SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The lawyer Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird" is among the most famous and beloved characters in American fiction. In the novel by Harper Lee, who died in 2016, Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of rape in a small, southern town in the 1930s. Here's Gregory Peck's portrayal of Finch in the film version.
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GREGORY PECK: (As Atticus Finch) I'm simply defending a Negro - Tom Robinson. Now, Scout, there's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man.
MCCAMMON: But the late author's estate is unhappy with how Atticus Finch is portrayed in an upcoming Broadway play by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and Lee's estate is suing over it. Alexandra Alter is a reporter with The New York Times who's been following this story. She joins us now from her office in New York. Hello.
ALEXANDRA ALTER: Hi.
MCCAMMON: So you've read the complaint from Harper Lee's estate about this adaptation by Aaron Sorkin. Break it down for us. What is the complaint here?
ALTER: This complaint is very unusual because what they're asserting is that - although Harper Lee herself agreed to have Aaron Sorkin adapt her work, the estate is now saying that the contract stipulates that the script must be true to the novel and true to the characters. And they're arguing that this adaptation deviates too far from the original and therefore violates the contract. Now, if you look at the actual contract, it does say that Harper Lee has the absolute right to review the script and make comments which shall, quote, "be considered in good faith by the playwright." That is not giving her a ton of power or her estate a ton of power to actually demand changes. But the language that her estate is pointing to - and her estate is run by Tonja Carter who is her lawyer - says that, quote, "the play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters." And that's fairly subjective, so it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.
MCCAMMON: You spoke with the play's producer Scott Rudin, who's been part of these discussions with Harper Lee's estate. What is he saying?
ALTER: He was very adamant that the play does adhere to the spirit of the novel and is true to the novel. And he feels that when it's finally - you know, at the moment, it's a work in progress. They're just starting workshops. But he feels that once it evolves into the final product, fans of the novel will be very happy with it.
MCCAMMON: This isn't the first time in recent years that Harper Lee and "To Kill A Mockingbird" have generated headlines. The publication of "Go Set A Watchman," which happened not long before Lee died in 2016, was also controversial because it portrayed Atticus Finch differently than fans of the original novel expected. Is it really such a surprise that Sorkin's adaptation would take some artistic license with this character as well?
ALTER: I didn't think it was a huge surprise. And I read an interview that Aaron Sorkin gave to New York Magazine last fall in which he sort of explained, in a way, why he was doing this. To dramatize something that is in print onto the stage, you sort of need to put a character's evolution into action. And so his idea was to take Atticus Finch and have him evolve from sort of a naive apologist for the racial status quo into the morally-upstanding kind of civil rights crusader that he is in the novel. And so according to the complaint, you see this happen in the play largely through interactions that Atticus Finch has with Calpurnia who is their housemaid. He wasn't interested in - essentially in this sort of flat, completely good character. I think he wanted somebody a little more complex and nuanced.
MCCAMMON: What does all of this mean for the Sorkin adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird?" Is there any chance the play just doesn't go forward?
ALTER: That's a very good question, and I'm not sure how it will play out. You know, based on the sort of legal descriptions that I've seen, it does seem that Aaron Sorkin and Scott Rudin, the producers of the play essentially, are the ones that are - get to decide how close it is to the original and whether it's true to the spirit of the novel. The contract doesn't really give that right to Harper Lee or her estate.
MCCAMMON: Alexandra Alter covers publishing for The New York Times. Thank you.
ALTER: Thanks for having me.
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