lying survivor? I can’t even.

But as Althouse notes, what did Lee expect?

[Producer Scott] Rudin said he was surprised by the estate’s criticism of Mr. Sorkin’s depiction of Atticus because Ms. Carter had been instrumental in the 2015 publication of “Go Set a Watchman,” an early draft of “Mockingbird” that depicted an aged Atticus as a racist and segregationist.

Of course, the play he’s producing isn’t “Go Set A Watchman.” But then, this is about Sorkin’s “depiction,” not Lee’s.

“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.”

By characterizing the morphing of racist Atticus into woke Atticus, characterizing it as “identical in all respects” is a bit disingenuous, as the alternative isn’t completely different to the point of being an entirely different character in an entirely different story with only the barest of connections and a very marketable title.

But what does the estate demand of him, if not to seize the book and turn it into a Sorkin fairy tale?

The contract the parties signed states that “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.”

Clearly, there must be some leeway in adapting the book to the stage, But how much?

“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,” Mr. Rudin said in an interview. “The world has changed since then.”

And no one has put a gun to Rudin’s head to force him to do any such thing. He can write his own story, create his own characters, pen his own play that suits whatever message he wants to convey. It just won’t be “To Kill A Mockingbird,” if that story “wouldn’t be of interest.”

Has the world truly changed so much since 1960, when “To Kill A Mockingbird” was a shocking tale of social injustice, such that it would be an homage to racism and sexism today? To some, apparently, and one such person is Aaron Sorkin. So what did Lee expect? Perhaps the faithful performance of the contract, that provides he will not alter the book’s characters.

But as much as the book may no longer be sufficiently progressive to suit the ideology of social justice today, the notion of contract performance as well feels so archaic. The world has changed, and with it the duty to keep one’s promises when they fail to comport with profitable feelings.


12 thoughts on “Reinventing Atticus

  1. B. McLeod

    Sounds like a crappy, halfway effort. If there aren’t half a dozen gay characters and at least two trannies, nobody will watch it.

      1. B. McLeod

        “Proportional casting” would be like having a cast member carry through the arm or leg of a gay person and the smallest toe of a tranny.

  2. Mike G.

    Personally I like the story and the original screen play. Atticus Finch was the original”woke” white man.

    Too bad future American Literature students might not get a chance to read it for themselves…at least in High School, or Jr. High, like I and probably you did.

  3. Billy Bob

    If Sorkin had changed Atticus’s surname to Finchberg or Finchstein, maybe we would not be having these vexatious discussions regarding interpretation? One man’s interpretation is another man’s inquisition cum torture technique. Atticus Finch is a tried and true Amrikan icon of jurisprudential mockery in the deep south. Can we not leave well enough alone? Do we have to interpret and re-interpret till the cows come home? It is what it is. Leave well enough alone.

    On the other hand, a “federal district court” in the deep south? Need I say more! It’s a toss up. This new movie ends badly, unfortunately, for Harper Lee and her estate. It was brilliant then; it’s brilliant today, w/o any so-called re-interpretation. Re-interpretation is the thief of little minds. The federal court flubs this, as it flubs many cases, without reason or adherence to precedent, case history or “common sense.”

  4. Wrongway

    if he signed a contract, that’s one thing, & it has to be honored.. so there’s that..

    but man!!, I’d love to see this play go on…… & fail hugely!! ..

  5. Cassius Dre

    It’s a win-win for Sorkin. If the Lee estate wins, he can continue forward using a different name for the play, while crowing about how he was forced to disassociate with the novel. If Sorkin wins, he can crow about his “brave reinterpretation”. In the meantime, the play gets a lot of free publicity.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      Possibly. OTOH, it’s possible that copyright law will be (ab?)used to insure that if Sorkin wants to make something similar, he will need to change it even more than he wants to, to take it out of the realm of anything that could be considered a derivative work.

      1. Billy Bob

        Whatever you do, do not throw Sorkin into the *briar patch*. Patrick, you think too much. A “derivative work”, what’s that”? Something that did not make it to the Metropolitan Museum, or Carnegie Hall? “More than he wants to,”… I see what you did there.

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