Harper Lee Estate Sues Over Aaron Sorkin Adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

The lawsuit alleges that the theatrical production from Scott Rudin alters characters, setting and the legal proceeding at the heart of the book.
Léo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest
'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

Before a theatrical adaptation of Harper Lee's iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird debuts on Broadway, an Alabama federal judge is getting what should be the dream assignment of providing a critical reading. That's because on Tuesday, the late author's estate filed a lawsuit against Rudinplay, the production vehicle of Scott Rudin, over a new script by Aaron Sorkin.

According to the complaint, Lee optioned a live stage version to Rudin on June 29, 2015, just months before she died at the age of 89. For the right to create a dramatic adaptation of her famous novel about a small-town Alabama lawyer named Atticus Finch who defends a black defendant, Rudin paid $100,000 plus a share of royalties. The Broadway production is slated to begin previews in November for a Dec. 13 opening, with Jeff Daniels in the lead role of Atticus.

This dispute pertains to creative authority and whether Sorkin's script strays too far from the novel.

The key portion of the contract states, "Author shall have the absolute and unconditional right to approve the Playwright for the Play. … Author shall also have the right to review the script of the Play and to make comments which shall be considered in good faith by the Playwright, and the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters. If the Author believes that the Play does so derogate or depart, or alter characters, Producer will be given notice thereof as soon as possible, and will be afforded an opportunity to discuss with Owner resolutions of any such concerns."

Tonja Carter, the representative of the Harper Lee Estate, now believes that Sorkin has in fact departed from the novel. Her lawsuit points to an interview that Sorkin gave to Vulture.

"As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee's or [writer of the 1962 big-screen adaptation] Horton Foote's," said Sorkin. "He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he's going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors, and his friends and the world around him, that is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it's so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people."

If Sorkin's adaptation presents Atticus as more naive and less morally sound than Lee's version, Carter isn't having it (even though Lee herself reinterpreted Atticus in the sequel, Go Set a Watchman). She also has objected to the alleged addition of two characters not in the novel, the "alteration" of the characters of Jem and Scout Finch, plus whether the script presents a fair depiction of 1930s small-town Alabama.

Beginning in September 2017, the literary agent for the Harper Lee Estate and Rudin exchanged communications where concerns were raised and reassurances were offered. For example, in one message, Rudin said that "the Atticus of the book is the Atticus of the novel."

Those conversations have continued through this month to the point that on Friday, according to the complaint, Rudin's lawyer denied the play was departing from the spirit of the novel and stated that "it is unreasonable to expect that extensive changes can be achieved five weeks before the second [actors'] workshop. It simply is no longer possible, even if [Mr. Rudin] were in agreement with everything in your March 5 letter."

Carter now seeks a declaratory judgment about what the contract requires. She's also requesting that the judge find that the play alters characters, the 1930s Alabama setting and the book's depiction of the fictional legal proceedings against Tom Robinson.

Here's the full complaint.

The lawsuit was first reported by The New York Times.

A spokesperson for Rudinplay issued the following statement:

"This adaptation by Aaron Sorkin of To Kill a Mockingbird is a faithful adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, which has been crafted within the constraints of the agreement executed by both Harper Lee and the play’s producers before Ms. Lee’s death. This action undertaken by the estate of Harper Lee is an unfortunate step in a situation where there is simply artistic disagreement over the creation of a play that Ms. Lee herself wanted to see produced, and is the kind of disagreement which one expects would be worked out easily between two parties who have a mutual interest in seeing a work produced. The estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits, and has been the subject of considerable controversy surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both during her illness and after her death. This is, unfortunately, simply another such lawsuit, the latest of many, and we believe that it is without merit. While we hope this gets resolved, if it does not, the suit will be vigorously defended.​"