Several years ago, producer Scott Rudin contacted Aaron Sorkin with an idea that was either bold or insane: A new To Kill A Mockingbird. For the stage. Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 book became a just-as-beloved (maybe more so) 1962 movie that left what could easily be assumed to be an indelible, irreplaceable imprint on our cultural memory.
As Sorkin tells Deadline in this interview, he feared a new take on Mockingbird could only be less. Less than the book. Less than the movie. Less than Gregory Peck, whose portrayal of Atticus Finch is nothing short of iconic.
What changed his mind? The short answer: Scott Rudin, and maybe Donald Trump. The long answer: Let Sorkin explain.
Despite the allegations set forth in a now-settled lawsuit filed by the estate of Harper Lee, Sorkin’s Mockingbird stays close – in plot – to the Mockingbird everyone knows. In small-town Alabama during the Great Depression, attorney Atticus Finch defends an innocent black man against rape charges, a trial that serves as backdrop to the coming-of-age adventures of Atticus’ motherless children Scout and Jem and their friend Dill. Forever fascinated with the neighborhood bogeyman Boo Radley, the children ultimately learn the lessons of compassion and understanding that made Mockingbird a towering humanist statement.
But while Sorkin notes that every event in the play (directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus) has its source in the book, the play’s liberties in tone and message are considerable. The African-American housekeeper, Calpurnia (played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and the accused rapist Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) become fully-drawn characters, given voices not to be found in book or movie. And unlike the film, the children are played by adults – Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen and Gideon Glick are Scout, Jem and Dill, respectively. (See what Daniels has to say about that here).
In this interview – which was conducted before Amblin announced that it was temporarily halting production on the Sorkin-directed Trial of the Chicago 7 (Sorkin did not respond to a post-interview follow-up question about the film) – the man behind The West Wing, The Newsroom, Steve Jobs, Moneyball, The Social Network, Sports Night and A Few Good Men spoke about what convinced him to take on Mockingbird, how the tale speaks in new, urgent ways, the lawsuit, and even Harper Lee pal Truman Capote, who inspired the Dill character. And yes, we ask about a West Wing reboot.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Deadline: Tell me how Scott Rudin came to you with this project, what he said and your reaction.
Aaron Sorkin: Scott called me about three years ago and said, “I have something very exciting to talk to you about.” The last three times Scott called me and said “I have something very exciting to talk to you about,” I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.
He said he’d acquired the rights to To Kill a Mockingbird, and did I want to adapt it for Broadway? And I said yes, and at the moment I said yes it was like a skydiver who’s jumping out of a plane for the first time. Whatever it is they’re thinking when they jump out of the plane, that’s how I felt.
I can imagine why. I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch…
Right. I thought all I can do is make this less than what it is. You know, it’s probably not a wise thing to try. But I wanted to anyway. I wanted to do a play, and I wanted to work with this material.
The first draft that I wrote was terrible. Basically I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue. And that took about 6 or 8 months, and then I sent that script to Scott.
Scott had me come to New York, as he usually does when I do a first draft. And usually that first note session is 3 or 4 days long and I go back with a lot of notes and I write the second draft. This note session was 45 minutes long, and he had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note.
The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play…
But let me stop you there, because the thing is that when Scott said Atticus has to become Atticus, in your play Atticus doesn’t become Atticus, at least not Harper Lee’s Atticus. He becomes a new Atticus, and so I’m wondering if, when you first started to do the revisions, you were heading towards showing how Atticus became Harper’s Atticus? And when did you decide he was going to become your Atticus, the play’s Atticus?
With that second draft, I put Harper Lee aside. I knew the book well enough. I didn’t need the book anymore. I was writing the play. It wasn’t about becoming Harper Lee’s Atticus. It was about this Atticus that I was writing in the play. Listen, if the book is a coming-of-age story, it’s a coming-of-age story about Scout. The play is a coming-of-age story about Atticus.
And I want to be clear, there’s no event that occurs in the play that doesn’t occur in the book. We’re just taking a brand new look at those events, and we’re revisiting Atticus and challenging his belief system. He believes that there’s fundamental goodness in everyone, that you’ve got to crawl around inside someone else’s skin before you can really know them. He excuses Bob Ewell’s racism by saying that he recently lost his WPA job. He excuses Mrs. Dubose’s racism by saying that she’s sick and she recently stopped taking her morphine. He excuses the 12 jurors in Tom Robinson’s trial. He excuses the people of Maycomb. He wants to see the best in everybody, and in the book, that’s considered a virtue.
But 58 years have gone by since the book was written, and the characters in the play challenge Atticus’ belief. Is tolerating intolerance a virtue? That’s a question that the play is asking. It’s asking the same fundamental questions that the book does – What is the nature of decency? What is it to be a person? – but in the book Atticus has the answers. In the play, he wrestles with the question.
Did Trump’s comment [“I think there’s blame on both sides”] after the violence in Charlottesville happen after you started writing the revision? I’m wondering if this was a happy coincidence, the world and Aaron Sorkin coming to these questions at the same time, or did one influence the other?
You know, I think that there are a lot of questions we’ve been asking ourselves, and that To Kill a Mockingbird is a good vehicle to address those questions. For instance, Atticus, throughout the play, is saying, “My family has lived here for generations. I know these people. They’re my friends and neighbors. I know these people. Are some of them stuck in the old ways? Sure, but it doesn’t go as far as sending an obviously innocent man to prison.” I think a lot of us have been feeling, since the election and on both sides of the ideological spectrum, that we thought we knew our friends and neighbors, but we don’t. We’re shocked, and the play addresses that.
And these are questions that we’re asking with an urgency that maybe we didn’t have before. At what point did [the real-life political events] seriously begin to influence your vision for Mockingbird?
Immediately. As soon as I got back from the meeting with Scott and started thinking about the book all over again, suddenly I had a lot of questions about Atticus, a character we’ve always accepted as being a pillar of virtue. Certainly there’s never been any question about his intent. His heart is in the right place, but in the book he doesn’t get angry that any of this [the Tom Robinson rape trial] is happening, and so you ask yourself about his tolerance of intolerance and his notion that there’s fundamental goodness in everyone. Is that not similar to [Trump’s] “There were fine people on both sides”?
There is the scene in the movie and the book where he shoots the rabid dog, so he was willing to fight if his family was threatened, but you’re right, there’s no moment [of anger] against evils, against things that are not excusable.
That’s right. There are, in the book, two significant African-American characters, Calpurnia, the maid and Tom Robinson, the accused, and in a story about racial friction and racial injustice, neither of the two African-American characters have anything to say on the matter. Calpurnia bakes crackling bread and is mostly concerned with whether Scout is going to wear overalls or a dress to school, and Tom Robinson pleads for his life, and that’s it. In 1960 when the book was written, using African-American characters only as atmosphere is the kind of thing that would go largely unnoticed. In 2018, it’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity. You want to give these characters agency, and you want to throw them into the fight.
At the start of the play, you have the three “kids” – kids in quotes because Scout, Dill and Jem are played by adult actors – come out talking about the events depicted in Mockingbird, and they sometimes directly address the audience. In a sense, you’re giving the audience permission to participate in this revisiting and what Mockingbird means and has meant to our culture.
Exactly right. That’s exactly right. Two things happen when the curtain goes up. You’re looking at a set you did not expect to be looking at. You thought the curtain was going to go up and it was going to be a porch, or a tree-lined street, or a courtroom. But you’re looking at a set you’re not expecting to be looking at, and the three kids are questioning the details surrounding Bob Ewell’s death. I’m trying to say this without giving away too many spoilers, but [the play’s opening moment] is a signal to say, we’re going to look at this again. We’re going to look at the same events again and talk about them.
It’s almost meta, like you’re saying, We’re not only going to look at the events within the book – We’re going to look at the book, at what it meant for us as a culture, and we’re going to reconsider.
That’s right. Now, while I expect that most people on any given night at the Shubert Theatre have read the book or seen the movie or both, that’s not a requirement. The play works just fine for somebody who’s never heard of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Does this reconsideration aspect allow you to give Calpurnia the freedom to say what maybe we always wanted to hear her say? Without that framing, people might think, wait, Calpurnia wouldn’t talk to white people that way, in that time.
It’s funny you mention that. I’m sure you’re aware that the production was sued a while back by the estate of Harper Lee. Not Harper Lee. Harper Lee had passed away, but by the executor of the estate, and one of the complaints that she was making was…in the compliant letter, she quotes some of the lines of Calpurnia, and she says that a typical black maid in the South at this time would not talk to her employer this way. I say to you that there’s no such thing as a typical black maid, and also, plays aren’t written about typical people doing typical things. In the book, one could describe her as a typical black maid because she doesn’t have agency. She exists only in terms of the white people, and in the play, she is distinct, and her relationship with Atticus is distinct, and Scout even remarks on that. She says that maids in the South are neither seen nor heard, but with Atticus and Calpurnia, it was different, and she says that they’re more like she and Jem. They’re more like brother and sister.
Couple quick things since we have to wrap up. The play gives a little background on Dill [the character says at one point that his mom occasionally locks him in his room]. That’s Truman Capote’s background, right?
It is, and Dill, you know, was based on Truman Capote. So I gave Dill a little bit of Capote’s biography.
There’s a line in the play where Jem says God himself would forgive me…
“I could split Bob Ewell in half and God himself would call it a public service.”
Is that a nod to The Lion in Winter by any chance? Both plays revisit history, in a way, from a contemporary vantage…
You know what? I know what you’re talking about. I know which line you’re talking about. It’s something like “I could strike you dead, and God himself would…
“I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice.”
Yeah, “and God himself would call it justice.” It’s not a nod. James Goldman wrote it better than I did, I think, is all that happened there.
And I have to ask, any chance of a West Wing reunion? Or Sports Night?
If I get a good idea, and that rarely happens, then yes, but right now, I just don’t have the idea.