Courthouse Drama: Producer Offers to Stage Disputed ‘Mockingbird’ for Judge
Posted April 16, 2018 9:18 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — A prominent Broadway producer has offered to stage a single performance of Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” inside a federal courthouse in an effort to prove that the play is faithful to the novel.
The producer, Scott Rudin, made the proposal on Monday as part of a blistering federal lawsuit he filed in Manhattan, in which he demanded $10 million from novelist Harper Lee’s estate for challenging Sorkin’s adaptation. Rudin threatened to cancel the much-anticipated Broadway production of the play, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, which has been scheduled to open in December under the direction of the Tony winner Bartlett Sher.
Rudin said the efforts by the estate to assert control over the script had already damaged the process, making it difficult to secure the money needed to finance the production.
“Investors are not willing to invest millions of dollars when a cloud exists,” the lawsuit said.
Lee had agreed before her death in 2016 to allow Rudin and Sorkin to develop a new stage adaptation of the novel. But the executor of her estate, Tonja B. Carter, objected in a lawsuit of her own last month, filed in Lee’s home state of Alabama, that the script had deviated too much from the novel.
The new lawsuit from Rudin’s production company, Rudinplay, significantly escalates the dispute as it questions the conduct, qualifications and motivations of Carter.
Carter’s lawyer, Matthew H. Lembke, rejected the new complaint as “full of wild and baseless allegations that seem only meant to distract from the real issue — whether Rudinplay has violated its written contractual promise that it would not alter the characters in Harper Lee’s classic novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.”
Carter has taken particular issue with Sorkin’s depiction of Atticus as a morally ambiguous figure who gradually comes to hold more enlightened views about racial equality; she objected to multiple other elements of the script, but omitted many of those objections in an amended complaint.
Rudin, who is coproducing the play with Lincoln Center, has insisted the play is faithful to the novel. His lawsuit states that “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.'” But the complaint also argues that Sorkin is a leading writer with a unique voice and “his participation as playwright would hardly be necessary, or appropriate, if the Play were to be a mere transcription of the Novel.”
Rudin seeks to have the Alabama lawsuit dismissed. He is also asking for the New York court to declare that the play does not violate his agreement with Lee and that Carter does not have the authority to act on behalf of Lee’s estate. He is demanding that the estate award him damages “in no event less than $10 million.”
“The Agreement did not give Ms. Lee approval rights over the script of the Play, much less did it give her a right to purport to edit individual lines of dialogue,” he argued in the lawsuit. “It certainly did not give such rights to Ms. Carter, who is not an author, editor, literary agent or critic, and has no known expertise whatsoever in theater or writing.”
Carter emerged as a polarizing figure in the final years of Lee’s life, as a debate raged over whether or not Lee had authorized the publication of her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she had written in the 1950s and had abandoned. Carter initially said she stumbled upon the manuscript in a safe-deposit box in 2014, but a conflicting account suggested the novel had been discovered years earlier.
In a statement Monday, Carter said, “As the personal representative of the Estate of Nelle Harper Lee, I must protect the integrity of her beloved American classic, and therefore had no choice but to file a lawsuit against Rudinplay for failing to honor its contract with Ms. Lee. It is my duty and privilege to defend the terms of Ms. Lee’s agreement with Rudinplay, and I am determined to do so.” But, in his lawsuit, Rudin questioned Carter’s status as a representative of Lee’s will and for the first time accused Carter of having an ulterior motive in challenging the play: a desire to force the cancellation of the Broadway production because of a separate dispute between Lee’s estate and the heirs of Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the movie adaptation, over stage rights.
While a local theater group in Lee’s hometown Monroeville, Alabama, has staged a production based on the novel annually for nearly three decades, there has never been a Broadway adaptation of “Mockingbird,” one of the most beloved novels in American literature. In the lawsuit, Rudin suggests he already intends to postpone the new production, writing that the legal dispute “has rendered it impossible for the play to premiere as scheduled in December, 2018, and unless this dispute is resolved in the immediate future, the play will be canceled.”
In an interview, Rudin said he was willing to take the unusual step of performing the play in a courtroom so a jury could determine whether or not the production is true to the spirit of the novel. “A play and a book are two different things. A book is meant to be read; a play is meant to be performed,” he said.