Legal Drama Surrounding “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cassandra Gizzo

Anyone familiar with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird knows the plot is centered on legal drama. Currently, there is a stage adaptation of the novel telling the same legal story of the trial of Tom Robinson. While the play is centered on the trial, the play is also surrounded by its own legal issues. Before production began, the Harper Lee estate sued the screenwriter of the play, Aaron Sorkin. More recently, the producer of the Broadway production has shut down a UK and Ireland tour of To Kill a Mockingbird and threatened suit to small community theater productions.

The legal drama began around one year ago and concerned Aaron Sorkin’s script for the Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The original book is not yet in the public domain, so Sorkin was not free to adapt the source material without permission. Instead, the play’s producer, Scott Rudin, needed a license or had to purchase the production rights from Harper Lee to adapt her novel into a stage play. Rudin purchased the production rights, reportedly for $100,000 plus a portion of the box-office revenue, and the contract was signed in 2015 between Lee and Rudin. Lee passed away in February 2016, so her interests are now controlled by the Harper Lee estate.

The lawsuit in this case was filed in federal court in Alabama and was brought against Rudin. The Lee estate complained that the new script deviated too much from the novel. Of particular interest was the portrayal of Atticus Finch and how different his character was in the new script compared to the novel. The Lee estate claimed that the contract signed between Harper Lee and Rudin’s production company required that the play “not derogate or depart in any manner from the spirit of the Novel nor alter its characters.” The lawsuit brought by the Lee Estate focused not only on the alterations made to Atticus, but also to his children Jem and Scout and their housekeeper, Calpurnia. The main cause of concern centered around whether Atticus was sufficiently represented as a heroic character. In the novel he is seen as a model of “wisdom, integrity and professionalism,” according to Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter. Meanwhile, in the play, Sorkin planned for Atticus to be an apologist for the racist people he is surrounded by, but also planned for him to undergo a gradual moral evolution. Sorkin did not want to make any changed to his script, since his goal was to better represent today’s social and political climate.

Rudin eventually filed a countersuit in New York warning that the dispute could result in him canceling the play and for that he would be seeking $10 million in damages. Rudin even went so far as to offer to perform a preview of the play for the court so the judge and jury could decide for themselves if the play was faithful to the original novel. Eventually, Sorkin agreed to remove instances of Atticus cursing, Atticus’s rifle and his drinking as long as he could keep the changes to Tom Robinson and Calpurnia. The lawsuit was settled in Mary 2018, with no details shared with the public, so the stage production was allowed to move forward.

Before Rudin decided he wanted to take To Kill a Mockingbird to Broadway, there had been a stage adaption written by Christopher Sergel, which first was staged in 1991. This theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird was originally intended for school productions but spread to regional theaters. The contract for this production was signed in 1969 and prevented productions of Sergel’s play within twenty-five miles of cities with a population of 150,000 or more in 1960 while a ‘first-class dramatic play’ based on the novel is playing in New York or on tour. The rights in this production are owned by Dramatic Publishing company.

Since there was now a ‘first class dramatic play’ based on the novel playing in New York, any production of Sergel’s adaptation within a 25-mile radius of cities with a popular of 150,000 or more in 1960 was in violation of the 1969 contract.  In January of this year there had been a planned tour of the Sergel version of To Kill a Mockingbird throughout the UK and Ireland. Before the tour began, the UK producers were notified by Rudin that his production company owned the exclusive professional stage rights for To Kill a Mockingbird, which barred the performance of any stage production except those covered by the 1969 agreement. The planned international shows all were in large cities and therefore Rudin was successful in shutting down the UK/Ireland tour of Sergel’s adaptation. Rudin, however, tried to console fans by promising an eventual UK tour of the Sorkin adaptation.

After successfully getting this tour canceled, Rudin’s production company began targeting other productions of Sergel’s adaptation. The Lee estate itself contacted Dramatic Publishing to inform them that they were in violation of their 1969 agreement for licensing the play to theaters too close to large cities, but the dispute remained unresolved, so Rudin began contacting the theaters directly.  Many community theaters throughout the US proceeded to receive litigation threats from Rudin for their planned productions of Sergel’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As a result of these threats many productions were cancelled, often at considerable cost to these smaller theater companies that had purchased rights in the Sergel version and that had other expenses in setting up their productions.

Perhaps due to the bad publicity that came along with the news that Rudin was shutting down local productions of To Kill a Mockingbird, Rudin is now offering those theaters who did cancel their productions the chance to stage the Sorkin adaptation with no fees for use of the new script. This could be an incredible opportunity for these local theaters, since the play on Broadway has been extremely popular and the touring production of Sorkin’s adaptation has not yet been announced. Some theaters might be taking up this offer, but some, including a production originally set to be staged in Marblehead, Mass., have just moved locations to be outside the 25-mile radius per the 1969 contract.

For now, the only legal drama left seems to be that featured within the productions themselves of To Kill a Mockingbird. Hopefully there will not be any more legal challenges as the Broadway production continues its successful run and begins planning a touring production and productions abroad. Part of this rests on Dramatic Publishing faithfully following its 1969 contract and only licensing productions according to the rules set out in the contract. If they do not, we are likely to see suits begin again as Rudin plans to continue enforcing his production rights in To Kill a Mockingbird in order to protect the collaborators who worked so hard to put together the Broadway production.