When the news came out yesterday that Scott Rudin would produce the first Broadway version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and that Sorkin would write the script, the creator of TV’s West Wing and Newsroom gave an interview to The New York Times, in which he said all the right things with such beguiling deftness that it almost seemed … scripted.
“To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most revered pieces of 20th century American literature,” Sorkin said. “It lives a little bit differently in everybody’s imagination in the way a great novel ought to, and then along I come. I’m not the equal of Harper Lee. No one is.”
Sorkin said that, as an apprentice playwright just out of college, one of the ways he taught himself story structure was by reading and rereading Mockingbird and then studying how scriptwriter Horton Foote adapted the novel into one of the most nearly perfect screenplays of all time.
He also noted that he feels an enormous pressure not to disappoint the novel’s fans, who include his own teenaged daughter, who told him flat out “not to blow it.”
And then he gave himself some wiggle room: “You can’t just wrap the original in Bubble Wrap and move it as gently as you can to the stage,” he said. “It’s blasphemous to say it, but at some point, I have to take over.”
Nice little sprinkle of aw-shucks deprecation, that “blasphemous.”
Sorkin said his version will have new dialogue, a different opening, and some scenes only mentioned in the novel.
The message couldn’t be clearer: I’m respectful, but I’m not here as just a stenographer. It was as nice a job of tightrope walking as I’ve ever seen.
Rudin was busy sending much the same message: loved it all my life, dreamed of doing this for years. But where Sorkin strove to reassure and tease us with what he might do, Rudin was all about the reassurance, especially on one point: The Atticus Finch in the Broadway version will be nothing like the racist Atticus who popped up in Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s Mockingbird prequel published last summer.
Watchman was so plainly nothing more than an early draft of Mockingbird that you expected readers to rise up and condemn the publisher and the author for foisting a half-baked book on them, but all people seemed concerned about was that Atticus wasn’t the unsullied hero of Mockingbird but rather a believable man of his time and place. People wanted the hero. And that’s what they’ll get in the Broadway play, Rudin promised.
Reading all this, I remembered Alfred Hitchcock saying after he made Rebecca that from then on he would never agree to film a beloved bestseller, because there were too many constraints. Filming became nothing more than an exercise in meeting people’s expectations.
And that sounds exactly like what’s happening with Mockingbird on Broadway: it’s a sacrosanct property that you might tinker with but careful not to tinker too much. (So no trademark brainy walk-and-talk scenes from Sorkin, most likely.)
In fact, it’s doubly sacrosanct, first as a novel and then a movie. Mess with either one, even if your name is Harper Lee, and the fans get riled.
Rudin, Sorkin, and the director Bartlett Sher are all smart enough to know that. Which suggests to me that the goal here is not art so much as money. Otherwise why involve yourself in a project where, artistically speaking, your hands are tied from the get go? No, Mockingbird is like The Lion King: a known, not to say pre-sold, commodity that’s fit for all ages.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I feel a little protective of the book—the movie, too, for that matter. Like a lot of the customers who bought those 40 million copies of the book, I read mine as a child until it came apart in my hands. And yes, I moved on to more problematical stories as I grew up. But I still feel somewhat protective of that story—it’s idyllic portrait of childhood still moves me somehow, even if I know in my heart that it’s the childhood that everyone wanted, even if no one ever quite had it. And I still tear up a little when Scout spots Boo hiding behind the door at the end of the movie. I know I’m being manipulated, and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
That said, another part of me wants to say, enough’s enough. This is a very good book and an equally good movie (at least the stuff about childhood—surely anyone over the age of 12 thinks the stuff about race is a mite pat). How often do you get a twofer like that? And so, why press your luck? The third time really isn’t the charm this go round. And if you are going to press your luck, why be so darned reverential about it?
The people associated with the promised musical are all pros. Barring some fluke, they will deliver a success that will probably play for 100 years and make them even richer than they are now. But this doesn’t sound like art. This just sounds, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, like To Kill a Mockingbird: The Search for More Money.
But speaking of Mel Brooks, now there’s an idea worth playing with. Mel Brooks adapts Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird as a musical! Now that’s an idea that has me reaching for my wallet. I can almost see it now: the Tire Swing dance number, the singing juror chorus, a soliloquy from Boo downstage in a baby spot, and the whole cast in on “Maycomb Was a Tired Old Town!” Oh, be still, my heart.