Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Harper Lee Estate Sues Over ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Play

The representative of the estate of famed American author Harper Lee sued a New York theater production company, accusing it of changing too much in its upcoming stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

(CN) – The representative of the estate of famed American author Harper Lee sued a New York theater production company, accusing it of changing too much in its upcoming stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The lawsuit alleges New York-based Rudinplay, which hired renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to adapt the work, changed the characters and departed from the core identity of the American novel, which won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Lawyer Tonja Carter, who was named representative of Lee’s estate after the author died in February 2016, is the lone plaintiff in the case filed Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., federal court by lead attorney Matthew Lembke of Bradley Arant.

She seeks a declaratory judgment finding that “the play derogates or departs from the spirit of the novel and that it alters five of the novel’s characters,” which is outside Rudinplay’s authority. Carter also seeks attorney fees.

The effort to adapt “To Kill a Mockingbird” for Broadway began a month before Lee’s prequel to the novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” was published in July 2015.

According to Carter’s complaint, Rudinplay entered into a contract with Lee 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.

The contract between Lee and Rudinplay said the author would “have the right to review the script of the play and to make comments which shall be considered in good faith by the playwright,” the lawsuit states.

Rudinplay then turned to Sorkin - who created the TV shows “The West Wing" and "The Newsroom" and penned screenplays for “Moneyball” and “The Social Network" - to turn the staple of high school literature classes into a work for the stage.

The trouble began when Sorkin spoke to entertainment news outlets Vulture and Playbill.

Sorkin said he departed from the book and updated the story for the times. No longer is Atticus Finch the steady, morally sound lawyer as described in Lee’s book when the curtain rises, according to the complaint. Instead, Finch undergoes a transformation.

“He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is,” Sorkin told Vulture last September.

A few days after Vulture published its story, Carter claims she read the script and became concerned. The play altered the characters of Atticus Finch, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson, Jem Finch and Scout Finch, according to the lawsuit, and did not accurately depict 1930s Alabama.

Furthermore, Carter says she was concerned about the impact of two additional characters to the story.

Carter spoke to Rudinplay about the script, which told her it was a working draft, the complaint states.

However, the exchanges allegedly became heated when Carter read a second version of the play on Feb. 13.

“Rather than addressing the concerns that Ms. Carter had expressed in September 2016, the new version of the script exacerbated her concerns,” the complaint states.

Weeks later, Rudinplay’s lawyer allegedly sent a letter to Carter saying “[e]ven if the author believes that the play derogates or departs from the spirit of the novel, or alters its characters, the author’s remedy is that the author ‘will be afforded an opportunity to discuss with the owner [Rudinplay] resolutions of any such concerns. The author is therefore not the final arbiter of what ‘derogates or departs from the spirit of the novel, or alters its characters.’”

Annie Ehrmann, senior vice president of the communications firm Rubenstein that represents Rudinplay, said in a statement that Sorkin’s adaptation of the novel was a faithful one, “crafted within the constraints of the agreement executed by both Harper Lee and the play’s producers before Ms. Lee’s death.”

Ehrmann said the company believes the suit is without merit and is “artistic disagreement over the creation of a play that Ms. Lee herself wanted to see produced.” If the disagreement remains unresolved, Rubinplay plans on defending itself vigorously.

“The estate has an unfortunate history of litigious behavior and of both filing and being the recipient of numerous lawsuits,” Ehrmann added, “and has been the subject of considerable controversy surrounding its handling of the work of Harper Lee both during her illness and after her death.”

Carter’s attorney, Lembke, declined to comment for the story, saying “we trust the legal process.”

The stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring actor Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opens its Broadway run on Dec. 13.

In December, The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., which owns the estate of playwright Tennessee Williams, sued Rudinplay in federal court, alleging the company owes the university more than $300,000 in royalties for its production of the play “The Glass Menagerie.”

Follow @jcksndnl
Categories / Arts, Entertainment

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.