Broadway ‘Mockingbird’ Is Back on Track, as Court Dispute Ends

Posted May 10, 2018 6:41 p.m. EDT
Updated May 10, 2018 6:46 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Atticus Finch is coming to Broadway. But how closely he will resemble the iconic figure from Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a mystery.

The highly anticipated stage production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is proceeding after a blistering pair of federal lawsuits over a $7 million stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” were settled Thursday, according to a statement from the parties.

That settlement means the play, with a new script by prominent Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, will be allowed to go forward. The production, with Jeff Daniels starring as the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch and Bartlett Sher as its director, is scheduled to begin rehearsals in September, with previews starting in November and the show opening in December at the Shubert Theater.

The dueling lawsuits created a rare public battle over a stage play based on a beloved classic — pitting its lead producer, Scott Rudin, against the estate of Harper Lee.

Lee had agreed to allow Sorkin to write a new stage adaptation before her death in 2016, and sold Rudin the stage rights. But in March, her estate filed a suit in Alabama over a draft script, arguing that it deviated too much from the novel by altering the character of Atticus, as well as his children Jem and Scout and the Finch family housekeeper, Calpurnia, who had a much larger role in the play’s draft script.

The complaint cited comments Sorkin made to New York magazine about how his adaptation would speak to today’s social climate, and how Atticus Finch would undergo a gradual moral evolution: “As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s or Horton Foote’s,” Sorkin had said.

In a March letter to Rudin, Tonja B. Carter, who oversees Lee’s estate, outlined dozens of objections to specific plot points and lines of dialogue. “These concerns are not merely cosmetic, but require a fundamental rethinking of the characters and plot,” she wrote.

Then in April, Rudin filed a countersuit in New York, warning the dispute could cause him to cancel the play and seeking at least $10 million in damages.

Rudin argued that in approving a famous playwright like Sorkin, Lee and her representatives must have anticipated that he would want to put a unique spin on the material. “The approval of Mr. Sorkin as playwright, among other things, reflected the parties’ understanding that the play, while remaining true to the spirit of the novel, would not be a mere recitation of the novel from the stage of the theater,” the complaint said.

The most dramatic element of the dispute was the prospect that the play could be staged in a federal courthouse — a proposal made by Rudin, who argued that only by seeing the play could one determine whether or not it fairly represents the novel (which, he insists, it does).

Lee’s estate suffered a setback earlier this week, when a federal court in Alabama agreed with Rudin that the dispute should be handled in the New York court. Lee’s estate then sought to delay the trial, which had been scheduled for June, for reasons that it sought to keep secret, according to court documents.

The requests to dismiss both cases filed in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, in Manhattan on Thursday included no details of the settlement, and it was not immediately clear whether Rudin had agreed to change the script, or whether the Lee estate was no longer seeking such changes. Among the issues had been whether the depiction of Atticus Finch was sufficiently heroic.

The two sides issued a four-sentence statement saying they had “amicably settled” the litigation, but offering no specifics. Rudin declined to comment, and a lawyer representing the estate referred to the joint statement and declined to comment further.

Rudin is coproducing the play with Lincoln Center Theater.

The dispute over the character of Atticus was especially charged because of the controversial publication of Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” in 2015. Some were skeptical that Lee, who had abandoned the novel in the mid-1950s, was healthy enough to consent to its publication. And many “Mockingbird” fans were shocked by the way Atticus is depicted in “Watchman,” which portrays him as an aging racist and segregationist who opposes his daughter Scout’s more enlightened views on civil rights.

Joseph Crespino, a professor of history at Emory University who recently published a book about Atticus Finch, said the publication of “Watchman” revealed that Lee once had a darker view of the character, and turned Atticus into a more nuanced and complex figure.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “You can’t have the uncomplicated idealistic figure of Atticus, not when we know now that she was struggling to make sense of that character.”

Rudin’s lawsuit alluded to the contrast between the two novels, and insisted that the play remains faithful to the original Atticus, saying “the character of Atticus in the draft script remained noble and idealistic, and true to the character as he appeared in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and did not in any way progress to or resemble the older, racist Atticus of ‘Go Set a Watchman.'”

In an interview with The Times in March, Rudin said he was unwilling to make changes to the script to adhere to some the novel’s racially outdated views, such as by curtailing the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, an African-American man who is unjustly accused of rape.

“I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics,” Rudin said. “The world has changed since then.”