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Harper Lee sues Aaron Sorkin over 'To Kill a Mockingbird' adaptation




Pulitzer Prize winner and
Pulitzer Prize winner and "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2007.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Before Harper Lee's passing in 2016, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin received her blessing to go forward with their Broadway adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The play is supposed to debut in December of this year. 

But the author's estate has filed a lawsuit claiming that Sorkin's adaptation deviates too far from the spirit of the original novel. Sorkin's decision to add characters and manipulate existing ones didn't go over well. 

Assuming no compromise is reached, the case will head to court in Alabama, the estate's jurisdiction, where a judge will assess the spirit of the novel and whether or not the Broadway production has strayed from it. 

The Frame's John Horn spoke with New York Times theater reporter Michael Paulson about the lawsuit.

Harper Lee's
Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is considered a classic American novel.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

What the Harper Lee estate is upset about:

They're suggesting that the characters have been changed in ways that they find to be unacceptable. In particular, the two kids — Scout and Gem — are being played by adult actors. So, this is shaping up to be a sort of memory play where these adults reflect back on experiences in their childhood, and the estate sees that as a problem. And, more significantly, the character of Atticus Finch, who the estate claims should be seen throughout as a hero, in the play he evolves. He starts as a naive apologist for his neighbors and becomes more of a champion as the narrative unfolds. And the estate has a problem with that as well. 

Sorkin's decision to include two characters that weren't in the novel:

The play focuses on a specific section of the novel. A significant section — the trial — has a couple of new characters. And also the housekeeper, Calpurnia, has more of what we might call agency. She's a little more outspoken in the play than she was in the novel, reflecting the way that writers in 2018 think African-American characters ought to be represented. 

Producer Scott Rudin's response to the complaints:

He completely rejects the suggestion that they have departed from the spirit of the book. He says that the play, which is still being developed, very much honors the spirit of the book [and] that, of course, it is different from the book. That it is not a bunch of actors on stage simply reciting Harper Lee's words. It's a theatricalization of a significant section of the novel, and that Harper Lee knew when she agreed to give the rights to this producer and this writer. 

Does the book need an update for contemporary audiences?

The estate at the moment seems quite dug in with the notion that the characters should be exactly the same as the ones in the book. They don't seem all that interested in the imperatives or arguments about contemporary theatre or contemporary audiences, or the differences between something you might see onstage and something you might read in a book. They tried to negotiate this both in person and in email for some weeks before they finally had a breakdown this week and the estate filed suit.



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