Broadway Producer Fights Back Against Harper Lee Estate

FILE – In this Aug. 20, 2007 file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. A legal battle over a stage adaption of her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is underway in both New York and Alabama. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Hollywood producer Scott Rudin’s theater company filed a $10 million countersuit against the estate of author Harper Lee for trying to block an upcoming stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and offered a courtroom performance featuring actor Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch.

Rudin’s New York City-based theater production company Rudinplay claims in a 22-page lawsuit that Tonja Carter, a lawyer who was named representative of Lee’s estate after the author died in February 2016, has “rendered it impossible for the play to premiere as scheduled in December 2018, and unless this dispute is resolved in the immediate future, the play will be canceled.”

The complaint was filed Monday in Manhattan federal court by Jonathan Strauss of  Loeb & Loeb.

Last month, Carter filed a complaint in Mobile, Ala., federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that “the play derogates or departs from the spirit of the novel and that it alters five of the novel’s characters,” which she claims is outside Rudinplay’s authority.

According to Carter’s lawsuit, the Rudinplay adaptation altered the characters of Atticus Finch, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Jem Finch and Scout Finch, and did not accurately depict 1930s Alabama.

Additionally, Carter said she was concerned about the impact of two additional characters to the story.

Carter’s Alabama suit was filed by lead attorney Matthew Lembke of Bradley Arant.

Rudinplay has filed a motion to dismiss the Alabama action for lack of personal jurisdiction or, in the alternative, to transfer that suit to Manhattan federal court.

Rudinplay’s countersuit seeks judgments declaring that its stage adaptation does not depart from the spirit of the novel or alter its characters in a manner that breaches their agreement, rebutting Carter’s allegations.

The Broadway production company claims Carter’s lawsuit has resulted in irreparable harm and it seeks $10 million in damages.

In a bid to expedite their litigation, Rudinplay offered in the complaint to “arrange for an immediate performance of the play, by as much of its full Broadway cast as is possible, for the court’s benefit in this courthouse.”

“Among other things, determining whether the character of Atticus appearing in the play is true to the Atticus of the novel will require the court to observe Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of this iconic character,” the complaint states. “Upon seeing the play, it will be apparent that the play does not impermissibly depart from the spirit of the novel or alter its characters in any way, and that Ms. Carter’s claims to the contrary are without merit.”

Rudinplay also seeks a judgment declaring that Carter lacks authority to act on behalf of Lee’s estate in making the claims in the Alabama lawsuit, demanding expedited discovery of Lee’s will and trust documents.

Before Lee’s 2016 death, Rudinplay entered into a contract with the author to create a dramatic adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and have the option to acquire worldwide live stage rights. In exchange, Lee received $100,000.

Rudinplay procured prolific screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to pen the stage adaptation and received the blessing for their choice from Lee, acting through her London-based literary agent Andrew Nurnberg.

Rudinplay has also retained Bartlett Sher, the resident director of Lincoln Center Theater, to direct to play, which is scheduled to premiere on Broadway on Dec. 13, 2018.

The stage adaptation is set to feature Daniels— star of Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom” — as lawyer Atticus Finch.

According to Rudinplay’s complaint, Carter received a copy of the Sorkin adaptation in August 2017, but did not voice her objections until half a year later.

The production company’s namesake, Rudin, has produced films since the 1980s, including “No Country for Old Men,” “The Social Network” and “The Truman Show.”

Tonja Carter declined to comment on details of the ongoing litigation but insists that Rudin’s play breached an agreement not to alter the book’s characters.

“In particular, Ms. Lee would have refused any alteration to the character of Atticus Finch – which, in the play’s current form, is altered significantly,” Carter said in a statement.

Carter’s counsel Matthew Lembke added that Rudinplay’s complaint is “full of wild and baseless allegations that seem only meant to distract from the real issue – whether Rudinplay has violated its written contractual promise that it would not alter the characters in Harper Lee’s classic novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

“Rudinplay has filed its new complaint in New York despite the fact that there is a valid case pending in a federal court in Alabama involving the same dispute,” Lemke said. “Because the Alabama case was filed first, that is where the controversy should be decided.”

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