To Kill a Mockingbird Lawsuits Over Aaron Sorkin Play Boil Over

A theatrical version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, penned by Aaron Sorkin no less, is now at the center of a nasty legal battle.

To Kill A Mockingbird is inspiring some real-life courtroom drama, which at this point looks increasingly destined for its own unhappy ending. Such are the latest developments of competing lawsuits between Tonja Carter, the legal representative of the Harper Lee estate, and Scott Rudin’s theatrical production company, Rudinplay. Once a partnership that bore fruit for a new adaptation of Lee’s seminal American novel, over the last month legal filings and lawsuits raise a dense cloud over whether Aaron Sorkin’s new interpretation of the story of Atticus and Scout Finch will ever see the boards of Broadway later this year.

In the latest devleopment, Carter’s legal team has responded to the Rudin production company’s own lawsuit, which asked a federal judge in the Southern District of New York last week to dismiss Carter’s lawsuit in Alabama, by filing an injunction in Alabama that requests the New York lawsuit be essentially tabled until after the first lawsuit is decided in Alabama.

“Both actions involve the Estate and Rudinplay, and the legal and factual issues substantially overlap,” wrote Carter’s lawyers of the lawfirm Bradley Arant in an emergency motion. “This Court should enjoin Rudinplay from further prosecuting its competing lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, so that the Court and the parties do not waste resources litigating the same issues in two different forums.”

This bad blood stems from Carter disliking apparent changes in the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird made by Sorkin in the writing process. According to the earliest lawsuit filed in March, Sorkin and Rudin made substantial alterations to the characters, 1930s rural Alabama setting, and overall arc of Atticus’ journey that left the Harper Lee estate dissatisfied. Rudinplay’s response was to countersue in New York by stating that the lawsuit should be held in the state of the production, as well as suggesting that the estate does not have the ability to demand the halt of an adaptation. 

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For some context:

On June 29, 2015, months prior to Lee’s death at the age of 89, Lee optioned a live stage version of her beloved novel to Rudin, with Rudin paying $100,000 plus a share of royalties for the right to adapt her work. Rudin hired acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to pen the adaptation’s script.

The contract that Rudin signed stated, “Author shall have the absolute and unconditional right to approve the Playwright for the Play. … Author shall also have the right to review the script of the Play and to make comments which shall be considered in good faith by the Playwright, and the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters. If the Author believes that the Play does so derogate or depart, or alter characters, Producer will be given notice thereof as soon as possible, and will be afforded an opportunity to discuss with Owner resolutions of any such concerns.”

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The representative from Lee’s estate, Tonja Carter, used an interview Sorkin gave to Vulture as the basis of her lawsuit. In the interview, Sorkin said, “As far as Atticus and his virtue goes, this is a different take on Mockingbird than Harper Lee’s or [writer of the 1962 big-screen adaptation] Horton Foote’s. 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 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.”

Sorkin’s planned version definitely isn’t the truth north lawyer readers are familiar with, with Finch set to be a tad more naive. Carter’s other objections include addition of two characters not in the novel, the “alteration” of the characters of Jem and Scout Finch, and an “unfair” depiction of 1930s small-town Alabama.

A spokesperson from Rudinplay issued the following statement about the original lawsuit in March:

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“This adaptation by Aaron Sorkin of To Kill a Mockingbird is a faithful adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel, which has been crafted within the constraints of the agreement executed by both Harper Lee and the play’s producers before Ms. Lee’s death. This action undertaken by the estate of Harper Lee is an unfortunate step in a situation where there is simply artistic disagreement over the creation of a play that Ms. Lee herself wanted to see produced, and is the kind of disagreement which one expects would be worked out easily between two parties who have a mutual interest in seeing a work produced. The estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits, and has been the subject of considerable controversy surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both during her illness and after her death. This is, unfortunately, simply another such lawsuit, the latest of many, and we believe that it is without merit. While we hope this gets resolved, if it does not, the suit will be vigorously defended.​”

Further, a new report from The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Rudin is floating that the cause of this lawsuit is legal friction between the estate of Harper Lee and the estate of Gregory Peck, who may have some say in presentations of Atticus Finch in theatrical productions.

Since the dueling filings of the complaints, there’s been a lot happening in the litigation including a declaration from Rudin where he theorizes that Carter’s objections to Sorkin’s script are a “pretense,” designed to avoid liability to the estate of actor Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch in the 1962 film. Rudin says he doesn’t know specifics of the supposed dispute between Peck’s camp and the Harper Lee Estate, but passes along word he heard both were involved in an arbitration proceeding concerning stage rights to the novel.

However this plays out, we can only hope everyone plays it as straight in court as Atticus himself.