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Harper Lee's Estate Sues Over Aaron Sorkin's To Kill A Mockingbird Play

The estate of acclaimed author Harper Lee has filed a lawsuit against Rudinplay, Scott Rudin's production banner, over filmmaker and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's new adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird

According to the complaint,  first reported by The New York Times, Lee optioned a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird to Rudin nearly three years ago, on June 29, 2015. This occurred less than a year before Lee passed away on February 19, 2016 at the age of 89. Rudin paid a reported $100,000 (plus a portion of royalties) to Lee in order to create a dramatic adaptation of her novel, which follows the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch as he represents Tom Robinson, a black defendant unjustly accused of rape.  

In the suit, Harper Lee Estate representative Tonja B. Carter alleges that Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird strays too far from the 1960 novel, and that it violates the contract between Lee and the producers that details the plot and characters of the adaptation must remain true to what's depicted in the book. The contract states, in part, that "the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters." The lawsuit argues that Sorkin's portrayal of Atticus Finch goes against his heroic image in Lee's novel. Sorkin allegedly depicts Atticus as a "naïve apologist for the racial status quo," according to The New York Times

The complaint cites an interview Sorkin had with Vulture about his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird as partial evidence he deviated from the novel.

"As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee's or Horton Foote's," Sorkin said. "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 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."

In addition to objecting to Sorkin's alleged reimagining of Atticus, the lawsuit also finds the reported addition of two new characters and the "alteration" of Jeremy "Jem" Finch and Louise "Scout" Finch in violation of the contract. It also calls into question whether Sorkin's play script accurately and fairly represents 1930s small-town Alabama. 

Carter and Rudin were reportedly in communication as early as September of 2017. The two discussed Sorkin's adaptation, and concerns and reassurances were exchanged. Rudin is said to have confirmed that "the Atticus of the [play] is the Atticus of the novel." 

Those talks reportedly continued through to March 2018. On March 5, Carter expressed that Atticus in the play is "rude and selfish," "more confrontational and far less dignified." Four days later, Rudin's lawyer Jonathan Zavin, defended the play, saying that it "does not derogate or depart from the spirit of the novel, nor alter the fundamental natures of the characters in the novel." 

Zavin concluded, "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."

Carter is seeking a declaratory judgement about the requirements of the contract between Lee and the play's producers, as well as confirmation that Sorkin altered the characters, the settings, and the fictional trial against Tom Robinson.

Sorkin's take on Lee's iconic novel has been one of this year's most anticipated Broadway plays. Bartlett Sher directs, with Jeff Daniels starring Atticus Finch, Celia Keenan-Bolger portraying Scout, Will Pullen playing Jem, and Gideon Glick portraying Dill.