Fight Over ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Play Moved to New York

(CN) – Granting a Broadway production company’s request to move a lawsuit over its stage adaption of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from Alabama to New York, a federal judge said Monday that a live courtroom performance could be needed to decide the case.

FILE – In this Aug. 20, 2007 file photo, author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)

In March, Tonja Carter filed a lawsuit in Mobile, Ala., federal court claiming the production company creating the play penned by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch departs too far from the spirit of the story originally written by author Harper Lee, who died in 2016.

Carter is an attorney who serves as the administrator of Lee’s estate. According to her lawsuit, Hollywood producer Scott Rudin’s theater company Rudinplay changed too much. She claims the stage adaption alters five characters, introduces two new ones and does not accurately depict Alabama in the 1930s.

Rudinplay brought its own lawsuit last month in Manhattan federal court, claiming Carter 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.”

In a 19-page ruling Monday granting Rudinplay’s motion to transfer Carter’s case from Alabama to New York., U.S. District Judge William H. Steele wrote that the decision over whether the play departs from the spirit of the novel “cannot be made solely on the basis of a cold printed script, but may require the finder of fact to view a live presentation of the play itself.”

The judge reasoned in a footnote that the Finch character “is comprised not solely of the lines of dialogue he speaks, as memorialized in a script, but also includes body language, demeanor, tone of voice, inflection, appearance, and numerous other facets that may only be discerned from viewing an actor’s portrayal of that character in the play.”

In addition, moving the stage production over 1,000 miles for a trial would be “cost-prohibitive, massively inconvenient, and in all likelihood logistically impossible,” Steele wrote.

The judge noted that most of the witnesses and evidence are in New York, not Alabama, the deep-south setting of the novel.

Steele also wrote that the controversy over the play has more to do with New York than Alabama.

“After all,” the judge wrote, “the parties’ dispute concerns an agreement that was negotiated in New York, not in Alabama; and relates to a theatrical production of a play that intended to be staged in New York by a New York production company involving a New York-based cast.”

The stage adaptation of the novel that won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize in fiction is scheduled to premiere Dec. 13.

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