Successes & Messes: Courtroom drama: An unscripted dispute over to Kill a Mockingbird adaptation

By — on / Conflict Resolution

This spring, the estate of Harper Lee, the deceased author of the classic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird, sued the producers of a Broadway stage adaptation of the novel for deviating too much from its character and plot. The story, as reported in the New York Times, highlights the value of exploring every viable option to keep a dispute out of court.

Exposition of a conflict

In June 2015, Lee gave Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin permission to write a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. She also sold stage rights to the novel to the play’s lead producer, Scott Rudin, for $100,000, in addition to being promised a generous portion of box office revenues and net profit. The parties’ contract stipulated that “the Play shall not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.” It gave Lee’s estate the right to review the play’s script and make comments to “be considered in good faith” but did not grant approval rights over the script. Lee died eight months later at age 89.

In the fall of 2017, Tonja B. Carter, the executor of Lee’s estate, read a draft of Sorkin’s completed script and reportedly was alarmed. By Sorkin’s own account, in his script, lead character Atticus Finch evolves gradually from an uninformed apologist for racist policies into the morally upright character of Lee’s novel. Sorkin also altered several other characters and updated the book’s racial themes.

This February, Carter and Rudin reportedly held a meeting about the script that grew heated and ended without resolution. The following month, Lee’s estate filed a lawsuit in Alabama, where she had lived, arguing that Sorkin’s script violated the spirit of the novel and thus Lee’s contract with Rudin. The complaint cited comments Sorkin made to New York magazine about his plan to offer a “different take” on Finch. Detailing her concerns in a list sent to Rudin, Carter said Sorkin’s changes were “not merely cosmetic, but require a fundamental rethinking of the [novel’s] characters and plot,” according to the Times.

Rising action

Rudin’s coproduction of Mockingbird with Lincoln Center Theater was scheduled to open on Broadway in December with actor Jeff Daniels in the role of Finch. In April, Rudin filed a countersuit in New York seeking $10 million in damages from Lee’s estate and calling for its suit to be dismissed. The Alabama lawsuit had cast a cloud of uncertainty over the production, he argued, which made it difficult for him to secure financing and could force him to cancel the play.

According to Rudin’s complaint, Lee’s approval of Sorkin as playwright reflected “the parties’ understanding that the play, while remaining true to the spirit of the novel, would not be a mere recitation of the novel from the stage of the theater.” Rudin told the Times that a straightforward adaptation of Mockingbird “wouldn’t be of interest” on Broadway.

Further, Rudin expressed surprise at Carter’s objections, given that, in 2015, she had taken the lead in selling Lee’s 50-year-old novel Go Set a Watchman— a book that portrays Finch in his old age as a racist—to HarperCollins. Because the author had chosen not to publish that book in the 1950s, some had accused Carter of taking advantage of an incapacitated Lee to sell the novel. Painting Carter as overly litigious, based on other lawsuits she’d filed on behalf of Lee’s estate, Rudin speculated that she was trying to sabotage his production of Mockingbird because of a separate dispute the estate was involved in regarding stage rights to the novel.

Climax and denouement

In April, Rudin offered to stage a performance of Sorkin’s adaptation of Mockingbird in federal court in an attempt to demonstrate its fidelity to Lee’s novel. But in the end, it wasn’t necessary. In early May, a federal court in Alabama sided with Rudin’s argument that the dispute should be handled in a New York court, a significant blow to the estate’s case.

On May 10, the parties announced they had “amicably settled” their lawsuits on undisclosed terms. The show is slated to go on at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre at the end of the year.

3 story notes on a contested script:

  • Consider agents’ hidden motives. We don’t know whether Rudin’s accusations against Carter are true. However, it is often the case that agents’ interests are almost never perfectly aligned with those of their principals, and those interests can diverge even more when the party being represented is incapacitated or deceased. Verify agents’ claims carefully, and take time to research their track record and financial interests.
  • Beware ambiguous contract terms. Particularly when dealing with a counterpart you don’t know well, it’s important to ensure that contract language can’t be misconstrued.
  • Settle early when possible. Because litigation brings costs, delays, stress, and often negative publicity, you should carefully analyze the potential risks and benefits of allowing a dispute to go to court.

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