Written by Sydney Stewart
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—a required text in schools across America—has been set to become a Broadway play, yet has encountered a number of obstacles in reaching the stage. According to a recent article on MobyLives, the most prominent of these obstacles is a new lawsuit of Harper Lee’s estate against producer Scott Rudin and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for the very adaptation of the book into a script.
The grounds for the suit are found within Lee’s will, which states that the play must “not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters,” and that Lee’s estate maintains the authority to determine whether or not any departure from Lee’s original work has been made. However, Rudin’s attorney maintains that despite any deviation from Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that may be found, the decision remains in the hands of Rudinplay (Rudin’s production company). Additionally, Rudin even has cause to believe that the estate’s lawsuit is perhaps unfounded, as Rudin stated that Lee’s “estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits.” Rudin argues that deviation from the classic is necessary when presenting this story on Broadway in modern times; as the world changes, the portrayal of the text must also.
The deviation in question (a new take on the main character, lawyer Atticus Finch) is intended to modernize the story and speak to a contemporary audience. Rudin states he aims to have his portrayal of Atticus Finch transform from a man in denial of the racism of his city, to the Atticus Finch we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. This leads to Atticus being portrayed as not the hero witnessed in To Kill a Mockingbird, but rather an apologist for the racism of his city. Rudin asserts that this change is in fact necessary to speak to the new modern audience.
Yet, perhaps the more pertinent question that arises from this suit is not whether a true deviation from the classic novel has occurred, but rather how a play that addresses deep racial concerns in the 1960s can be transposed to our modern times. A desire to express the oftentimes controversial nature of To Kill a Mockingbird is at the forefront of bringing this classic to the stage. There persists a fear of expressing racism in the same terms used in the 1960s in our modern times. Yet many argue the importance of revisiting the racism that feels so long removed from our current society, since that same racism still persists today.
The point of disagreement here is on the necessity of altering this staple novel to address modern concerns and to appeal to a modern audience. This then begs the question of whether we should be taking it upon ourselves to update and modernize older texts, or if we should maintain them in the context of the time in which they were written.