Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Aaron Sorkin is a huge fan of courtroom dramas, both as a reader and as a watcher. His first Broadway play was the swashbuckling military justice story, “A Few Good Men,” and he’s returned with another legal thriller this winter. But this time he had to shake off a real courtroom drama.
A lawsuit earlier this year threatened to delay or even derail Sorkin’s adaptation of the beloved Harper Lee 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” before the Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer made a few minor changes to his script to keep the show on track.
“There was a very scary few weeks,” Sorkin acknowledges during an interview in the Shubert Theatre, where his adaptation is a big draw. “We were afraid we were going to lose this theater and therefore not be able to be in any theater.”
The legal maneuvering began when Lee’s estate complained that the play’s script wrongly altered Atticus Finch, the noble attorney at the heart of the novel, and other book characters. That lawsuit was met by a countersuit and eventually mediated discussions broke the deadlock. Sorkin expects no lingering bitterness.
“When [Lee’s heirs] come see the play, I really do hope that they’ll see that it was written and directed and performed by people who have enormous respect for the source material,” Sorkin said. “But we didn’t want to do a museum piece. This isn’t a class field trip. It’s not an exercise in nostalgia or an homage.”
Sorkin’s adaptation crackles with energy and his trademark soaring language that made hits of “The Newsroom” and “The West Wing.” He has brilliantly cut the undergrowth of minor characters and enhanced others, particularly two prominent African-American characters: the maid Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, a client falsely accused of rape, both of whom are mostly silent in the coming-of-age novel about racism and injustice.
“I understand that, in 1960, using African-American characters only as atmosphere would probably go unnoticed. But I couldn’t pretend that I was writing the play in 1960. I’m writing it now and it is noticeable and it’s wrong. It’s also a wasted opportunity,” he said.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Calpurnia opposite Jeff Daniels’ Atticus, said Sorkin examined the subtext and innuendo of her character and built Calpurnia an existence she never had before.
“I don’t know of anyone else who could have done what Aaron has done. He truly has lifted the essence of everything that was inside that Harper Lee book,” she said. “She might have written it in 1960 but the translation is totally 2018.”
The script also has Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem, and their best friend, Dill, played by adult actors who narrate, argue over memories and, in a self-referential way, comment on what they’re doing. (“This is where I come in,” one says when he appears.) Sorkin used the technique once before in his last Broadway outing, “The Farnsworth Invention.”
Perhaps his most ambitious change was with Atticus, a widowed father and open-minded progressive in the Depression-era South, played to perfection by Gregory Peck in the film version. “He’s a godlike figure in the book and in the movie who can do no wrong. He’s kind of carved out of marble,” said Sorkin.
Atticus is so morally grounded that he tolerates intolerance, believing that there’s good in everybody. As Sorkin wrestled with humanizing this small-town lawyer, events in the real world seeped in. White supremacists marched down a Virginia city’s streets and the U.S. president did not denounce them. “Suddenly it started to sound to me in 2018 like there were ‘fine people on both sides,”’ Sorkin said. Atticus would have to come off his high horse. “In the play, I wanted him to struggle with the questions.”
Sorkin in person is how you’d expect — affable, energized and knowledgeable about virtually anything. He’ll go from explaining the origin of the term “three-dog night” to the finer points of finding good pizza in Greenwich Village or recounting a story about opera diva Maria Callas.
He was raised in the New York suburbs and his first theatrical experience was watching “Man of La Mancha,” a moment when “suddenly theaters became cathedrals.” His initial career goal was to write for musical theater and now gets a kick that he’s in the Shubert Theatre, where he saw “A Chorus Line” many times as a young man.
When he first was asked to adapt “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he acknowledges his first draft was cringe-worthy. He simply took all the best scenes from the book and strung them together. It “wasn’t really much more than a cover band doing it,” he said.
“Once I made the decision that I shouldn’t be swaddling the novel in Bubble Wrap and gently transferring it to a stage, that this was going to be a new play where we took a new look at familiar material, it kind of freed me up to start doing my own thing.”
He said he felt a kinship with Lee, calling her prose the “Southern Gothic musical arrangement of the way I write.” To create dialogue, he’d say a line of Lee’s and start adding his own words to it. “Before too long I was writing my own song in the same musical style that she had written.”
The lawsuit by Lee’s estate did lead to a few changes, including Atticus no longer taking the Lord’s name in vain or wanting a stiff drink, both attempts by Sorkin to make him more accessible. “I cut those two things in order to get this play done. And that is the only compromising that was done at all.”
There’s more courtroom drama in Sorkin’s future when he adapts his “A Few Good Men” for an NBC live telecast and sees “The Trial of the Chicago 7” hit theaters. As soon as “To Kill a Mockingbird” opens, he’ll be hard at work on the script for the film “Lucy and Desi,” a biopic of TV icon Lucille Ball.
He may even revisit one of his older projects — “The Social Network,” his film about the origins of Facebook. In recent days, a darker vision of the company has emerged and “The Social Network” producer Scott Rudin has reached out about revisiting the subject. “I’ve gotten more than one email from him with an article attached saying, ‘Isn’t it time for a sequel?’” Sorkin said.