Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Sequel Sparks Questions Over Film Rights

Courtesy of Everett Collection
'To Kill a Mockingbird'

The bombshell news about 'Go Set a Watchman' has spawned speculation about where the rights might land, with Universal holding the rights to the 1962 classic.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's been more than 50 years since Atticus Finch made his closing argument in Oscar best picture nominee To Kill a Mockingbird. But the righteous attorney (played by Gregory Peck) and his precocious daughter Scout suddenly are poised for a theatrical return.

Publisher HarperCollins revealed Feb. 3 that author Harper Lee, 88, finally has consented to the release of Go Set a Watchman -- a book she wrote before penning the classic Mockingbird -- which follows Atticus and Scout two decades after Mockingbird's events. The bombshell news has spawned speculation about where the film rights to Watchman, which will publish July 14, might land, as well as controversy about Lee's ability to sign off (she suffered a stroke in 2007, and her sight and hearing are said to be failing).

Editors and executives at HarperCollins confessed to not having spoken directly to Lee, and it appears that the nearly 60-year-old novel will be published as it was when her first editor rejected it in the 1950s and without any editorial input from the publisher. Some friends of Lee, known as Nelle to locals in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. (population: 6,500), say she's happy for the book to be published. Others worry she has been manipulated by her advisors. The only people who claim they have directly talked to Lee are her foreign-rights agent, Andrew Nurnberg and her lawyer. Tonja Carter, who negotiated the new publishing deal and issued several statements in Lee's name defending it. In 2013, Lee (represented by Carter) sued her longtime agent Samuel Pinkus, alleging he manipulated her into relinquishing the copyright to Mockingbird. The suit was eventually settled with an undisclosed agreement between Lee and Pinkus.

Universal owns rights to the 1962 movie that grossed $13 million ($102 million in today's dollars) and won three Academy Awards, including a best actor statuette for Peck. But it's unclear if the studio would have a claim to Watchman, even though the main characters recur. In Watchman, Scout returns to her native Alabama amid the birth of the civil rights movement to grapple with her past (in Mockingbird, Atticus defends a black man falsely accused of rape). Sources say Universal lawyers are exploring whether it might indeed own rights to the characters, while Harper's reps are staying mum.



After all, similar cases have proved murky. In 1981, a judge ruled that MGM had no claim to authorize a sequel to Gone With the Wind, given that it wasn't mentioned in the original rights acquisition nor in an updated 1961 contract. It is unclear whether the original To Kill a Mockingbird movie deal included language concerning a sequel.

Rights to specific characters can get even more tangled. Take Hannibal Lecter. After Manhunt, the first adaptation of the four Thomas Harris novels featuring the serial-killing cannibal doctor flopped, producer Dino De Laurentiis lent Orion Pictures the Lecter character rights for a one-time use to make Silence of the Lambs (also based on a Harris novel). After Silence took in over $250 million at the worldwide box office in the early 1990s, plans for a sequel got complicated. In 1999 De Laurentiis bought the rights to the newest Harris novel featuring Lecter for $9 million, but MGM, which now owned Orion, claimed it had the rights to Clarice Starling (the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster) since she first appeared in Silence. Eventually, MGM, De Laurentiis and Universal figured out a co-production deal that allowed all three to profit from Hannibal, which grossed $351 million worldwide in 2001.

For five decades, the idea of a Mockingbird follow-up seemed an unlikely prospect. Few beyond hard-core Lee scholars even remembered that the author had written Watchman, which was rejected in the late 1950s by Lee's editor, who suggested she instead expand the flashback scenes into a separate novel, which became Mockingbird.

But Mockingbird continues to be a publishing juggernaut, with 447,000 print copies sold in 2014, making it No. 7 among all print books. According to 2012 court documents, Lee, who lives in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, still earns more than $3 million a year in royalties from the book. If available, movie rights would not come cheap. Rights to Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind published in 1991, sold for $9 million to producer Robert Halmi Sr., who turned it into a CBS miniseries.

As for the reclusive Lee, who never published a second novel until now and has spurned all interview requests, she made one simple statement through her lawyer, Tonja Carter: "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman."