Estate of Harper Lee Sues Over New Adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”

It is not uncommon for iconic novels to reach the stage in one form or another.  Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Voltaire’s Candide, are only a few of the numerous instances where books were used as the foundation in creating a play or musical. With this is mind, it should come as no surprise that well-known screenwriter, director, and playwright, Aaron Sorkin has created a theatrical adaptation of the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird.

Prior to her death, the late author, Harper Lee, had sold a live stage version to Rudinplay, the production vehicle of Scott Rudin. Rudin purchased $100,000 in addition to royalties for the right to create the adaptation of Mockingbird. The production was to begin previews in November, with a December opening.

While Lee did sell the right to create an adaptation of Mockingbird to Rudin, the dispute at hand pertains specifically to Sorkin’s creative authority. In a complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Alabama, the estate questions whether the script created by Sorkin has strayed too far from the novel, and violates the contract between Lee and the producers of the play.

The provision of the contract that is at issue allows the Author the right to approve the Playwright for the Play, as well as the right to review and make comments for the Play. The same provision includes a statement providing that the Play “shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor its characters.” It is the contention of the estate of the late author, that Sorkin has departed from the novel.

In an interview between Vulture and Sorkin, Sorkin states that his version is a “different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s…”. The representative for Lee’s estate, Tonja Carter, is not on board with Sorkin’s new adaptation if it presents Atticus as “more naïve and less morally sound than Lee’s version”. Carter is also unhappy with the purported addition of two new characters, the “alteration” of other characters, and questions if Sorkin’s script actually presents a fair depiction of Alabama in the 1930s.

Communications between the Harper Lee Estate and Rudin began in September 2017, where Rudin did offer his reassurance to the Estate. These conversations have continued through this month whereupon Rudin’s lawyer has denied that the play was departing from the spirit of the novel.

Carter now seeks a declaratory judgment for what the contract requires, in addition to a request that the judge find that Sorkin’s version of Mockingbird alters characters, the setting of 1930s Alabama, and “the book’s depiction of the fictional legal proceedings against Tom Robinson.”. A declaratory judgment is not brought for a specific remedy, but is an order declaring the rights or claims of parties who have a dispute that cannot be resolved without a judicial assessment of their arguments.

A spokesperson for Rudinplay responded by issuing a statement remaining true to their contention that Sorkin’s adaptation of Mockingbird has remained faithful to Harper Lee, and the belief that Harper Lee’s Estate has launched a frivolous lawsuit against Rudinplay on account of their history of litigious behavior, and therefore argues that this lawsuit has no merit.



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