Fresh Ideas: Is screenwriter making mockery out of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?
March 27, 2018
On June 29, 2015, approximately nine months before she died, Harper Lee optioned her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" for $100,000 to the producer Scott Rudin which authorized him to adapt the novel for a live stage play. Rudin, in turn, hired Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter best known for "Molly's Game," "The Social Network," "Malice" and "West Wing."
The language of the contract Scott Rudin signed stated the play wasn't to "derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel, nor alter its characters." In his adaptation, however, according to the lawsuit filed by Ms. Lee's estate earlier this month, Sorkin hasn't only altered the characters, departed from the spirit of the novel, but hasn't even given a "fair depiction of 1930s small town Alabama."
Lawyers have their own take on the issue (see New York Times March 24 article, "Harper Lee is Watching Somewhere"), focusing on points such as whether the phrase "spirit of the novel" can be interpreted various ways, or if Ms. Lee agreed to an adaptation to begin with, she had to have realized a stage version would naturally be "different."
Scott Rudin, the producer, apparently views the novel primarily in terms of its market value. Meagan Flynn quotes him in the March 15 Washington Post as saying, "In terms of its racist politics, the world of 1960 wouldn't be of interest" to the audience because "the world has changed since then."
In the same article, Sorkin, echoing Rudin's take on racist politics, refers to the rally with white nationalists at Charlottesville, Va., and states the changes he has made in Atticus Finch wouldn't only "jibe with viewers today," but show Atticus is in denial about the racism of his neighbors and his friends and thus essentially "an apologist for them." He also points out he has Atticus having a "running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, about the racist world around him," and as a result by the end of the play, he's a changed man.
In this respect alone, making Calpurnia, the housekeeper who in the novel "knows her place," is transformed into today's ideal: a strong, black female unafraid to speak her mind.
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In the only recorded interview Ms. Lee ever gave (see YouTube), she says she's a chronicler of small town, middle-class life, of a time and world she believes is passing. The world she had known and loved is slower paced; it's unsophisticated, a world of oral traditions, of storytellers. It's essentially rural, one that in its poverty enriches children's imaginations.
Horton Foote's 1962 screenplay for "To Kill a Mockingbird" wasn't a verbatim rendition of Ms. Lee's novel. There's greater emphasis (more minutes and dialogue) devoted to the court case and scene than we find in the book, but the essential "spirit of the novel" — the time and place, Scout's innocence and sensibility, the concept of coming of age, are all there.
What are we to make of this lawsuit and the new version of "Mockingbird?" That Harper Lee's world is now "dated?" That it's "old truth" and no longer relevant? Or is Sorkin merely "borrowing" (as he says all writers do) the characters and the setting from Ms. Lee, but creating a vision that resonates today?
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.