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To kill a mockingbird—and an author’s legacy in the process

To kill a mockingbird—and an author’s legacy in the process
[Photo: Min An/Pexels]

A courtroom drama over a forthcoming Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird escalated this week when producers of the show countersued the estate of the late Harper Lee, arguing that the estate’s representative, Tonja B Carter, does not have script approval, as she claimed in a lawsuit in February.

To recap, Carter was unhappy with a stage adaptation of Mockingbird written by Aaron Sorkin. Per the lawsuit, Sorkin’s Atticus Finch is somewhat ambivalent about racism early in the story—a contrast to the apotheosis of heroism and morality readers know from the classic novel. Sorkin’s adaptation is supposed to premiere on Broadway in December. We’ll see if that happens now.

I can’t comment on Sorkin’s script since I haven’t read it, but can we at least agree that the protectionism of overzealous authors’ estates is getting out of hand? It’s true that estates play an important role in preserving and shepherding the works of dead writers and dramatists, but for an estate to resist change at all costs–to denounce a thoughtful interpretation that might allow a piece of writing to better resonate with modern audiences–seems to defeat the purpose of adapting a work to begin with. Isn’t the whole point to tell a familiar story through a fresh lens?

Let’s look at a recent example of estate-driven dogmatism: Last year, when a Portland theater producer cast a black actor in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the estate withheld the rights. Albee, who passed away in 2016, was apparently picky about casting choices. (The full Portland saga was complex, and for a recap, I suggest reading this excellent Arts Integrity blog post.)

Legally speaking, dead authors and dramatists have a right to prescribe creative decisions from beyond the grave–and estates often argue that they have an obligation to carry out those wishes to the letter. But I would argue that being inflexible in a changing world is not really a great way to protect an author’s legacy–that is, unless the ultimate goal is irrelevance.