This week I went and saw Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My students and I are currently reading the book in class and a grade wide trip was schedule for us to attend a matinee. My students were buzzing with talk after seeing the show and our conversations about the way in which the writer, director, and producers chose to represent the novel.
The play does stay true to the novel but the story as been remixed in a creative way, some parts edited and omitted to my students’ dissatisfaction.
In a recent New York Times article, “As Mr. Sorkin has explained pre-emptively, he faced a dilemma in approaching the material. He could not alter the plot significantly lest he alienate audiences who grew up treasuring the 1960 novel.”
Here are eight distinctions between the book and the play that are effective and some not so effective in bringing this novel on stage and to life.
- The play has been remixed and is not told in the linear fashion that Scout retells in the book. “Mr. Sorkin does away with that structure, introducing the trial almost immediately and returning to it at regular intervals. In between, he backfills the information and characters the novel frontloaded, but just on a need-to-know basis. The narration — now split among Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger); her brother, Jem (Will Pullen); and their friend Dill (Gideon Glick) — no longer suggests long hazy childhood summers spent squashing redbugs and pondering why the world is evil so much as a Junior League police procedural.”
- Calpurnia has a clear voice and is the only positive female role model for Scout. In the novel Calpurnia’s words are limited and her attitude towards the trial is unheard of. In the play she has a clear and distinct voice and perspective. At one point in the play she is described as a “sister to Atticus” whereas I do not believe this to be accurate, her dedication and love towards the Finch family is clear. Throughout the play Calpurnia has conversations with Atticus about the trial and how his “seeing goodness in all people, include Bob Ewell” is not necessary when a person is as evil as he is. Calpurnia calls Atticus out on his white privilege which is central to the story. As Jesse Green writes in the NYT, “she serves in the play as Atticus’s foil and needling conscience. Mocking his argument that Maycomb needs more time to overcome racism, she says, “How much time would Maycomb like?”
- In the play Calpurnia tells Scout, “I like you the way you are,” when they are sitting on the porch one night. This scene illustrates an endearing moment in their relationship. What is key about Calpurnia telling Scout “I like you the way you are” is that any other positive female role models she has in the book are omitted. Ms. Maudie and Aunt Alexandra have been cut out of the play completely. Aunt Alexandra and Scout’s relationship evolves in the book and they seem to have some understanding post trial. The only women we see in the play outside of Scout and Calpurnia are gossip (Miss Stephanie), lying (Mayella), and racist (Miss Dubose) which leaves limited (and clearly negative) views of women central to the Broadway adaptation.
- In addition to the women who are cut out of the story, the characters of Link Deas and Dolphus Raymond are fused together. In the play there is more anger in this character as he tells Scout, Jim, and Dill how his son and wife died because no doctor would see him being of “mixed blood.” His wife, so distraught from the death of their son, killed herself. This character verbalizes his disgust of prejudice and racism showing the children how deadly racism is.
- Atticus’ closing statement is not the same as the stiff and precisely selected rhetoric we read in the book and see so clearly in the 1960s movie version with Gregory Peck. On stage we see Jeff Daniels get so worked up and passionate as he yells, “It is a sin to kill a mockingbird” repeatedly in his closing argument. This is where some of my fellow English teachers and I disagree because I felt the closing statement was somewhat impromptu and not effective.
- Anti-Semitism is included among the racism that is threatening Maycomb. Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller) is so effective in having the audience hate him as the evil and racist character he portrays. He embodies the rabid dog that has been omitted from the play. Ewell remarks twice that Atticus must “have Jew blood in him” to take on this case. Now in Chapter 26 of the book there is that hypocritical scene when Scout’s teacher talks about the anti-Semitism in Europe and yet racism and prejudice is abundant in Maycomb. Ewell’s remarks in the play seemed out of place or Sorkin trying to make a statement compounding racism with anti-semitism.
- The N Word is abundant throughout the play and my students were upset how much the N word was used. In fact, when Bob Ewell is on the stand during the trial he goes on a racist rant saying the word repeatedly (using words directly from Lee’s text) but in court would that be acceptable and accurate? The freely use of the racist slurs was distracting and uncomfortable for my middle school students. At times, I agree it was in excess.
- Empty Jury Seats are symbolic throughout the play. The choice to leave the 12 jury seats empty throughout the play was blatantly clear. It didn’t matter whether there were people sitting in the jury seats or not, the decision was going to be the same no matter what was said or not said: Tom Robinson was guilty because he was an African American man.
“[Director] David Fincher, used to say that art isn’t supposed to answer questions, it’s supposed to ask them. If you walk into a theater already knowing what’s going to happen when the lights go down, you’ve walked into the wrong theater. To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a revival. It’s not an homage or an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a new play,” states a feature article on Aaron Sorkin Adapting To Kill a Mockingbird.
Do you go see the play? Absolutely! And I will probably see it again because it raises many questions and is a catalyst for discussions about racism, justice, and lore of this book.