(March 16, 2018) In December a new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird will premier on Broadway. It is written by Aaron Sorkin who is best known as the original writer of the West Wing television series. According to the New York Times the estate of the novel’s author, Harper Lee, has filed a legal complaint that “Mr. Sorkin’s adaptation deviates too much from the novel, and violates a contract, between Ms. Lee and the producers, which stipulates that the characters and plot must remain faithful to the spirit of the book.” The main objection is Sorkin’s portrayal of widower Atticus Finch who is a character based on Ms. Lee’s dad. Instead of the “crusading lawyer who represents a black man unjustly accused of rape [Sorkin] presents him as a man who begins the drama as a naïve apologist for the racial status quo.”
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In Sorkin’s version, Atticus learns to suppress his racism and fight for the black man’s justice only after series of arguments with the family’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia. Evidently Sorkin believes that Southern whites are not only endemically racist but incapable of changing without the uninvited edification of blacks. They are incapable of changing on their own initiative. Sorkin admits that President Trump triggered his new Mockingbird interpretation after the Charlottesville riots last year near the town’s Robert E. Lee statue when the President said, “there are good people on both sides.” While Trump was obviously referring to “good people” on each side of the argument over the statue’s future, Sorkin conforms to the mainstream media pretension that the President felt there were “good people” on the side of the white supremacist group that exploited the press exposure of the statue dispute to promote their racist agenda.
Since Sorkin’s dad was a copyright lawyer perhaps Aaron and his partners worded their contract with Ms. Lee in a way that enables them to portray the story in a currently politically correct manner. Or perhaps in the blue vault of heaven, where he arrived ten months after Ms. Lee, Aaron’s dad is thinking, “Son, if you want to write your own story about how benighted white Southerners are, go ahead, although my recent acquaintance with Ms. Lee suggests that you are mistaken. But the manner in which you are violating Harper’s copyrights is a fraud upon the public. As Atticus Finch put it before the Monroeville jury, ‘in the name of God, do your duty!'”
In another context, the Lee-Sorkin dispute underscores the wisdom of Yale University’s Professor Carlos Eire who was a childhood refugee from Castro’s Cuba. In a warning against revisionism he wrote in Waiting for Snow in Havana: “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. . . Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in time and place that Harper Lee experienced. The story is shaped by her memories. She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama during the Great Depression when the town’s population was less than 2,000. Today the population is 6,000, the median family income is $50,000 and forty-two percent of its people are African American. In contrast, Aaron Sorkin spent his childhood and youth in the New York City suburb of Scarsdale during the 1960s and 1970s. Presently, Scarsdale’s median family income is almost $300,000 and less than one percent of the population is African American.
In comparison to Harper Lee, Aaron Sorkin knows as much about Depression-era Southerners and their race relations as a cow does about algebra.