How mutable is a classic? Broadway playgoers will find out later this autumn, when the time-honoured Harper Lee novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, comes to the Broadway stage in an entirely new adaptation by Aaron Sorkin. A sizable name in his own right, Sorkin is the Jewish-American dramatist of A Few Good Men, amongst other stage and screen titles, who may be better known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network and for making possible the popular TV series The West Wing.
There’s hardly a writer out there more alive to the ways of the contemporary world, which makes Sorkin an apt-seeming fit to take on Lee’s celebrated, resonance-heavy 1960 novel about race, courage, and conviction in the Deep South – a Pulitzer Prize-winner that, amazingly, has never until now been brought to the Broadway stage. (Various British adaptations pop up now and again, including an admirable version in summer 2013 at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, adapted by Christopher Sergel.)
So it was a shock earlier this year when the venture made headlines for unwanted reasons – namely, the charge proffered by Lee’s estate that Sorkin’s adaptation was insufficiently faithful to the novelist’s original story. (The famously reclusive Lee died in 2016, age 89, but not before the publication in 2015 of a Mockingbird sequel entitled Go Set a Watchman that took the literary community by surprise.) Among various issues of contention was the concern voiced by the Estate’s personal representative, Tonja B. Carter, that Atticus Finch was perhaps a shade too morally ambiguous in Sorkin’s reckoning with his source. Meanwhile, some theatre chatterati raised eyebrows at the casting of an adult actress, the three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, to play the tomboyish Scout, who is not yet an adolescent at the time the events depicted in the novel – which she narrates – are taking place.