How Aaron Sorkin unlocked Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and found his Atticus Finch


Aaron Sorkin opened up on “Salon Talks” about the long, difficult, and very engaging process of adapting Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the stage, currently on Broadway until September, and how America’s deeply divided politics—including Trump’s presidency, his supporters and liberals, too—all informed and continue to bring new meaning to his version.

When Sorkin began working on the script, his first emotion was elation, followed by fear. “Oh, this is how I'm going to die,” Sorkin joked to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir. “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?”

The Oscar winner admitted that his first draft wasn't very good at all. “It was timid,” he said. However, a single note from producer Scott Rudin brought on a breakthrough. “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,” Sorkin shared.

While Lee’s version of Atticus was “carved out of marble” and flawless, Sorkin was determined to inject imperfection into the character, played by Jeff Daniels, who is nominated for a Tony Award for the role.

“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. 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.’ He excuses racism all over the place.”

Sorkin added, “Atticus would find reasons to be compassionate about Trump voters, and, yeah, the left wing of the left would hate that.” Sorkin also used modern-day politics to inform the new depth he wrote for Lee’s secondary and background characters. One unlikely place for inspiration for Bob Ewell’s character, Sorkin shared, was in the comment section of Breitbart.com.

Watch the episode above to hear more about how Sorkin was able to free himself of the constraints of writing an adaptation, and how he sees his longtime collaborator, Jeff Daniels, “bring anguish to the play.” To learn more about the starring roles of Atticus and Scout, watch the “Salon Talks” episode with Jeff Daniels and Celia Keenan-Bolger.


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