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To kill a matinee: Harper Lee's estate sues over Aaron Sorkin adaptation

A Broadway production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" will go on this year despite the lawsuit, the producer's attorney said.
by Alex Johnson /  / Updated 

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Aaron Sorkin rewrote the part of Atticus Finch in a planned Broadway production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" to make him less heroic than he is in Harper Lee's classic novel, and the producers should be forced to rewrite the play, Lee's estate alleges in a federal lawsuit.

Despite the controversy, there's no plan to delay the opening of the play, starring Jeff Daniels as Finch, which is scheduled for December, an attorney for the producers said Thursday.

The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, against Rudinplay Inc., the theater company of New York producer Scott Rudin. It alleges that Sorkin's stage adaptation of the beloved novel turns Finch into a sympathizer with the racism of the South during the Great Depression.

Sorkin wasn't named as a respondent in the suit.

The suit cites a September 2017 interview with the culture website Vulture in which Sorkin — the Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer of hypercaffeinated, hyperliterate scripts for "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network," "Moneyball," "The West Wing" and "Sports Night" — is quoted as saying, "As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on 'Mockingbird' than Harper Lee's or Horton Foote's," a reference to the Oscar-winning screenplay Foote wrote for the 1962 film version of the book.

"He is in denial about his neighbors, and his friends and the world around him, that is as racist as it is," the article quotes Sorkin as having said. It quotes him as adding: "He becomes an apologist for these people" who evolves into "Atticus Finch" only by the end of the play.

The suit alleges that Rudinplay signed a contract with Lee's estate promising not to "derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters."

It says that Tonja Carter, the estate's representative, protested the depiction of Finch but that as recently as last week, the production company denied that Sorkin's depiction "derogated" Finch and asserted that in any event, Rudinplay was the final arbiter of whether the play departed from the spirit of the novel — not Lee's estate.

The suit, which claims that the estate has the final say, seeks a judgment ordering Rudinplay to rewrite Finch's depiction and to pay the estate's attorney's fees and court costs.

Amid the controversy, Jonathan Zavin, a lawyer representing Rudinplay, told The Associated Press on Thursday that plans for the production were still on schedule "to the best of my knowledge."

A spokesperson for Rudinplay said Sorkin's script "is a faithful adaptation of a singular novel which has been crafted well within the constraints of the signed agreement," calling the suit "an unfortunate step in a situation where there is simply artistic disagreement over the creation of a potential adaptation that Ms. Lee herself wanted to see produced."

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