The executor of the estate of novelist Harper Lee will go to trial against producers of the upcoming Broadway premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird next month in a dispute over whether or not Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of the 1960 novel veers too far from the late author’s original intent, according to the New York Times.
In March, Tonja B. Carter, the lawyer representing Lee’s estate, filed suit against the show’s producers, stating that Sorkin’s script for the production took too many liberties with Lee’s original story and the characters she created. Broadway producers countersued in New York, claiming that the Alabama case was detrimental to the Broadway production that is set to arrive in December of this year. Broadway producers are seeking a New York trial, despite the initial suit’s filing in Alabama.
On April 30, a Manhattan Federal District Court Judge denied the request to dismiss the estate’s initial suit, stating that the trial should take place in Alabama should the judge there find merit in the case. If it is dismissed, the parties will see each other in a Manhattan courtroom on June 4.
In their filing, the show’s producers offered to perform the play for the court.
Prior to her death in 2016, Lee signed over rights to the stage adaptation to Rudinplay (lead producer Scott Rudin’s production company), which paid the author $100,000 for a 24-month option, and a percentage of the box office once the play opened. The agreement stated that the script could not “derogate or depart” from Lee’s original intent.
In interviews about the production, Sorkin has said that audiences won’t encounter the morally sound Atticus Finch they know—at first. “He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play,” Sorkin told Vulture. “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.”
Sorkin said that one of the challenges is that Lee’s book, which works brilliantly as a written work, cannot be translated literally for the theatre.
“I was naïve,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well how hard can this be? Harper Lee has written such a great novel, it stands up pretty easily as a play, just take her scenes and dramatize them.’ That doesn’t work at all.” The playwright says that the unexpected issue is that the infamous trial, the apex of drama, is “well more than halfway through the book.” That, and the story is really young Scout’s tale—led by a child. “In a novel, we’re okay with listening to children talk and watching them behave because the author, in this case Harper Lee, has made sure it’s of interest to adults,” Sorkin explains. “On a Broadway stage, we’re not going to be able to watch children for that long.”