Aaron Sorkin (AP/Taylor Jewell)

Aaron Sorkin read Breitbart for inspiration as he wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" script

Salon talks to Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin about adapting the classic Harper Lee story for the Trump era


Andrew O'Hehir
May 23, 2019 6:59PM (UTC)

As Aaron Sorkin is surely aware, whenever and however he leaves this world the first paragraph of every ensuing obituary, indeed probably the first sentence, will contain the words “The West Wing.” If Sorkin’s legendary walk-and-talk political melodrama now seems like a relic of a bygone era in ever so many ways — an era when Republicans and Democrats talked to each other, across genuine divides of principle and ideology! — its influence remains immense, both on the popular perception of politics and also, one suspects, the aspirations of those who go into politics in the first place.

If the world has moved on since “The West Wing” aired its final episode in 2006, so has Sorkin. He’s dipped into TV a few more times, though not nearly with the same degree of success — most recently with “The Newsroom,” which lasted just 25 episodes. He won a screenwriting Oscar in 2011 for “The Social Network,” another work that might well look quite different in retrospect, and has been nominated twice more, for “Moneyball” and “Molly’s Game.” But in many ways the most Sorkin-like of his recent projects is the one that’s running on Broadway right now: His often dazzling 21st-century update of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Jeff Daniels as the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, battling Jim Crow-era prejudice in the Deep South.

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As I said to Sorkin at the beginning of our Salon Talks conversation in New York, this whole project sounds like a fool’s errand: Significantly reworking the plot and characters of one of the most beloved and widely read of all American novels, and following the cherished 1962 film version written by Horton Foote, with its iconic Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck. I’ve heard some valid criticisms of the way Sorkin has modulated Atticus as a more withdrawn character, whose veneer of moral certainty, in Daniels’ magnificent performance, hides deep emotions he is unwilling to release. But let’s talk about those after you’ve seen the play, which is one of the biggest hits of the Broadway season, and strikes me as pretty close to a masterpiece of modern popular theater.  (Read or watch Salon's interview with Daniels and his co-star Celia Keenan-Bolger here.)

Both Harper Lee’s original novel and the film directed by Robert Mulligan, although masterful in their own way, are inescapably products of their time. In a work that is ostensibly about racist violence, and about a moral reckoning with the darkest areas of American history, none of the black characters is presented as having any voice or agency, or really any opinions of their own. This is very likely how an innocent white girl like Scout, the Lee stand-in and central character, would have perceived things, but it certainly wouldn’t satisfy the moral conscience of audiences in 2019.

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There’s no way around the fact that Calpurnia (the Finch family’s domestic employee) and Tom Robinson (the black man falsely accused of rape) are marginal characters in a story that is mostly about how much cruelty and mendacity white people will tolerate. But Sorkin gives them autonomy and a clear sense that they have lives of their own, and that sense of mission and energy runs throughout this “Mockingbird.” In fact, the story’s most villainous white racist, Bob Ewell, an entirely generic character in both the novel and the movie, becomes a pivotal and arresting figure here — and a clear signal to the fact that this is not entirely a story about rural Alabama in the 1930s.

I’ve avoided saying the name of our current president up till now, but if you’re wondering whether Sorkin’s “Mockingbird” is a political parable constructed for the Trump era, and an attempt to tease out the underlying themes in Lee’s novel that illustrate how we got from there to here — well, let’s allow the author to answer that.

My conversation with Aaron Sorkin has been edited, as usual, for length and clarity. You can watch the full video embedded below.

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"To Kill a Mockingbird"  is one of the sensations of this season on Broadway. It's doing very well. I did hear the opinion that you were crazy to take on a really famous American novel that also was a really famous American film and try to do a new version of it.

I held that opinion, too. Scott Rudin, the producer with whom I've worked a number of times, called me and said that he has a very exciting news, that after several years of trying he had acquired the stage rights for "To Kill a Mockingbird," and he wanted me to write a play called "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I had two feelings instantly and simultaneously: the first was elation that I'm going to get to write another play, that I'm going to come back to Broadway and to be in a rehearsal room again with  — he already had Bart Sher to direct it — that I was going to get to work with Bart, that I was going to be in a theater again.

The second feeling that I had was, oh, this is how I'm going to die. What can I possibly do but take this novel which holds a very important place on America's bookshelf and make it less than it is?

My first draft bore that out. My first draft wasn't very good at all. It was timid. Probably the best thing you could say about it was that it was harmless, which is probably the worst thing you could say about a play [and] particularly, this story. It felt like a greatest hits album performed by a cover band. I just took the most necessary scenes in the novel and I stood them up.

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Ordinarily, working with Scott, I would turn in the first draft. He'd say, "Come to New York," and we'd have four, five days of meetings, and each meeting would last several hours, and I would come back home with hundreds of notes for the second draft. This time around, I turned in the first draft. We had one 25-minute meeting, and I went home with one note, and the note was Atticus can't be Atticus from the beginning of the play until the end of the play. He has to become Atticus.

I thought, "Well, that's obvious." The protagonist has to be put through something and he has to change by the end. We all learned that, and I wondered on the flight home how did Harper Lee get away with an Atticus who doesn't change? He was the same from the beginning of the book to the end of the book. How did Horton Foote, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay, get away with an Atticus who was the same from the beginning until the end? The answer is that Atticus isn't the protagonist in the book and the movies. Scout is. Scout is the one who changes. She loses some of her innocence. Her flaw is that she's young.

As I was thinking all this, a very kind flight attendant tapped on me on the shoulder and said, "Mr. Sorkin, you're talking out loud, pretty loud." Anyway, when I started on the second draft, I threw out that first draft and I had a new resolve, which is that I was going to stop thinking about the word "adaptation." I was going to stop trying to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and gently transfer it to a stage without harming it, that I was going to write a new play, that I wasn't going to pretend that I was writing it in 1960 and I wasn't going to try to do a Harper Lee impersonation. The idea that I was going to get killed by people who were saying I was ruining their childhood, I just had to . . . You just had to put that aside.

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That's such a fascinating story, and it feels like that's the play you came back with. I saw the play last night with my 15-year-old son, who was really, really engaged by it. And what I was struck by is that this is a play set in the 1930s based on a novel published, I believe, in 1960, but you have written a play that is for now. Right?

Yeah.

I know you're going to say you were going to try to serve the story and characters, but you had to be thinking about why now, why this play now.

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Right. It was easy because — whether this is what Harper Lee was trying to do or not — she did tell a story that was built to last. In going back through the book, I started to notice things that were relevant today. For instance, again, a protagonist has to have a flaw, so I thought, "OK, on top of everything else, I, I have to get Atticus Finch a flaw now." He doesn't have one in the novel. He's carved out of marble. He's the guy who has all the answers.

In the play, I wanted him to be wrestling with the questions. What flaw can I give him? Will he be a bad father who becomes a good father? A bad lawyer who becomes a good lawyer? A racist who becomes someone who believes in justice and equality? All those sounded like terrible ideas, and then I realized that I didn't have to give him a flaw. He already had one. It's just that, when I learned the book in seventh, eighth, ninth grade or whenever it was, and I think that when most people learn the book, we're taught that that flaw is a virtue, and it's this.

Atticus believes that there is goodness in everyone, that you just have to look hard enough, that you'd just have to crawl around, as he says, "You have to crawl around inside someone else's skin for a while and you can find the goodness," and he excuses racism all over the place. He excuses Bob Ewell's racism as, "That guy, he just lost his WPA job. It's a man who feels small. Mrs. Dubose, she just stopped taking her medicine and . . . She's not herself." He excuses a whole town: This is the Deep South, things happen slower here, and, again, there's goodness in everyone.

In the meantime, Donald Trump is saying there are fine people on both sides, so that suddenly seemed relevant to me.

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One of the things Atticus keeps repeating in the play is, "I know these people. I know these people," meaning, the people who live in Maycomb. "These are our friends and neighbors. My family's lived here for generations. I know these people. Sure, some of them are stuck in the old ways, but nobody is so far gone that they're going to send an obviously innocent man to the electric chair."

He's wrong about that, but I think that all of us, no matter where you are on the political or ideological spectrum have felt in the last few years, like, I thought I knew this guy.

That's right.

I had no idea that the person I was living next door to, that this person there and this person there felt and thought things so different from what I did. So the play became relevant in that regard, and I couldn't have been happier because none of us ever wanted it to be an exercise in nostalgia, an homage, a trip, a field trip to the museum, that kind of thing.

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It feels impossible to avoid those comparisons when you watch the play now. Bob Ewell plays such a central role in the play as you have designed it. He's the overtly racist character who has very likely abused his daughter...

Yes.

Clearly, he abused his daughter. We don't know the details. He seems to represent so many things that we face now.

There are so many things about him that we can see in the culture right now, the debate about . . . how to view people who voted for Donald Trump. Was it because they felt economic anxiety? Was it because they felt irredeemable racism welled up as a backlash to Barack Obama? That was impossible to avoid thinking about watching the play.

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It's also impossible to see Atticus and not think about the debate within, let's say, the liberal quadrant, the Democratic party. Do we make compromise and accommodation with conservatives because we believe that, deep down, they're decent people? I was imagining that Atticus is Joe Biden or Chuck Schumer and his children are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, something like that.

OKIn the first place, you, and it sounds like Andrew's son, had exactly the experience in the theater that I could have hoped for. Bob Ewell, in the book, in the movie, Bob Ewell is presented to us as simply an impoverished drunk. His life is over. He's an impoverished drunk and he lashes out at everyone.

In the play, yes, Bob Ewell is the victim of poverty, and I suppose he drinks, but actually now that I think about it, there are no scenes where he's stumbling, staggering drunk. He's smarter than the Bob Ewells that we've seen. He is able to articulate an anger to Atticus that the other Bob Ewells haven't, and I'll tell you something: If I'm writing, for lack of a better phrase, a bad guy, in order to avoid them being a mustached twirling cartoon, I need to be able to relate to that person somehow. I need to. I try to write the character as if they're making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven, and with Bob Ewell, I simply wasn't able to do that, so I'll tell you where I went to find Bob Ewell. Breitbart.

Wow.

A lot of Bob Ewell's dialogue was written by commenters at Breitbart. I'm not joking.

I almost shouldn't laugh, but that is way too true.

I hate driving traffic there, but I would really recommend to all Americans to just spend a couple of minutes a week going to the comment section.

Then come back to Salon.

Yeah, come back to Salon right away. You'll need to. You'll need to take a shower and then come back to Salon. If you go to the comment section, any articles, it doesn't matter what's it's about — it could be about knitting — go to the comment section, and you will say, "I had no ideas that these people really lived. I, I just thought that this was a cartoonish version of hatred and bigotry."

I found Bob Ewell in the comment section, and the thing that he really brings in this, and, of course, there's hatred for African-Americans, and I threw in anti-Semitism.

Hs thing is:  "You think you're better than me? You look down on me. You think you're better than me?"

You mentioned, did Donald Trump get voters because of economic anxiety, that kind of thing? I'm not an expert on why people voted for Donald Trump, but, reading Breitbart, you would come away with only one reason why people voted for Donald Trump, which is that he is an excellent stick with which to poke the liberals in the eye, that they found the thing that liberals would hate the most, and that is their goal.

They [schadenfreude 00:13:21] somehow, and it's all about they — and I'm talking about you, my friend —

Yes, you are.

— think they're so much better than me. They look down on us. They think we're stupid. They think we're bigots, and that's because they are stupid and they are bigots.

And that's what Atticus finally explodes with in that second act thing with Bob Ewell.

You mentioned this very interesting thing, that Atticus in a way represents the division on the left now, and you're right. If this Atticus was running for president, the left wing of the left would find him not nearly angry enough. Because Atticus would find reasons to be compassionate about Trump voters, and, yeah, and the left wing of the left would hate that.

Just a few weeks ago, we had Senator Doug Jones from Alabama in here sitting in that chair. Given that he is a Democrat who has to run for reelection in a Trump state next year, I would love to have his [crosstalk 00:14:44].

I would love to hear what he has to say. Listen, he's a Democrat who has to run for reelection in a Trump state and not against a child molester. He'll be running as a candidate who's not a child molester —

 Presumably.

Yeah.

We can't count on anything. Two things I wanted to touch on, one of the things that my 15-year-old son responded to about the show, which I thought was quite an interesting note, was that your play is pretty funny in places. The story, of course, is ultimately a somewhat mix of hope and tragedy, but there's a lot of tragic loss of innocence, tragic loss of life, bad things happened, but there was a lot of laughs in the show actually. And his speculation was that something about the distance — not just the distance between now and 1934, but also from the Civil Rights' earnestness of the first go-round — makes things seem funny at times. Do you buy that at all?

I do. I think that your son sounds very bright to me. Listen, part of it is just my writing style. I think that if you can tell a serious story with a sense of humor, you're doing yourself a favor. What tends to happen, what I noticed anyway — listen, I stood in the back of that theater for 45 previews before we opened, people laughed their way through the first act and then start sobbing and gasping in the second act. Usually, if you're laughing, it means that in a second you're about to get kneecapped.

That was certainly my emotional experience of the second act. You've also, and I don't want to say in the slightest that this was for political reasons in the narrow sense of that term, but you have clearly worked to give the African-American characters in the story more voice and more agency.

Yeah. It was not for political reasons. It was for the following reasons. Just to recap, there are two, only two, I should say, significant African-American characters in the novel — Calpurnia the maid and Tom Robinson the accused. In a story about terrible racial friction in the Jim Crow South, neither of the two African-American characters have anything to say on the matter nor do they have any agency of their own.

Calpurnia seems most concerned with whether Scout's going to wear a dress or overalls to school on the first day. Tom Robinson gets to plea for his life, and that's it. So again, I couldn't pretend that I was writing the play in 1960 today. For all I know, in 1960, using African-American characters only as atmosphere wasn't that noticeable, at least to white people.

I think most white viewers didn't even think about it.

Today, it is as wrong as it is a wasted opportunity. Those are great characters in the story, and you want to hear from them, so it's not just that they have more words, they do, but they have agency. Tom Robinson makes decisions in this play that define his own fate, and Calpurnia is that character to the left of Atticus who is accusing him of — I'm trying to say this without giving away too much of the play.

Indeed.

I'll say this. There's a scene in the book and in the movie that has always been my favorite scene. It's a lot of people's favorite scene. I would watch it when my father was alive. We would watch the movie together and we'd both choke up at this scene. It's the end of the trial. Atticus is packing his briefcase up. The whole courtroom has cleared out, except for the people in what they called the colored section. All the African Americans in Maycomb are standing up silently, docile in respect and gratitude to this white liberal lawyer for taking the case.

I tried to think about why is that my favorite scene in the movie, and the answer that came back to me, I was troubled by. It was this. It was the fact that those people in the colored section aren't rioting. They're not burning the courthouse down. They're not chanting, "No justice, no peace." They are standing in docile, harmless gratitude to the liberal white lawyer, and isn't that what we liberals all want, to be singled out by marginalized people as you're one of the good ones?

Yes.

Thank you. We're grateful, and so in the play, I turned that on its head, and I can't say why because I want people to see the play and enjoy it, but but Calpurnia does that.

An utterly different situation, but you know what came to mind for me is in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" when [Mookie] decides to break the window. A totally different situation, but in a way the moral equation is similar.

Mookie — and he's wearing Jackie Robinson's Dodgers jersey — Mookie is the African-American Atticus in that story, right?

Yes.

He just wants everything to be OK. He wants everything to be OK and, finally, in the garbage can moment, he can't take it anymore and he throws it through the pizza window.

Yeah. Yeah, and I even thought of a line in another one of Spike's films which is drawn from history, but he changed it a little bit, when it's either Morley Safer or Mike Wallace asks Malcolm X, "Why don't you believe in the universal brotherhood of man?" and Malcolm says, "Well, I do, but it has come to my attention that not every man wants to be my brother."

It's a great line.

There's a feeling of [that] in Calpurnia and in Tom Robinson in your play. They understand the situation a little bit better than Atticus does. Right?

Yeah, they do, and I think that both Tom and Calpurnia feel like, "Atticus, the world you want to live in is the world that I want to live in, too, but the, the world isn't like that. You know, how do we get there? And stop telling me to be patient. I have no more patience."

I know this character exists, but I feel like you really amplified and expanded Dill, the young man who is the friend to Scout and her brother.

I don't want to say too much about this character except that what comes off in the play is that he is a young man of difference in a situation. People have speculated maybe the character is gay. There's no evidence about that directly, but the point being he's different. He's the kind of young man — he's white, a white young man — but who would have been marginalized, excluded, picked on, not understood in the society of 1934, and you have highlighted him and made him a pretty important figure in the story.

If this show was "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx, the duck would have come down when you said marginalized because one of the things that we highlight in the play, and I'm going to get to the Dill thing, is that it's populated with marginalized people. One of my favorite moments, it's a small moment that happens at the end, is Boo Radley, before he leaves the house, just takes a step toward Calpurnia and holds out his hand, and she shakes his hand, and it's just two marginalized people have found each other there.

Dill is one of those marginalized people. Listen, he is a child in the play, so to say he's gay or not might be confusing. I will tell you this. Gideon Glick, who's now been nominated for Tony Award  . . . I don't think you can play gay, but, in Gideon's head, [Dill] is gay, and it was something that Bart Sher, the director, and I were aware of while we were rehearsing, that Dill would rather spend time with Jem than Scout. That's not unusual. They're both boys, but what I did do was I gave Dill more of Truman Capote's biography than even Harper Lee did.

They were best friends as children and best friends as adults, and it couldn't have been easy. Harper Lee did not like attention. She was very much an introvert, and so being best friends with Truman Capote couldn't have been the easiest thing in the world.

It's funny, just in the early going of writing this script, after the one note that Scott Rudin gave me, I then spent a year writing the second draft, and the way I found out that Scott liked the second draft was that, five days after I delivered it, I opened the Sunday New York Times, arts and leisure, and there was a two-page ad announcing that "To Kill a Mockingbird," a new play by Aaron Sorkin, would be opening on Broadway in December of 2018.

That was this little surprise for me, but one of the things he kept saying to me early on was, "I really think the key is Dill. I think the key is Dill," and I didn't know what he was talking about. I never knew a character in the book or the movie that stood out for me in any way, but then, as I kept writing and the whole idea of marginalized people and making Dill someone who is so optimistic and has so much love for people, yet he's living such a horrible childhood, I finally understood what Scott was talking about.

That's a real testament to Scott's ability to perceive things.

Scott's ability, his skills as a diagnostician, his ability to articulate a note is better than anyone I've ever worked with.

Before I let you go, Aaron, can you talk for just a minute about the extraordinary performance of Jeff Daniels who is, without really going big most of the time, able to dominate the scenes that he's in with very complicated emotional work?

I don't know if I can only talk for a minute about it, but I'll try, because I love Jeff. This is our third time working together. In the first place, Jeff had to have the guts to . . . Gregory Peck casts a pretty long shadow, right?

I would say.

Jeff's attitude coming to this is, "Gregory who? Um, uh, I am originating the role of Atticus in the play .This is a new thing, and other people can worry about me when I'm done." Also, we had, thanks again to Scott, we had a long, a very luxurious rehearsal period. We did, last winter, three separate labs in a subbasement at Lincoln Center, then broke, came back for six weeks of rehearsals, followed by six weeks of previews.

In the case of Jeff, on "The Newsroom," I've seen him rehearse and shoot a scene in a day. In "Steve Jobs," I've seen him rehearse a scene, shoot a scene in a week. Here, I got to see what happens when he has a year.

His performance at the first table read, I would have been happy if that had been the opening night performance. He's methodical about it. He puts it together brick by brick. And then suddenly, when we started previews, when we were in front of an audience, he blew the doors off the building. He brings the sense of humor. He is the guy who wrestles with the questions as opposed to being carved out of marble. He brings anguish to the play.

In the play, he is Tom Robinson's second lawyer. The first lawyer said, "Take a plea deal. Take 18 years in a state prison." It's Atticus, pushed by the judge, who says, "I don't think you should do that. You're not guilty," and so, on top of everything else, he is responsible for everything that happens after that.

He brings that anguish with him. He's wonderful with the kids. He has that all-dad's sense of humor, and he has said this is his "King Lear," and he straps the play to his back every night, and there's just also the joy of an actor on a Broadway stage with this company of 24. Fortunately, we have him for a while, but we'll surely miss him when he's done.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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