“There’s no point in writing about someone unless they are flawed,” Aaron Sorkin said when he was asked about depicting Steve Jobs as a “flawed genius” in his script for the 2015 biopic. Apparently no one told Sorkin that this rule does not apply to beloved heroes of childhood classics.
The estate of Harper Lee is suing Sorkin and his producer Scott Rudin over their stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which they say depicts Atticus Finch as a racist. The complaint cites an interview Sorkin gave in September where he stated, “As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take. . . He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote.”
“He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.”
It sounds like the Lee estate is upset that the play gives Atticus Finch a character arc. But any stage adaptation was bound to do that. A novel might be able to dispense with that kind of dramatic trajectory, but not a play. They ought to drop their lawsuit and let the playwright get on with his work.
Every Sorkin adaptation takes liberties with its main character. The Steve Jobs of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was nothing like the Apple founder. The Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network had all kinds of weird status anxieties that the real Zuckerberg never gave a second thought. The main character of his HBO show The Newsroom, ostensibly a Republican TV anchor, resembled no Republican that has ever existed.
In exchange for tolerating these liberties, you get to see your story told in the words of Aaron Sorkin, who still writes better dialogue than anyone else alive. If the Lee estate wanted a by-the-numbers transliteration, they could have picked any other playwright.
Anyway, they should relax. Sorkin and Rudin can’t be going too dark with their Atticus Finch if they’ve cast Jeff Daniels to play him.
If the Lee estate isn’t careful, they may meet the fate that befalls those who try taking Aaron Sorkin to court: he will write them into his next show. When two screenwriters sued Sorkin for allegedly having stolen their work for the film The American President, he retaliated by writing an unflattering subplot about them into Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. (A show no one watched, and which got canceled after a single season. . . Maybe the Lee estate can be forgiven for having missed it.)
“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” runs the old adage. There are two reasons not to pick a fight with Aaron Sorkin. The first is that, as a Hollywood screenwriter, he has access to the biggest megaphone in the world. The second is that he really is a genius. The less he is harried in the run-up to the play’s Broadway debut in November, the better work he is bound to do.