“You’re Licked Before You Begin, But You Begin Anyway.” —Atticus Finch

Bringing To Kill a Mockingbird to Broadway was nearly impossible.

Aaron Sorkin. Photo: Benjamin Lowy
Aaron Sorkin. Photo: Benjamin Lowy

“I have something very exciting to talk to you about.” That’s how Scott Rudin, the EGOT-winning producer, began a phone call to me three years ago. The last three times he’d called me to say, “I have something very exciting to talk to you about,” I ended up writing The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. So I was listening.

“After several years of trying,” he said, “I’ve got the stage rights for To Kill a Mockingbird.” He wanted me to adapt the novel into a play. He was right — it was very exciting. It was also a suicide mission, and I understood that right away. This wasn’t just any Pulitzer Prize–winning novel; it’s one that holds a sacred place on America’s bookshelf. We all read it together in seventh or eighth grade. For some of us, it was the first time we read about injustice. It was the first time the hero wore glasses. It was the first time we were lulled into a bucolic world, seen through the eyes of a child, without knowing we were about to get kneecapped when we turned the page. It was the first time we liked reading a book more than watching television. It sells more than a million copies a year, and it continues to be taught in every school district where it hasn’t been banned for making Jim Crow laws look bad.

And I’ve heard there’s a movie.

Adding to the lore was the book’s author, Nelle Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was her first novel and her last. (Go Set a Watchman, the rejected first draft of Mockingbird, was published in the final years of her life.) She never wrote again. She hid from the limelight — which can’t be easy to do when your best friend since childhood is Truman Capote — and in spite of the money that comes from a blockbuster book and movie, she lived the balance of her life very modestly in the town where she was born, Monroeville, Alabama, which served as the inspiration for fictional Maycomb County, where the story takes place.

What could I do but make it all less than it was? Why invite the comparison between a legend and … not a legend? Why put on a nightly PowerPoint presentation on the difference between Harper Lee’s skills and my own? It would be like entering a head-to-head competition with Tom Brady in which points were awarded based on passing efficiency and handsomeness. It wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Without hesitation, I said yes.

I’m an accidental writer of movies and television shows. And while it’s been a very happy accident, what I love most is writing plays. Not just writing them, doing them. My last play was 11 years ago. This was a chance to be in a theater again, a chance to work with Bartlett Sher (whom Scott was dangling in front of me as director), a chance to be in a rehearsal room with a company of world-class actors, and a chance to work with this material. I wanted to be a part of it.

Six months later, I turned in my first draft and it was terrible. Probably the best thing you could say about it was that it was harmless, which is probably the worst thing you could say about To Kill a Mockingbird. Basically, I’d just taken the most necessary scenes from the book and stood them up. It was a greatest-hits album performed by a cover band. I sent the first draft to Scott, and the next day he called and asked me to come to New York for a conversation. That’s regular working procedure for Scott and me. These work sessions usually last three or four days and I fly home with dozens — sometimes hundreds — of notes and write the next draft. The first Mockingbird work session lasted 45 minutes. Scott had two notes.

The first was “We have to get to the trial sooner.” Yes. Agreed. How? I didn’t know yet.

But the second note was the one that changed everything. Scott said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He has to become Atticus by the end.”

Well … duh.

That’s Freshman Playwriting. First semester, first week. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and be changed by it. And one more thing: A protagonist has to have a flaw.

How did Harper Lee get away with creating a flawless protagonist who’s the same person at the end of the book as he is at the beginning? Simple. In the book, Atticus isn’t the protagonist — Scout is. Faced with the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South, Scout loses some of her innocence. Her flaw is that she’s young. But for the play, I didn’t want Scout (or Jem or Dill) to be the only protagonist. I wanted Atticus to be a protagonist too — in fact, the central one. I left Scott’s office knowing what I wanted to do, not knowing how to do it, and wishing I drank. A kind flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder a few times during the flight home to tell me I was talking to myself.

Sorkin across from the Shubert Theatre moments before the first preview began. Photo: Benjamin Lowy

I went to my office and wiped the dry-erase board clean, tore down all the index cards, and deleted the first draft from my computer. I didn’t want any part of that draft anymore. I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to a stage. Theaters aren’t museums; they’re the places we go to have — as Lily Tomlin puts it — “the goose-bump experience.”

The structural problem — getting to the trial sooner — was easily solvable. But how do you give Atticus Finch a flaw? Does he go from a bad guy to a good guy? A bad lawyer to a good lawyer? An abusive father to a loving one? A racist man to one who believes in equality and justice? No, no, definitely not, and no. I tried all the doors and they were locked, until I found one that swung open with the lightest touch. I didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because, to my mind, he already had one; it’s just that we’d always considered it a virtue. Atticus believes that you can’t really know someone unless you “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.” He believes that Bob Ewell should be understood as a man who lost his job. He believes Mrs. Dubose should be understood as a woman who recently stopped taking her medication and lives in physical pain. He believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?

In the play, this set of beliefs would be challenged.

There’s a story about James Carville on the night Bill Clinton won his first term, in 1992. Clinton walked out to a floodlit podium in front of the statehouse in Little Rock to address thousands of his supporters and millions more on television. A man turned to Carville and said, “My God, look at him. He’s so presidential. How did he change in just a few hours?” Carville said, “He didn’t change — we did.” There’s no event that occurs in the play that doesn’t occur in the novel, but the play takes a new look at some of those events because things have happened in the past 58 years. The book hasn’t changed; we have. That’s why it’s alarming when we abruptly discover how much we haven’t.

There are only two significant African-American characters in the story: Calpurnia, the maid, and Tom Robinson, the accused. In a tale about racial injustice, neither of them has anything to say on the matter. Tom begs for his life, and Cal bakes crackling bread. It’s the kind of thing that would have gone unnoticed in 1960, but in 2018, using black characters only as atmosphere is as noticeable as it is wrong. Also, in this instance, a wasted opportunity. Does that mean all copies of the novel should be recalled and edited like a Wikipedia entry? Of course not. But neither could I pretend I was writing the play in 1960.

To Kill a Mockingbird is about the nature of decency. What it means to be a person. In the novel, Atticus has the answers. In the play, he would struggle with the questions. There was speculation outside my circle of collaborators that I would incorporate Go Set a Watchman into the play. I’ve never read Go Set a Watchman, specifically so I could truthfully say I’ve never read Go Set a Watchman.

I delivered the new draft in August 2017, a year after the previous one. Scott read it and immediately took out a two-page ad in the New York Times to announce that To Kill a Mockingbird, “a new play,” would open on Broadway in December 2018. Sher, about whom enough good things can’t be said, was onboard to direct. Jeff Daniels signed on to play Atticus for a year (there had never even been a conversation about anyone else playing the part). Things had gotten real in a hurry.

As we started planning two workshop sessions that winter, we faced one big casting challenge. That was the kids — Scout, Jem, and Dill. The roles were potentially too difficult for child actors. Scott suggested that, just for the purpose of the first table read, we use adults. So we asked Celia Keenan-Bolger to read Scout and Will Pullen to read Jem. (Gideon Glick joined them a little later as Dill.) We’d told them it was a one-time thing and they wouldn’t be moving on with the play, but as they read, it all just seemed … right. Even inevitable. It was a memory play narrated by the three kids as they tried to work through the lingering questions surrounding the death of Bob Ewell. With only an afternoon’s worth of rehearsal, the three of them made the subtlest of adjustments to their posture and their voices, slipping easily back and forth between the children they were and the adults they became. It simply worked, and what had been an expedient solution became the right idea.

The day of the first table read, which began with so much anxiety — what would the cast think of what they were reading? What would Bart think? Will this work at all? — ended with enthusiasm, energy, optimism, and commitment. There was a hard road ahead, but we had murderers’-row creative and investment teams. The Shubert Organization offered up its flagship theater, and we had dates — September 20 to start rehearsal, November 1 to start previews, opening night on December 13. A new Broadway play at Christmas.

That’s when we were sued.

In the deal to have To Kill a Mockingbird reimagined as a play, Harper Lee had retained absolute approval over who the playwright would be. She approved me. Three weeks later, she died. (I like to think those two events were unrelated.) A woman named Tonja Carter took over as executor of Lee’s estate. Lee’s contract with Scott — which was now the estate’s — also stated that I would not “alter its characters” or “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel.” Carter filed a suit in federal court in Alabama claiming I’d done both.

With Jeff Daniels, left, on November 1, the first day of previews. Photo: Benjamin Lowy

New plays, like new movies, aren’t finished — they’re confiscated. In other words, a play isn’t done until opening night. Carter’s suit was filed six months before the start of rehearsal. The complaint laid out a number of examples of how I had, to her mind, altered the characters and departed from the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know what the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird is, and neither does anyone else. There’s certainly no legal definition, and I’m not sure there’s a literary one, either. Still, whatever spirit means, I’m confident I didn’t depart from it.

As for altering characters, Carter’s demand letter included a list of things these fictional characters would never do. “Atticus would never take the Lord’s name in vain,” “Atticus would never drink alcohol,” and “Atticus would never have a rifle in the house,” but that was the least troubling of our troubles. Here’s an example of an exchange that takes place during an argument that Atticus and Calpurnia return to throughout the play:

Calpurnia: Jem was stickin’ up for you and maybe a little bit me and you made him say he was sorry.

Atticus: I believe in being respectful.

Calpurnia: No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.

“A typical black maid in the South at this time would never talk to their employer this way,” Carter said.

A coupla thoughts:

There’s no such thing as a typical black maid.

Plays aren’t written about typical people doing typical things.

Lawyering up isn’t cheap. Once the complaint was served, Scott started bleeding about $30,000 a day in legal bills. The story was news, and every headline that read HARPER LEE ESTATE SUES OVER BROADWAY PLAY looked, to a glancing eye, like it was Harper Lee who was objecting to the play and not Tonja Carter. Carter herself, we suspected, was in a tough spot. She’d been the main engine behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a book that had done no favors for the legacy of either To Kill a Mockingbird or Lee herself, and fans were angry. There were whispers that its release had been a money grab. Carter had told Scott she’d received death threats. She likely didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

We set up a meeting for the principals — Carter, Scott, and me — and held a prep session at our lawyers’ office the day before. Jonathan Zavin, our lead litigator, was to introduce Scott, who would offer some remarks and then introduce me. I was to explain to Carter how a play is different from a novel and do it without sounding condescending. I stared down at the table for a second, shook my head, and said, “If our defense rests on my ability to explain what a play is without sounding condescending, we’re completely screwed.”

The next morning, a snowstorm closed the airports, so the face-to-face meeting turned into a teleconference. I came into the room wearing a coat and tie and my lawyer immediately grabbed the jacket off my back and put it off camera. I never asked why. I thanked Carter for the face-to-face and told her how honored I was to be working on the material. I told her she was going to be part of a thrilling night in the theater. Then I told her that drama has rules, no less strict than the rules of music — 4/4 time requires four beats to a measure, the key of C-major prohibits sharps and flats, and a piece of music has to end on the tonic or the dominant. “The rules of drama,” I said, “were written down by Aristotle in the Poetics in 350 BC. These rules are four centuries older than Christianity. A protagonist— ” Yeah, we got nowhere.

Tonja Carter said to Scott and me, “I think you both hate To Kill a Mockingbird” (which would explain the three years we spent working on it), and we faced the scary possibility that we weren’t going to be able to do the play. It’s not that we thought we were going to lose the case — the lawyers were confident we would win — it’s that Scott and his investors couldn’t go into a production under a cloud of litigation, and with every passing day we were getting closer to losing our theater to another show. Was it possible that a person could win a lawsuit just by filing it?

We made a motion to have the Alabama suit moved to New York, hoping for a more sympathetic court, and it was approved. Scott also sued Carter in New York, hitting back hard at every single thing in her lawsuit and raising the specter that being simultaneously the agent, lawyer, and literary executor for Harper Lee wasn’t legal. But the clock was ticking, and workshopping was underway. Scott even made a bold offer to the court: He would have the entire cast come perform the play for the judge in his courtroom — and it would be open to the press. If nothing else, we’d be in the record books as the first play to close on opening night in New York’s Southern District.

Moving the case to New York and the pressure of an immediate trial apparently broke the logjam. Carter and her lawyers agreed to meet with Scott and his lawyers in a room at the courthouse, where they would sit with a judge who would act as a mediator. After ten hours of back-and-forth, Scott called me and asked what items on Carter’s list of objections I was willing to alter to her satisfaction.

“None of them,” I said. “The play can’t be written by a team of lawyers.”

“If this isn’t settled by the end of the day,” Scott replied, “there is no play.” The end of the day was in 90 minutes. Scott and I talked about Bart and Jeff and the rest of the cast and crew, about the great work at our workshops, and about the potential of where we could go from there, and I finally said, “If Tom Robinson and Calpurnia are taken off the table as issues, I’ll cut ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Goddamit,’ Atticus won’t have a rifle in his closet, and he won’t drink a glass of whiskey after the trial.”

And that was that.

The curious part of me wished we’d gone to court so I could hear a federal judge decide what imaginary people would and wouldn’t do. Instead, we were able to settle without damage to the play other than the unwanted publicity. (The audience was already coming in with a lot of personal thoughts about To Kill a Mockingbird. Would people now be watching the play through the lens of “Who was right?”) We were on.

I’ve been asked if I thought Harper Lee would like the play. Of course, I don’t know. No one knows or ever will. I suspect — in spite of her approval — that she’d have a very difficult time with new words written by a stranger coming out of the mouths of her beloved characters in a story that’s semi-autobiographical. (I know that after I left The West Wing, the first time I saw an episode that was written by someone else, I needed CPR.) My hope is that, if nothing else, Harper Lee would agree that the playwright had a deep love and respect for the book she wrote and that she’d be pleased (or maybe horrified) that the themes she wrote about in 1960 were at least as relevant in 2018.

My friend David Fincher, who directed The Social Network, used to say that art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them. If you walk into a theater already knowing what’s going to happen when the lights go down, you’ve walked into the wrong theater. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a revival. It’s not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a new play, directed by a genius and performed by 24 of the best actors in the world. Was it a suicide mission? I’m not the judge of that, and there will be no shortage of strong opinions.

All rise.

*This article appears in the November 26, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

My Near-Impossible Job: Adapting To Kill a Mockingbird