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In spring 1957, an unknown young woman from Monroeville, Alabama, finished the first draft of a novel that was based, in part, on the character and experiences of her lawyer father. She portrayed him with conflicted feelings, as the parent she loved but also a racist who’d attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan and asked questions such as: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”
It was only later, when a gruff but motherly editor named Tay Hohoff had sent the writer back to the drawing board, that she re-thought her story and the lawyer himself, reinventing him as the noble, dignified Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Today, Atticus belongs in the pantheon of literary archetypes. He’s as well known to Americans as Captain Ahab and Huckleberry Finn, and a whole lot better-known than more nuanced and arguably more profound characters, such as Isabel Archer and Hester Prynne. Other novelists have perhaps written with greater depth and style, but few have touched our souls as electrically as Harper Lee. Because of this, we hold her 1960 book in our heart of hearts; it’s “our national novel,” in Oprah Winfrey’s words, as close to us as our most cherished memories, maybe even some of our families and friends.
Lee’s reinvention of Atticus would have remained a secret if her lawyer, Tonja Carter, hadn’t taken the controversial step of letting HarperCollins publish that early draft, Go Set a Watchman, a few months before its author’s death in February 2016. The book became a bestseller despite a swirl of questions as to whether Lee, a recluse who’d never published any other novel after her magnum opus debuted in 1960, would have wanted it out there.
Now Carter and Lee’s estate are embroiled in another controversy: whether to allow Aaron Sorkin to move forward with his stage adaptation of Mockingbird.
The news that the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind The West Wing and The Social Network was working on a Broadway production made waves when it was announced in February 2016; so did the revelation that he intended adults to play the hero and heroine — Scout, a six-year-old girl (often thought to be a fictionalized version of Lee) and a boy named Dill (a version of her best friend, Truman Capote).
I haven’t read the play, but something inside me thrilled to what Sorkin was doing. I’d fully expected him to tackle the project with the reverence Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett brought to The Diary of Anne Frank, their Pulitzer Prize-winning work of 1955, which impressed at the time but now seems like a dusty footnote to Frank’s life.
As much as I thought Sorkin was wrong-headed in his theatrical approach to 2012’s Steve Jobs — breaking it into three distinct acts in the Apple CEO’s life — I found this idea inspiring. I hoped and believed it would allow me to see a revered work with fresh eyes, reminding me of everything I loved about the novel without repeating it beat-for-beat.
Now the play’s future is in question. On March 14, Lee’s estate announced it was suing the production and producer Scott Rudin on the grounds that they’d violated an agreement that “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.”
Quite possibly the estate is right and the adaptation is a gross violation of Lee’s work. But from everything I know of Sorkin and the nature of adaptation, the estate’s response seems based on two fundamental errors, which could jeopardize the chances of bringing new readers to a novel that has already sold more than 40 million copies.
First, any successful adaptation inevitably alters the material it adapts. That’s partly because it has to use the tricks and tools of one medium to convey a work created with the tricks and tools of another, and partly because no adaptation feels authentic unless it’s a blend of the adapter’s obsessions with the original writer’s.
Look at any brilliant adaptation, and it stretches the source material, sometimes almost to breaking point. Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood has hardly any of the dialogue or scenes of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. David Lean’s David Copperfield reduces an 800-page novel to a two-hour story and transforms the beloved Mr. Micawber through the radical (but remarkable) casting of W.C. Fields. I remember reading Women in Love for the first time and searching in vain for the most memorable scene from the film, the drowning of the newlyweds; it doesn’t exist in D.H. Lawrence’s novel.
These adaptations work for the precise reason that they took liberties with their sources. Thousands of more slavish adaptations have come and gone, faint echoes of the material they adapted, but the best stand out and draw us back, again and again, to the stories we love.
That’s one reason the estate is fundamentally wrong. Another is this: that great works survive any attempt at mutilation in another form.
God knows how many stage and screen versions there’ve been of pivotal texts from Tolstoy to Tennessee Williams, from J.M. Barrie to J.K. Rowling. No matter how bad, the original endures. I’ve seen versions of Romeo and Juliet where the actors mangled their lines, the audience fell asleep, people walked out and even booed; I’ve seen motion picture renderings as varied as Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The play lives on. Won’t Mockingbird, too?
Readers were shocked when they learned how different Watchman was from its later incarnation. In it, The New York Times noted, “Scout is not an impressionable child in Maycomb, Ala., looking up to her heroic father, but a young woman from Maycomb living in New York. Her father, the great Atticus Finch, is a bigot.“ But even Watchman’s considerable sales failed to dent Mockingbird, which continues to sell a million copies a year and remains an iconic work about race, family and pre-civil rights America.
Sorkin is the right man to bring those subjects to the stage. He’s a liberal and a moralist, whose nature is in harmony with Lee’s. His very weaknesses seem to match her book’s — an over-zealous appeal to all that’s best in us, a tendency to perceive characters as either good or bad and rarely as a complex mixture of the two.
In trying to constrain him, the estate is constraining Lee herself. It’s saying, in effect, that it has no faith in her novel to withstand the slings and arrows of someone else’s interpretation. But Mockingbird has survived for the past 60 years and will survive at least 60 more, with or without Sorkin, regardless of whether he succeeds or fails.
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